Do bad drivers (or bad eaters) make bad voters?

October 14, 2006 | By | 1 Reply More

What kinds of voters are we?  It’s hard to tell by looking what kind of candidates we elect.  After all, we usually only have two viable choices; we often hold our noses and vote for the “lesser of two evils.”   Many potential candidates never appear on the ballot, thanks to our horrifically corrupt political system, a system that requires a candidate to have corporate money in order to seen as viable by the corporate-owned media. It is a ludicrous and vicious circle.

Even acknowledging the severely limited choices we have at the polls, how well do we vote? Do we prepare ourselves carefully before entering the voting booth?  Do we work hard to expose ourselves to a wide range of perspectives before voting or do we fall prey to the availability heuristic, voting on the basis of highly suspect political ads and intellectually vapid local “news”? Do most voters take time to carefully deliberate on the long-term risks and benefits of the political positions touted by the candidates?  Apparently not, based upon the ubiquity misleading attack ads that invite unreflective scorn rather than a deliberate consideration of the issues.

Another bit of evidence suggesting that many of us vote without enough preparation occurs whenever citizens vote for lesser known candidates and issues.  On numerous occasions, people have admitted to me that they voted for or against a particular candidate (or issue) about whom (which) they knew nothing at all.  In Missouri, this happens all the time when circuit judges seeking retention appear on the ballot.  People tell me that they voted for or against judges based simply on their names (which, admittedly, suggest gender and, very tenuously, ancestry).

How else suggests the sorts of voters we are?

I suspect that people make voting decision in about the same way they make the other important decisions in their lives.  People who are generally nonchalant or reckless in their ignorance probably tend to vote that way.  People who are well-informed in other aspects of their lives tend to be well-informed when voting.  I suspect, then, that we might get a reading about how we take care of our country as voters with about the same amount of care we exercise when we make decisions—often life and death decisions—in other important areas of our lives.

I realize that I am treading in dangerous psychological territory. Perhaps I am violating the fundamental attribution error—the “inflated belief people have in the importance of personality traits and dispositions” (see The Person and the Situation, by Lee Ross and Richard E. Nisbett (1991).   I am also a firm believer in the multiple intelligences, as eloquently expressed by Howard Gardner. Perhaps people showing little care in one area of their lives are nonetheless careful voters.  Despite these concerns, based on my many years of observing and listening to people, I suspect that I’m on to something. At the very least, it seems that people who are generally conscientious prepare conscientiously to vote.   People who are generally dysfunctional (I would include many well-to-do people in this category) continue to be dysfunctional when they vote.

Let’s consider some examples. 

Do we often check our tires to see that they are safe?  When our cars make unusual noises, do we immediately go to the auto repair shop for our own safety?  Often not and often not.   More than one-fourth of us refuse to use our seatbelts.  A few years ago I handled a lawsuit involving a man who did not take the time to put on his seatbelt.  He was involved in a 30 mph collision that left him a quadriplegic. His wife and two young children have been struggling to care for him ever since, and he needs their help desperately.  He will never again be able get himself a drink of water.  So please use your seatbelts.

How well do we operate our vehicles?  Each year, three million Americans are injured in auto accidents, and we cast blame in almost all of these.  How many of those accidents happen because we don’t paying close attention while we drive–we are eating or drinking or smoking or talking on a cell phone? Talking on the phone while driving can impair your driving as much as being drunk.  What about speeding?  We often hear people laughing about going faster than the speed limit.  How much of a problem is this?  Actually, it’s a huge problem.

When we drive at an excessive speed, it reduces our reaction time and makes it more likely that we’ll get involved in an accident.  Speeding thus has the same detrimental effect on our driving as being intoxicated.  Many people who vote also make it a habit of driving while drunk.  Each year an estimated 2,163,000 motor vehicle crashes involve alcohol. In 2001, these crashes killed 16,792 and injured an estimated 512,510 persons.  That works out to about 1,500 automobile casualties per day, most of them needlessly caused by the bad judgment of people who are both vote and drive. Reckless drivers, therefore reckless voters?  Is there a carry-over of the general trait of recklessness?

Do we take the time to educate ourselves to vote well?  For many people, learning essentially stops at the end of formal education. Regarding the important issues of the day, our informal learning is provided (for many people) mostly by local newspapers and local television news.  In a previous post, I was highly critical of the type of information provided by local television news. We can see these same deficiencies in most local newspapers as well.  Reckless education, therefore reckless voters?

John Paulos writes that many of us are woefully ignorant regarding mathematics.  When you bring this up in a group of people, most of the people chuckle and roll their eyes.  This is a sad commentary, in that it is necessary to be proficient in mathematics in order to understand most of the important issues of the day.  as Paulos points out in his 1988 best seller, “Innumeracy: Mathematical Illiteracy and Its Consequences,” because this illiteracy leads to misconceptions of risks we face,

“a gap that threatens eventually to lead either to unfounded and crippling anxieties were too impossible and economically paralyzing demands for risk free guarantees. As Paulos points out, politicians are on the forefront of this constant display of proud ignorance, “since they deal with public opinion and are therefore loath to clarify the likely hazards and trade-offs associated with almost any policy.”

