With Election Day 2016 looming, voters are making up their minds. That’s not only the process at the heart of democracy, but also the least transparent part of the whole representative enterprise. Why? Because not all voters sit down with policy briefings. What the polls don’t show, according to Jonah Berger, a professor at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, is that voting is actually a social signal, a way for people in a democratic society to showcase their identities and participate in a self-sorting behavior.
“When we think about elections, we tend to think we vote for economics or foreign policy or taxes or other rational reasons,” says Berger, whose new book Invisible Influence: The Hidden Forces that Shape Behavior tries to create a vector diagram of personal motivation. “It’s actually more about who you are.”
It turns out that voting is a private act only in the most literal sense. In actuality, November 8 is about allegiance.
Consider how issues work. Clean energy, for example, has all the hallmarks of a conservative cause: It allows for local independence from national grids and can be a boon for local industry. But clean energy — “clean coal” aside — is anathema to many conservatives. The reason, at least in part, is that Republican political operatives worked hard to make Al Gore’s leadership on the issue a political liability. Because Gore was a prominent, frequently partisan Democrat and the poster boy for climate change, anything he touched turned blue. Clean energy became a wedge issue because of optics.
Lest you think this is an isolated example, Berger says he’s watched similar dynamics play out this election season, especially during the Democratic primaries. “If you were supporting Hillary, you were seen as traditional, but Bernie was a sign that you were counterculture,” he says. This might explain why Hillary hasn’t received the full support of Bernie Bros despite being — on a policy level — the logical next best thing. Supporting a Clinton is not countercultural. Supporting Trump, at least on some level, is.
This sort of thinking is not rational or smart, but it is pervasive. And if you think you’re too smart to fall for voting like your friends to seem cool, Berger doubts it. “We might think that ‘everybody but us’ falls for these, but actually, we’re all pretty susceptible to this [voting to create an identity],” Berger said. In studies, people have repeatedly shown that while they might indicate they are voting for a cause, what they’re actually voting for is how the candidate reflects them.
In a way, your vote is both introspective and narcissistic. Even if you don’t tell people how you vote, your vote is a way to tell yourself how to exist in the world — and that carries over into your interactions in daily life.
This may be more true during this election cycle than in the past because the candidates are so profoundly different and present themselves in such unique ways.
“We see this playing out with traditional Republicans voicing support for Donald Trump,” Berger says. Republicans are — not including the elected ones and the foreign policy experts — going for Trump. It’s indicative that the people who care most passionately about the issues have less time for their party’s candidate. They, and traditionally conservative papers like the Dallas Morning News that have come out in favor of Hillary Clinton, are the rational exception to the social rule.
A significant portion of the Republican establishment doesn’t see Trump as a Republican and can thus protect their identity (conservative and practical) by grudgingly voting for Clinton. Republicans who do see his speeches as in line with the party, can vote for Trump and have vocally supported him. This protects their self-conception.
“We tend to think of politics as a rationally calculated decision, but actually, other people make our decision for us,” Berger says. “The candidates are a reflection of who we are, just like the way we might drive a BMW or a Volvo — they’re all signals to society of who we are. Voting will always be about identity.”
Photos via Getty Images / Kevin C. Cox