High school students are easily engaged to elect class presidents, even though they have little idea what if any policies a class president might influence. Instead such elections are usually described as “popularity contests.” That is, theses elections are about which school social factions are to have higher social status. If a jock wins, jocks have higher status. If your girlfriend’s brother wins, you have higher status, etc. And the fact that you have a vote says that others should take you into account when forming coalitions – you are somebody.
Civics teachers talk as if politics is about policy, that politics is our system for choosing policies to deal with common problems. But as Tyler Cowen suggests, real politics seems to be more about who will be our leaders, and what coalitions will rise or fall in status as a result. Election media coverage focuses on characterizing the candidates themselves – their personalities, styles, friends, beliefs, etc. You might say this is because character is a cheap clue to the policies candidates would adopt, but I don’t buy it.
The obvious interpretation seems more believable – as with high school class presidents, we care about policies mainly as clues to candidate character and affiliations. And to the extent we consider policies not tied to particular candidates, we mainly care about how policies will effect which kinds of people will be respected how much.