February 25th, 2012 // 8:34 am @ Oliver DeMille
There are two kinds of voters: Traditionalists and Pragmatists.
Knowing the difference is vital—especially during election years. It helps us be better voters and guardians of freedom.
The 2012 elections—local, state, and national—are pivotal to freedom.
If we learn to understand the differences between these types of voters, we can work together more effectively to ensure a positive result—no matter who wins.
Traditionalists have strong allegiances to a party or political viewpoint. They tend to see all politics as Left versus Right, Republican versus Democrat, or Liberal versus Conservative.
From this perspective, politics is a battle between the “righteous” thinkers and statesmen on your side and the “evil” ideologues and self-serving politicians and bureaucrats on the other side.
Traditionalist voters on each side have their own lexicon of highly-charged key words and a stable of trusted writers, news analysts, and pundits. Most importantly, Traditionalists have a list of key issues which define their political views and drive their political emotions.
Such issues include abortion, immigration, welfare, health care, national security, education and many others—including, most recently, the Keystone Pipeline, religious freedom, class warfare, and contraception.
Again, such voters take strong sides on these issues, vehemently support one side and listen to little debate from the other side. Often they go to extremes, overstating the morality of their side and vilifying any who disagree.
Liberals and conservatives often dislike each other, and usually disagree on the issues, but they basically understand each other.
They are warriors for (or at least supporters of) their political views, and so they “get” other Traditionalist voters even when they are on different sides of the aisle. They think the other Party is wrong, but they are somewhat similar in the way they approach political life.
Instead of being “warriors for truth,” Pragmatists view politics as managers. For them, political battles are routine decisions that citizens must make—just like administrators must show up for work, deal with the challenges that arise, and then go home to their private lives.
This professionalism in their voting role is one of the reasons political polls are often wrong in predicting how elections will turn out.
Polls of Traditionalists are mostly accurate, but surveys of Pragmatists are usually misleading.
Pragmatists frequently answer surveys with the goal of impacting them, and this isn’t an accurate indication of how they’ll actually vote.
Such voters are very literal about their citizenship: every civic action they take is done with a deliberate attempt to impact the outcomes and results.
Indeed, Pragmatists have no worries about just skipping an election if they don’t think their vote will change the outcome (such as when one candidate is clearly far ahead). They don’t see voting as an important civic duty, but as a pragmatic opportunity to impact things.
This doesn’t mean that Pragmatist voters who don’t bother to vote will ignore the election.
They’ll write blogs, try to impact polls, or help fund the candidates and causes they support. But they’ll only do things they think will actually make a difference.
Where Traditionalist voters support a candidate because they feel he or she is “right” or “best” for America, Pragmatists vote for what they think is the most desired election result.
For example, a Pragmatist may well vote for one party in the Presidential race and another party in a Senatorial campaign because she thinks the best governance will come from the White House and Senate being run by different parties.
Or consider the voter who told CNN that he would vote for Ron Paul, but that if Paul dropped out or didn’t get the Republican nomination he would vote for Barack Obama.
From a Traditionalist perspective this comment makes no sense. Why would anyone choose the two extremes and reject everyone in the middle?
For Pragmatists, this makes sense in several ways. First, it is a strong way of voicing support for Ron Paul and maybe convincing a few voters to change their vote to Paul. Second, it makes everyone stop and think, which is a high priority for Pragmatists. Third, and perhaps most significantly, Ron Paul and Barack Obama are both Pragmatists, while the other candidates are more Traditionalist.
Pragmatists can be just as strongly supportive of any given issue as Traditionalists, but they approach it differently—they are interested in real change on the issue.
Traditionalists, in contrast, tend to emphasize winning the election and then hoping the elected officials will do better than their opponents would have.
To reiterate: Traditionalists emphasize candidates. Pragmatists focus on real policy change.
Many Pragmatists are independents because they don’t believe party politics are good for the nation (except when they decide to personally run for office, in which case their pragmatism kicks in and they join a party).
Both major political parties have their share of Pragmatists, many of whom are political professionals, activists on the far Left and Right, and party insiders who have great influence in elections. Still, many Pragmatist voters dislike institutionalism and distrust big organizations.
Pragmatist voters tend to find the Left-Right bickering over the issues both annoying and wasteful. They enjoy a good debate, however, as long as it deals with real issues and detailed solutions that can really work.
Pragmatists also give kudos to any good debater on either side (something Traditionalist voters hardly ever do because they tend to think the candidates on their side are doing well while the politicians from the other side are wrong and therefore debating badly).
Traditionalists tend to band with other people who agree with them on either conservative or liberal values. They seldom talk politics with people of different views, and when they do they frequently get upset.
They dislike arguing about politics and find themselves angry and frustrated when others directly challenge their political views. They like rallies and debates where their side trashes the other side.
Pragmatists, in contrast, often genuinely like political arguments. They enjoy debating with people from other viewpoints, and also take pleasure in learning new ideas from people and sources that are both allies and opponents.
Pragmatists tend to think about politics on their own or in discussions with a few close friends rather than in big groups or official events, and many like to take different sides of arguments to see how others respond.
Pragmatists seldom like political events where someone lectures; they prefer to discuss and debate. They’ll support liberal views in an argument with a conservative father-in-law and later that same day promote conservatism when arguing with a liberal professor.
The father-in-law will be convinced that his daughter has married a “flaming liberal” and the professor will swear that his student is a “wild-eyed conservative.” In fact, they are both Traditionalists dealing with a Pragmatist.
The Pragmatist son-in-law/student just wants to fix what’s broken—as efficiently and effectively as possible, and the sooner the better. He also likes to argue about politics and to make people stop and think more deeply.
