17 October 2008

Rational voters don’t exist…

at least, not in large numbers, according to Larry M. Bartels, here.
A ­half-­century of scholarship provides plenty of grounds for pessimism about voters’ rationality.

When social scientists first started using detailed opinion surveys to study the attitudes and behavior of ordinary voters, they found some pretty sobering things. In the early 1950s, Paul Lazarsfeld and his colleagues at Columbia University concluded that electoral choices “are relatively invulnerable to direct argumentation” and “characterized more by faith than by conviction and by wishful expectation rather than careful prediction of consequences.” For example, voters consistently misperceived where candidates stood on the important issues of the day, seeing their favorite candidates’ stands as closer to their own and opposing candidates’ stands as more dissimilar than they actually were. They likewise exaggerated the extent of support for their favorite candidates among members of social groups they felt close ­to.

In 1960, a team of researchers from the University of Michigan published an even more influential study, The American Voter. They described “the general impoverishment of political thought in a large proportion of the electorate,” noting that “many people know the existence of few if any of the major issues of policy.” Shifts in election outcomes, they concluded, were largely attributable to defections from ­long-­standing partisan loyalties by relatively unsophisticated voters with little grasp of issues or ideology. A recent replication of their work using surveys from 2000 and 2004 found that things haven’t changed much.
On that note, listen to this clip from a recent edition of Howard Stern’s satellite radio program:



It’s not surprising, really. But, in all fairness, he should have tried the same stunt on McCain voters.

Much of the disappointment with President Bush among conservatives (well, maybe not neo-conservatives) has been precisely what Bartels describes above: people identifying the positions of their candidate with their own. Bush is right-of-center, so conservatives thought he was one of them. But he isn’t conservative in that sense of the word. (Just like liberals are not liberals, in the classical sense of the word.) Bush’s politics are “action” oriented politics, like those of Mexico’s National Action Party, which is also right-of-center, but not conservative in the classical sense of the word.

It’s hard to fault voters too much (only too much). Politics have become about so many things that it takes quite a bit of time and energy to keep up with it all. Politics have also become about so many close and personal things as to arouse passions over intellect.

It’s not, therefore, so much that voters are essentially irrational, I think. (In other words, it’s not some genetic defect.) They are existentially irrational; that is, the situation in life simply makes rationality difficult to exercise. They’re just too darn busy. The exercise of reason requires time, which we have less and less of it seems. It’s not that the voter is just too stupid. He’s just short on time, reducing him to taking short cuts in his thinking.

How else to explain what Bartels describes at the end of his article?

While voters are busy meting out myopic, ­simple-­minded rewards and punishments, political observers are often busy exaggerating the policy content of the voters’ verdicts. The prime example in American political history may be the watershed New Deal election of 1936. Having swept into office on a strong tide of economic discontent in 1932, Franklin Roosevelt initiated a series of wide-ranging new policies to cope with the Great Depression. According to the most authoritative political scholar of the era, V. O. Key, “The voters responded with a resounding ratification of the new thrust of governmental policy”—a stunning 46-state landslide that ushered in an era of Democratic electoral ­dominance.

The 1936 election has become the most celebrated textbook case of ideological realignment in American history. However, a careful look at ­state-­by-­state voting patterns suggests that this resounding ratification of Roosevelt’s policies was strongly concentrated in the states that happened to enjoy robust income growth in the months leading up to the vote. Indeed, the apparent impact of ­short-­term economic conditions was so powerful that, if the recession of 1938 had occurred in 1936, Roosevelt probably would have been a ­one-­term ­president.

It’s not only in the United States that the ­Depression-­era tendency to “throw the bums out” looks like something less than a rational policy judgment. In the United States, voters replaced Republicans with Democrats in 1932 and the economy improved. In Britain and Australia, voters replaced Labor governments with conservatives and the economy im­proved. In Sweden, voters replaced Conservatives with Liberals, then with Social Democrats, and the economy improved. In the Canadian agricultural province of Saskatchewan, voters replaced Conservatives with Socialists and the economy improved. In the adjacent agricultural province of Alberta, voters replaced a socialist party with a right-leaning party created from scratch by a charismatic radio preacher peddling a flighty ­share-­the-­wealth scheme, and the economy improved. In Weimar Germany, where economic distress was deeper and ­longer ­lasting, voters rejected all of the mainstream parties, the Nazis seized power, and the economy improved. In every case, the party that happened to be in power when the Depression eased went on to dominate politics for a decade or more thereafter. It seems far-fetched to imagine that all these contradictory shifts represented ­well-­considered ideological conversions. A more parsimonious interpretation is that voters ­simply—­and ­simple-­mindedly—­rewarded whoever happened to be in power when things got ­better.
A case of post hoc ergo propter hoc reasoning.

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James Frank Solís
Former soldier (USA). Graduate-level educated. Married 26 years. Texas ex-patriate. Ruling elder in the Presbyterian Church in America.
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