LOUD, RACIST, AND SIGNIFYING NOTHING

Posted in Rants on May 8th, 2016 by Ed

Philip Converse was the most important scholar of public opinion in the 20th Century. Even those who vehemently disagreed with his findings and conclusions used his work – particularly "The Nature of Belief Systems in Mass Publics" – as the starting point for any academic treatment of how Americans organize political ideas. A portion of his seminal work deserves a closer look, as the current election is giving us daily reminders to its effect.

Briefly, Converse believed that the public fell into one of five groups in terms of how they organized their political thinking. A common criticism since Converse has been his definition of liberal-conservative ideology as the "correct" way to do it, with all other schemas inferior to different degrees. His estimates of what share of the public fall into each category are also easy to poke full of holes. Neither of those criticisms are relevant to the point I am about to make; I'm just preempting the need to point out that Converse's work is 50 years old and a great deal has been said about it in the intervening years.

The first group – people who do it correctly, in the eyes of 1960s political scientists – are Ideologues. They evaluate political ideas by comparing them to a "yardstick" defined by the liberal-conservative spectrum of ideas. Ideologues are consistent; a liberal position on one issue is likely to be found with a liberal position on other issues. Second we have Near Ideologues. These people reference the liberal-conservative spectrum and appear to understand it but do not rely on it heavily – in essence they know how to drive but they prefer to take the bus. Third are Group Interest types, people who see politics in terms of which groups each party represents (Democrats represent labor, Republicans represent business interests). They rarely understand any issue that cannot be framed in terms of which group it serves. Fourth are people barely hanging on to some sense of coherence – "Nature of the Times." They form opinions by assigning credit or blame for anything that happens to the party in power when it happened. Republicans are bad because they caused the Depression, for example.

The final group is where things get ugly. Converse labeled them NIC: No Issue Content. These people have a party they identify with but cannot explain what it stands for. They have opinion, but opinions with "no shred of policy significance whatever." They like individual candidates based on their personal attributes and they have no substantive understanding of any policy issue, so the ideas they appear to support can appear quite random and perplexing to the observer in aggregate.

Re-read that last sentence. Does that sound familiar?

The most incredible thing about the Trump campaign from an academic / political science perspective is that we have the rare opportunity to observe a major party campaign with no ideological content whatsoever. There is no coherence to anything about Trump, policy-wise, and this reflects his supporters' similar lack of meaningful ideology. On what rare occasions that he does put forth an actual idea it 1) makes no sense and 2) bears no identifiable relationship to any other idea he mentioned before or since. It is the definition of random. His appeal, in the eyes of his supporters, is that he is Tough or Bold or some personal characteristic that one could only get from watching and listening to Trump if one does not understand what anything in the realm of ideas in American politics actually means. Moreover, one must explicitly not care what any of it means.

For example, Trump recently stated that his bold plan for dealing with the national debt was that, as a brilliant negotiator, he would convince holders of Treasury obligations to take a haircut – in other words, to accept fifty cents on the dollar or something like that, as a bankruptcy court might force creditors to do during a liquidation or reorganization. This is almost too stupid to bother explaining why it is stupid, as though the Treasury of the largest economy on the planet is no different than a failing casino trying to talk down its debts to a bunch of Mustache Petes who put up the initial investment. It is such a stupid idea that it falls short of qualifying as an idea; it's the kind of thing someone who has absolutely no idea how anything related to the economy works would think is a really brilliant solution.

The problem, from Trump's perspective, is that there simply aren't enough such people in the electorate. Converse estimated (again, his estimates have been subject to much debate) that no more than 1 in 5 voters fall into this category, and since then most analyses have treated that as incautiously high. If there's one thing academics like more than calling people stupid, it's rationalizing ways that apparently stupid people are actually smart. Regardless, on the rare occasions that Trump says anything policy-related my mind automatically goes to Converse, because nothing he says bears any resemblance to a definable political ideology. And that's what Trump supporters like about it. To them it sounds brilliant, because they don't even understand the issues well enough to understand why his proposals are ridiculous.

Think of it this way. Say you're one of those people who is totally ignorant when it comes to cars, and your car is non-functional. I came over looking like the quintessential stereotype of a mechanic from TV – blue coveralls, grease stains, a name across my breast pocket, and wrench in hand. After fiddling with your car for a few minutes – and since you have not one clue about anything car-related, my various taps and fiddles will easily fool you into thinking I know what I'm doing so long as I'm a half-decent actor and I stay in character. I tell you that your car will never run again unless you replace your Pancake Manifold and fill the gas tank with Bensonol. If I've succeeded in exploiting your ignorance by portraying myself as a tough, efficient, brilliant mechanic, there's no reason to doubt me…as long as you don't know a sparkplug from a muffler.

That's how Trump's popularity works. The more he talks, the less anyone with half a brain is willing to support him. But to people for whom the ideas of politics are totally meaningless anyway, every sentence makes them love him more. His ideologically nonsensical ideas aren't a bug. They're his best feature.