Many Pragmatists don’t really know how to be conservative or liberal. They see too many issues on both sides where the typical progressive or conservative dogmas are shallow or flawed.
For example, many Pragmatists who grew up in liberal families or communities just can’t condone (or understand) the liberal penchant for compulsive government over-spending.
Similarly, a number of Pragmatists from traditionally conservative backgrounds find it ridiculous (and even immoral) that many conservatives give seemingly constant lip-service to freedom from the excesses and bureaucrats in Washington D.C., while they simultaneously want to deny the opportunity for freedom to foreign-born immigrants—without even seeming to realize that this is a contradiction.
Traditionalists see elections as a choice between competing liberal and conservative values, while Pragmatists tend to summarize each election around the most important central issue.
In short, Traditionalists tend to think that elections are about liberal versus conservative values, issues and candidates, and they hardly realize that Pragmatists exist.
In fact, most conservatives and liberals categorize Pragmatists simply as members of the other side. “If you’re not with us,” many Traditionalists assume, “you must be with that other party.”
For their part, many Pragmatists are annoyed by Traditionalist politics and content to stay uninvolved in supporting certain issues and campaigns.
As a result, many who could work together remain alienated even though they actually agree on nearly all goals and could be effective political allies.
How This Applies in 2012
This year will be a Pragmatist election. The question is the same as 2008 and 2010: Which party is most likely to get our economic house in order?
Only a major world crisis is likely to change this focus, though President Obama’s campaign is trying to swing the narrative away from the economy and make this a Traditionalist party election.
In short, if independents in the battleground states vote Traditionalist in 2012 (based mainly on social issues), President Obama will be re-elected; if they vote Pragmatist (with a focus on freeing up the economy), he will be unseated.
Second, while many people on the Right tend to see President Obama as a far-left liberal and those on the Left most often see him as a centrist (note that both “liberal” and “centrist” are Traditionalist labels), his record and modus operandi is clearly Pragmatist.
President Obama has genuinely progressive goals, to be sure, but his personality, approach and methodology is strongly Pragmatist.
The other strongly Pragmatist in the campaign is Congressman Paul. Some would call him a Traditionalist because he has long promoted issues that had little chance of winning, but to do this would be to misread his efforts; he has always focused on bringing real change to his agenda items, not just symbolic support.
Ironically, however, though Ron Paul has taken a Pragmatist approach for many years, a lot of Pragmatists don’t support him because they don’t think he can win.
Rick Santorum is the most Traditionalist of the current candidates. The one exception in his otherwise Traditionalist stable of issues is his strongly Pragmatist stance in support of the manufacturing sector.
Interestingly, both Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich swing between Pragmatist and Traditionalist approaches. Romney has taken a Traditionalist voice while his history is more naturally Pragmatist.
Gingrich is a strong Traditionalist in his long public life, but seems to take a Pragmatist tone in his private and business life.
Depending on whether either of these candidates becomes the Republican nominee, in the general election expect either Romney or Gingrich to focus nearly his entire campaign strongly on one Pragmatist issue: Who can best fix the U.S. economy.
This election will be swayed by Pragmatist voters, which gives President Obama a natural advantage unless his opponent can convince Pragmatists that a Republican can more realistically and effectively renovate the economy.
The Greatest Need
A key to winning this election (at the local and state levels as well as nationally) is to create effective coalitions of Traditionalists and Pragmatists with shared election goals.
This is not an easy marriage. The two types of voters see each other as part of the problem. Even when Traditionalists and Pragmatists accept the need to work together, they generally approach their relationship with basic mistrust.
Conservative Traditionalists almost always have a hard time believing that conservative-leaning Pragmatists are really on their side. In most cases, they have been warriors of conservatism for a long time. They have come to associate conservatism with certain catch phrases, key words and mutual affection for iconic media personalities.
Pragmatists loathe what they consider shallow and mindless partisanship. As a result, they dislike catch phrases, key words and iconic personalities. The same problems exist between liberal Traditionalists and liberal-leaning Pragmatists.
Ironically, politics requires us to get outside our comfort zones and work with people from differing views in order to obtain the best results for our locales, states and nations.
It may well be this very process of political interrelationships and personal citizen involvement that keeps us free in the long term.
When a free nation is in decline or struggles, the greatest need is simply for better voters.
We need to become such voters, and we all need to reach out and work more effectively with people who are different in order to accomplish real change in modern America. If we do this, the 2012 election will be a success, whatever the electoral results.
Who we elect is ultimately less important than how we elect, because our citizen involvement beyond the voting booth is determining our national future.
As the major campaigns continually amp up the negativity of their attack ads, this is increasingly true. Our leaders now seldom set the example of civility and honest debate, and if our citizens follow their path the future of freedom will continue to decline.
Fortunately, each of us can directly impact this sad trend. We must push through political barriers and have honest and friendly dialogues with people from all political viewpoints.
This takes maturity—a characteristic of free people.
Our freedoms, or their lack, are less a result of the leaders in society than of the citizens. In our time, better voters and better citizens are needed.
Each of us can do better. There are many in our society that divide, criticize and attack. More citizens are needed who build bridges and promote unity.
Whatever kind of voter you are, it is essential to realize that in the current environment the citizens are the true leaders. It is time for each of us to lead.
He is the co-author of New York Times, Wall Street Journal and USA Today bestseller LeaderShift, and author of A Thomas Jefferson Education: Teaching a Generation of Leaders for the 21st Century, and The Coming Aristocracy: Education & the Future of Freedom.
Oliver is dedicated to promoting freedom through leadership education. He and his wife Rachel are raising their eight children in Cedar City, Utah.