We mal-nourish our minds in other ways other too.  How many of us have taken the time to read a single federal book about comparative religion, Middle East history, the difficulties faced by occupying another country with one’s military, the consequences of peak oil or the devastation we should expect given that we have corporate dominated media?

What are we doing instead of taking the time to become educated voters?  Many of us become experts at following professional sports and other amusements.  While making small talk with people in positions of power, it is far more likely that they excel in understanding several professional sports than that they have ever given serious thought to the credibility of the information they receive from the media, information on which they heavily rely when they run their businesses and when they step into the voting booth.

Certainly, we have tremendous incentive to take good care of our bodies, right?  After all, if we don’t take care of our bodies, we could get sick and die sooner.  But 127 million adults in the U.S. are overweight, 60 million obese, and 9 million are severely obese. Exercise is not taken seriously by most Americans.  If you doubt this, plant yourself on a busy street corner and watch Americans walk by.  The average American consumes dangerous amounts of saturated fats, but negligible amounts of vegetables and fiber.  The wretched nutritional decisions many Americans make are documented in Walter Willett’s Eat, Drink and Be Healthy (2005).

What else do we do to our bodies?  Millions of us poison them with excess alcohol to the extent that we lose control over our careers and lives.  Each year, four times the people die from subjecting their livers to excess alcohol as died in the 9/11 attacks.

Millions of us regularly drive while drunk. Millions of us exercise the bad judgment of hurting ourselves with legal and illegal drugs. Millions of Americans still lights up cigarettes, a habit which kills 400,000 Americans every year.  Each year, this is 133 times more deaths than occurred in the World Trade Center attacks. Millions of us exercise the bad judgment of engaging in unsafe sex, which invite millions of new cases of sexually transmitted diseases every year. Each of these decisions can be matters of life and death, even more important than voting, yet so many of us do so poorly.

We exert equally bad judgment regarding the environment.  Whether or not one truly believes that global warming is happening, 928 scientists who have carefully studied this issue are convinced.    This should send red flags from coast to coast.  Prudent judgment requires that we should pay attention to this issue, but many Americans shrug and laugh it off.  When you asked most people want her to do about it, however, they laugh and shrugged.   As explained by Bill Moyers in a recent show, there is a huge split and religious fundamentalists on this issue.  Many evangelicals scoff at the unanimous peer-reviewed science articles on this topic.

And what are Americans thinking about their precarious and dwindling supply of oil?  Essentially, nothing.  We seem to have a massive disconnect on this issue.   We don’t educate ourselves on this issue, perhaps because the mainstream media doesn’t take the issue seriously.  Nor do we seem to want to know.  The current edition (November 2006) of Consumer Reports has a special section on how to save gasoline (on page 7).  Only at the bottom of the long list does CR suggest buying a more fuel-efficient car.  In its reviews of luxury SUVs in the same edition, CR has no criticism for SUVs that get only 16 miles per gallon.

Maybe we don’t seem to care about big issues because so many people believe that the “free market” will take care of everything for us.  They believe in the “free market” to such an extent that I have termed the “free market” the “Fourth Person in the Holy Quartet.”  They don’t have to be well-educated about big issues because those issues will simply take care of themselves, regardless of who we elect.

Maybe they don’t care because they don’t believe that real life will ever come crashing into their living rooms on a massive scale.  For example, many of us have never lived through a depression.  And the burden of fighting in the military completely bypasses many communities in this day and age of the “volunteer” military.

My point is that many Americans notably fail to exercise careful and knowledge decisions in important aspects of their lives.  Given this fact, why should we assume that these same people would vote carefully and knowledgeably? Why should we assume that people who regularly ignore preventable dangers in other areas of their lives would suddenly become careful, knowledgeable, math-savvy, self-critical, prudent and future-conscious voters?  There is no reason to assume this.

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Category: American Culture, Consumerism, Corruption, Economy, Education, Energy, Entertainment, Food, Health, Media, Politics, Psychology Cognition, Religion, Science, Sex

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

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  1. Erika Price says:

    Perhaps the most tragic fact, these destructive behaviors prove poisonously self-precipitating because so many people take part in them. Society may frown upon drunk driving in most cases, but we seem to expect people to speed (lest we ride up to their bumpers in our time-constrained fury) and chat on the phone while driving (it would waste precious time to stop for a call). We eat terribly unhealthful foods because everyone else does, and because we see such terrible foods in abundance. This naturally only increases the production of those foods, and so on. We place a high social premium on knowledge about sports or television series, and find more intellectual discourse pretentious and off-putting. The list goes on and on.

    As for voting, social promotion of ignorance serves to help spread the problem as well. It seems so much easier- and so much more "normal"- to vote based on strict party lines, or on the way that your friends and family vote, than to hold candidates under a microscope. On top of that, you have the regrettable fact that we typically have but two mediocre choices to elect; if you read up on both of them enough, you'll probably find both distasteful, so it seems better to just vote against whoever strikes you as the worst.

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