We take intellectual shortcuts when voting

Dear Editor,

No one likes to be called lazy; even children know that laziness is a bad thing. But, given Guyana’s history of voting along racial lines, and the bad idea being touted of Indigenous Guyanese forming their own party, we may need to examine ourselves. Editor, political scientists and sociologists have studied the problem, and although the experts use a lot of big words, it boils down to the conclusion that voting along racial lines is the result of intellectual laziness.

After numerous studies of racially polarised societies, the experts say that racial voting behaviour occurs for one of three reasons: expressive affirmation, coincidence, or cognitive shortcut. So, what do these terms mean?

Firstly, expressive affirmation means that voters get psychological benefit from casting a ballot for the party which represents their particular race. They derive emotional contentment from being part of a group. In this case, issues are not considered at all, and elections are invariably a racial census. Observers will agree that expressive affirmation does not apply to Guyana since we know that issues are important to Guyanese, there is crossover voting, and the electorate is relatively sophisticated.

Secondly, coincidence or politics-as-usual voting occurs where race is not important to the voter; instead, parties promulgate policies which happen to coincide with the interests of racial groups. Since we know that in Guyana there are no major policy differences among political parties, and the interests and concerns of all Guyanese are relatively homogeneous, we can conclude that this scenario does not apply locally. And we are left with the third reason: voters taking a cognitive shortcut.

Guyanese will agree that they are concerned about issues; they want better roads, good health care, education, jobs and security. Citizens long for racial harmony and peaceful enjoyment of neighbourly relations. All of those concerns are considered before deciding which political party may best deliver the goods. However, many citizens also stereotype political parties as having a racial component; they attribute a racial characteristic to a party, and consider that as one of the issues. They erroneously conclude that a party which was traditionally supported by their race can better represent their interests. Unfortunately, this cognitive or intellectual shortcut trumps all other considerations and results in a flawed conclusion and voting decision. Editor, one will agree that taking a cognitive shortcut is the result of intellectual laziness.

We know from bitter experience that voting for a party based on perceived racial characteristics does not guarantee personal benefit. We know that after parties get political power they often forget about us. Instead, often, only the party’s officials, their friends and cronies are empowered and enriched. Clearly, our intellectual laziness has cost us dearly. Fortunately, there are ways to fix this problem but effecting a solution requires hard work by both ordinary citizens and progressive leaders.

Experts say that citizens can overcome their biases by first recognising the flaw in their own thinking. They must accept that a party’s perceived race is irrelevant to how that party will govern. They must then actively try to overcome their own biases by paying attention to the message of all political parties, instead of just one. Citizens must reject appeals to race and punish politicians who practise race-baiting by refusing to support them.

Progressive leaders also have a role. They need to educate voters; acknowledge and make citizens aware of their biases, and accept that such is human nature. Leaders must focus on issues and resist the tendency to be lazy themselves. In other words, leaders need not apply window dressing to their parties; instead, they must do the hard work required to make racial considerations irrelevant. Leaders must engage citizens across racial divides and convince their traditional supporters of the benefits of inclusion. Importantly, they must acknowledge the fact of biased thinking and encourage open discussions about the issue.

Editor, all things considered, we may conclude that every time someone says that s/he is a born supporter of a party, and s/he will die a supporter, s/he is, in fact not thinking. S/he is instead, being intellectually lazy by taking a cognitive shortcut. Given the evidence that laziness has not worked for us, the question is, will we now abandon the practice and think for ourselves? Leaders too must question their behaviour; will they bury the issue while pandering to racial sentiments, or, will they acknowledge the problem, declare their opposition to racial bias, and assure all citizens of equal consideration within their parties?

Yours faithfully,

Mark DaCosta