THE DELUSIONS OF CROWDS

One of my formative political experiences, and one which almost single-handedly convinced me to pursue political behavior as an academic career, occurred in 1998 in a class I hated. More accurately it was in the class of a professor I hated, the resident expert on constitutional law and chasing 19 year old tail at the University of Wisconsin.

Madison is a remarkably liberal place, so it was no surprise that very liberal and openly lesbian Congressional candidate (now Representative) Tammy Baldwin was extremely popular on campus. Aside from her ideological compatibility with the average Madison resident her campaign was well-organized, hosting "Tammy Baldwin dance parties" that drew huge numbers of students with no particular interest in politics. So it was a safe bet that any classroom at UW in the Fall of 1998 was about 85-90% Baldwin supporters.

Professor X began class one day – a large Con Law lecture of about 180 mostly future law school students – and asked for a show of hands on the question, "Which one of the two candidates for Congress is more likely to vote to lower taxes?" A solid 90% of the hands went up for Baldwin, with only the remaining 10% choosing her Republican opponent (the forgettable Jo Musser, who I remember for some reason over a decade later). Now, Tammy Baldwin was and is many things. But by no stretch of the imagination was she an anti-tax hawk. In fact she explicitly stated that she was not opposed to increasing taxes if necessary to pay for expanded Federal programs. Musser was the typical cut-taxes-at-all-costs Republican who made lowering taxes the cornerstone of her campaign message. So this was not a subjective question. There was a wrong answer, and 90% of the class chose it.

This was the exact moment at which I realized that the mental calculus of the average voter goes something like:

Me like Baldwin.
Me like tax cuts.
Baldwin is for tax cuts.

People who study political behavior understand, from as far back as The American Voter in 1960, that party identification is the key to this kind of "reasoning." Partisanship is a screen through which all incoming information is filtered. Republicans will tell you that everything they like is a Republican idea and everything they hate is what Democrats stand for. After decades of contorting research in an effort to give American voters a little more credit for intelligence, the field has come full circle and once again embraced the idea of partisanship as a "fundamental part of an individual's identity" (Partisan Hearts and Minds) like religion or ethnicity. The overwhelming majority of us acquire a partisan identity in adolescence or early adulthood and interpret the rest of the world through it thereafter.

Why is this relevant? Well, as Krugman pointed out, this is relevant to understanding the folly of pursuing "deficit reduction" as a political strategy by the White House, to which I would add the strategy of appeasing conservative Democrats or any Republicans on health care. Republican voters, most of whom hate Obama, will believe that he made the deficit bigger and that his health care plan is a disaster – even if the deficit is demonstrably smaller. Democrats will say the opposite. Really. How do we know? Because this is exactly what happened to Bill Clinton, as Achen and Bartels demonstrate.

achenbartels

Voters don't actually know anything. This is widely understood and constitutes one of the few points on which political science research is nearly unanimous. If Obama, like Clinton, destroys the deficit, Republicans and "independent" voters will not realize it. Hell, even some Democrats won't realize it. What people DO realize is when their own circumstances improve or worsen. Anything nebulous or intangible like deficit reduction will be lost on them, but they understand unemployment or failing banks. So in political terms, if the President thinks he can jump start the economy by racking up an enormous deficit he should do so. No one will know if it increases or decreases – voters will simply fill in that information according to their partisan identification. But many of them will know if unemployment falls, interest rates for auto and home loans fall, or their 401(k) recovers. If a health care bill provides coverage to people who could not previously afford it, it will be a net benefit.

Do things that improve people's lives and you will find yourself politically rewarded. Achieve abstract goals in an effort to appease people who hate you and you will find the victory quite hollow.

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17 Responses to “THE DELUSIONS OF CROWDS”

  1. Desargues Says:

    Your worthy message may be able to filter through to Obama's ears, were it not for the little Rubins he's surrounded himself with, and who'll make sure he stays focused on what matters — to them.

  2. NFN Says:

    I just found your website, and I think I'm in love with you. I read your piece about ayn rand and loved the way it was written. accurate, unapologetic, and harsh. i love that type of writing. i strive to write like that. anyways, i'm loving the blog, and i hate myself for just discovering it.

  3. Wauwatosa Whacko Says:

    I could tell you were a fellow Badger. Class of '98 myself.

  4. Michael Says:

    @NFN: I know what you mean. Gin & Tacos is the best. I'm never able to articulate my ideas quite as well as Ed does. This post was a real eye-opener.

  5. Da Moose Says:

    Your experience at udub sounds like my Poli Sci major classes at Beloit in the mid 90's. The feminism was so thick, guys left the school unable to hit on women for years. We had a Womyn's Center on campus. When I started an underground Men's Center, I got publicly excoriated but the increase in my tail intake was astounding. Women are a strange species. And, yes, Americans have no critical thinking skills. What’s new?

