This viewpoint would seem to go against the more commonly held view (at least among political realists) that “altruism” does not figure prominently in either the motivations of politicians or in the voting public. Politicians and voters give lip service to altruism, but their primary motivation is usually some form of self-interest.
This view was well expressed by Pareto in the following observation:
A politician is inspired to champion the theory of "solidarity" [a 19th century variant of altruism] by an ambition to obtain money, power, distinctions. Analysis of that theory would reveal but scant trace of his motives, which are, after all, the motives of virtually all politicians, whether they preach white or black. [Politicians make use of principles] that are effective in influencing others. If the politician were to say, "Believe in solidarity because if you do it means money for me," they would get many laughs and few votes. He therefore has to take his stand on principles that are acceptable to his prospective constituents…. [Mind and Society, §854]
In other words, politicians say what they think their listeners want to hear. So they speak in vague generalities that are calculated to appeal to common sentiments. They talk of “change,” of “service” to one’s country, of need for “accountability.” Sometimes they are even, on a conscious level, sincere. They may believe in the vague ideologies that these expressions represent superficially—that is, they may have a sentimental connection to the rhetoric in which these ideologies are expressed. But their behavior is primarily motivated by concerns of self-interest (particularly status concerns). After all, politics is a rough, competitive sport; if the politician doesn’t look after his interests, he will lose his position to a less scrupulous rival. Political survival, in most (though not all) instances, easily trumps any “altruistic” principles that the politician may harbor.
What about the supporters of the politician? If, in order to get elected, the politician must appeal to the altruistic sentiments of the electorate, doesn’t this suggest that altruism still plays a major role in the political farce? Again, we must be careful not to be taken in by superficial appearances. As I will explain in more detail in the next post, the primary motivation for the electoral class in a democracy usually revolves around self-interest. Individuals may wax eloquent about altruism and service to strangers all they like; but at the end of the day, their own needs, along with the needs of their loved ones, are going to occupy most of their attention. Admiration of “altruism” is, in most people, a kind of literary indulgence. One admires it in others and occasionally puts it in practice in the form of a bit of charity toward others; but the sort of "self-sacrificial," live-entirely-for-others" behavior denounced by Rand and her disciples is an exceptional occurrence. Rand is denouncing what is almost a phantom.
The Objectivist scapegoating of altruism is connected to another strange doctrine: what could be called the “transperancy of motives” principle:
[The motives that drive history] are not hidden; they scream out at you [writes Peikoff]. People do not disguise their actions, not in essence and not on a historical scale; rather, in a real sense, people have integrity: nations practice what they preach. In this sense, I do not believe that hypocrisy is a factor in history. [“Philosophy and Psychology in History”]
Peikoff, however, in his contributions to this subject, is guilty of confirmation bias. He focuses solely on those instances in which politicians appeal to altruistic sentiments, while ignoring the very many appeals politicians make to self-interest. This is so obvious that one wonders how it is that Objectivists don’t notice it. Politicians are constantly promising things: more jobs, lower inflation, lower taxes, less corruption in government, assistance for those in need, bailouts for wealthy investors, subsidies for the medical care of the elderly, etc. etc. Appeals to altruism are merely added to these appeals to self-interest in order to make the whole business seem less sordid and mercenary. It is odd that Objectivists seem incapable of understanding this.