  6. zhak Says:

    I wish someone would explain to people, especially those "patriotic" Republicans, that taxes are our responsibility to our community and nation. Nobody likes them, but without them, our communities and nation will die.

  7. Pan Sapiens Says:

    Well, dig me. I've not taken a single political science class and yet I already knew this. Perhaps my being an extremely cynical liberal is an education in itself. "They" say "All politics is local", but I always knew politics is personal. This was demonstrated to me by observing people (both lefties and righties) who embraced their favorite smelly personal political fantasy regardless of the facts. Examples: Kennedy was a great president (and yet it is likely assassination was perhaps the best legacy for his administration). Reagan won the Cold War (please ignore the 5,000 Russian nuclear warheads pointed at us for the past 20-something years). Reminds me of my one-time representative, Earl Landgrebe, who, when confronted with Nixon's guilt, was heard to say "Don't confuse me with the facts!" Multiply by a couple hundred million. Send to voting booths.

  8. Don Says:

    Now if you could find yourself a vacuous blonde as cover, crash the White House, and read those last two paragraphs aloud to the room? They don't get it yet, and it's getting late.

  9. Susan of Texas Says:

    I think the majority of us form what become our political ideals much earlier than that. After my kids participated in mock elections at their elementary school they all discussed their choices. Almost all the children voted for whomever their parents liked. Children listen to their parents talk about candidates and want to be like their parents, and like what their parents like. When the child has been raised by very authoritarian parents, questioning any authority is like questioning one's parents–absolutely forbidden. They will ignore or excuse away any information that threatens their world view, and they will avoid any opinions that might get them expelled from the tribe. He who eats of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge gets tosses out of the Garden.

  10. Mary (High Blood Pressure Remedy) Says:

    I enjoyed your article, however as a previous resident of Madison allow me to say that once out of the little strip of land btwn Menona and Mendota lakes, the "liberalism" radically changes. It is more racisit than the south and Misogynistic than the Middle East.

  11. moonbat Says:

    To my regret, I never took a single poli-sci class as a undergrad (I hope to remedy this now that I'm in my 50s, when I can find the time, at the local university). This little tidbit is what I imagine sitting in on a lecture would be like, and I appreciate it.

  12. Dillon Says:

    "If Obama, like Clinton, destroys the deficit, Republicans and "independent" voters will not realize it."

    About the only halfway sensible thing Dick Cheney ever said was that "deficits don't matter". Of course deficits matter in the long term, but Cheney's point was that the Bush Administration would not pay a political price for running deficits year after year. Republican voters believe the GOP is the party of fiscal responsibility, despite all evidence to the contrary.

  13. jbl Says:

    I think Krugman and Robert Reich are right on about implementing real fixes now and letting the deficit wait till we're out of trouble. I really don't understand why Obama let himself be led by the bankers and ex-bankers he has running things. (I've occasionally wondered if they had something on him, but since I'm not a conspiracy theorist I'll let that pass.)

    I too just discovered this blog for the first time today – this is the first (and so far only) entry I've read, but I'm going exploring in a few minutes. Meanwhile, an interesting discourse on the values of Republicans and Democrats (or the right and left) is in another blog I just found posted nearly five years ago but still worth reading if you haven't seen it: "Red Family, Blue Family, Making sense of the values issue" at http://www.gurus.org/dougdeb/politics/209.html .

  14. Julie Says:

    @Mary

    It's my experience people who live near water enjoy life a great deal more. Once away from the water, they dry out, start hating everything, and become republicans. Sad but true.

  15. rifleperson Says:

    Interesting and often true political science analysis, but beyond that, not much use for anything else. And the same would apply to Democrats. It is so easy and so typical to use such an analysis to promote a partisan agenda. Yes, "destroying the deficit" is important, but when done through extreme tax increases, when the total and ongoing federal debt is greatly expanded, it is of little use. Yes, to improve people's lives can be politically rewarding, but when the cost to do so, drags down everyone else, the end result is not really desirable. The real goal should be, to do the actual right thing and to manage to make it politically profitable.

  16. jazzbumpa Says:

    rifle -

    What is an extreme tax increase? How about going back to the tax rates of the first Reagan administration? Or the higher tax rates of the Nixon administration? Or the even higher tax rates of the Eisenhower administration, when this country had an expanding economy and real prosperity?

    The great majority of all deficits in U.S. history come from two presidents: Reagan and Bush II. All of it for war and pseudo-war. The net result has been the funneling of national wealth into the hands of the already wealthy. Social programs have never made a significant contribution to deficits or the national debt. These facts will probably roll off you, reinforcing Ed's central point.

    Julie -

    Water is blue, baked earth is terra cotta red. Now I understand American politics. Thank you.

    Shorter Ed. people do not arrive at their political beliefs through any kind of rational thought process. It comes from a person's comfort zone, which seldom involves thinking of any kind, let alone dealing with actual facts.

    Shorter me: We are SO fucked!

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