Tuesday, September 20, 2011

A gaggle of dissonances

These posts are all talking about the same thing:

1. Ian Leslie, today, on Obama's speech:
even though the policies he laid out are, on their own terms, popular, the signal they send about his position is that he's a traditional tax and spend Democrat. During the British 2005 general election the Tories took a hardline on immigration because polls told them it was a popular position. But the signal it sent was 'same old Tories'.

2. Erica Greider (at the Economist's American politics blog) on the popularity of "compromise":
What I find striking is the staggeringly high number of people who say they want politicians to compromise: fully 85% of respondents (even though the alternative to compromise, as the poll frames it, is "not getting as much done" rather than "falling into gridlock, dissolution, and despair"). [...] In practice, politicians do tend to defer to the voters on such questions [...] but you rarely hear them put it that way. Is that because they're worried that they'll look weak?

3. Yglesias on the weird behavior of German voters:
The mainstream center-left political parties in Germany, the Greens and the Social Democrats, are substantially more Europhilic than the governing Christian Democrat/Free Democrat coalition. [...] Given that these measure are deeply unpopular with the German electorate, you might expect the Greens and the SPD do be suffering at the polls. In fact, the reverse is happening [...] I was inclined to do an “everybody’s wrong and actually Germans love fiscal union” post based on these election results, but I looked up the poll data and it’s just not there. Germans prefer Merkel’s (wrong) view to the opposition’s (correct) one.

Her problem is roughly the problem President Obama is facing. The vast majority of people just vote for the same party every year. “The voters” don’t care about the economy, they’re mostly committed Republicans or committed Democrats. But elections are swung by the relatively small minority of people who don’t have firm partisan allegiances and they vote—whether in Germany or in the United States—largely on the basis of whether or not the incumbent is producing good results. 

4. John Holbo on Rick Perry (qua Republican) not meaning what he says:

The deeper question, I think, is why it appeals so much to so many Americans that conservatives constantly say things that they don’t really mean. Let’s go back to that oft-quoted line from Free and Cantril (The Political Beliefs of Americans: A Study of Public Opinion). Americans are “philosophical conservatives but operational liberals”. [...] what Free and Cantril found is that when Americans say Big Things about American politics, whose consequences they aren’t really prepared to affirm, in practice, they say conservative things. Whereas when you find out what they really want, in practice, they are liberals. [...]

This creates a problem for liberals: they get branded as utopian even when they are not utopian in the least. (Which they never are, in practice.) They can’t use any utopian rhetoric or systematically exaggerate what they intend to do or any of that stuff. If they do, they suffer for it. Intellectually, this is mostly a good thing. But it makes you think small, policy-wise. Because any bold thing you propose, even if it isn’t utopian, will be denounced as utopian. And electorally it’s a source of endless frustration. But the real source of this frustration is not conservative politicians but, per the title of Free and Cantril’s book: the political beliefs of Americans. Or rather, their political beliefs plus their political non-beliefs.
5. Grobstein, passing along an article about Michele Bachmann and vaccinations, remarks:
Perhaps this kind of epistemic warfare shows up on the right wing especially because it is a money-cheap response to areas where the left wing has a money-expensive strategy. It's a natural division of territory in the space of politics. Or do you think it's just an anti-sex signal?
As in any such discussion one should also link to Chris Hayes's old piece of reporting on swing voters, which suggests (consistently with other data, as far as I know) that true swing voters skew low-information and unreflective-about-politics, so have a somewhat exaggerated version of these common dissonances -- in what follows I shall use "people" to mean something like "swing voters." Perhaps what is interesting about all this, though, is the conundrum it poses for people who see democracy as a means for some sort of aggregative preference utilitarianism. (I'm unsympathetic to this view but I don't want to propagandize here.) The general problem is that people like politicians for appearing to be above [some subset of] common desires, but also happen to have these desires and to want them gratified. So clearly these sets of preferences have to be weighed against each other. I can think of two limiting readings:
  1. People elect politicians who want what the people want to want, so we should let them have said politicians even if they don't want what the people want, for the same reasons as we are happy selling people salad greens. I.e., the system works, and representative democracy leads to better outcomes than direct democracy. (This is not far from Leslie's reading.)
  2. Most political discourse consists of shibboleths in the Biblical sense; people do not want, or want to want, or want politicians to want, what politicians are universally expected to vaunt to want. Political discourse is a complicated charade (or perhaps a collection of shibboleths in the Biblical sense). People want what they want; they don't trust politicians to want what they vaunt; therefore they use shibboleths to confirm that the politicians aren't just pandering. The system is inefficient as drowns finer distinctions, erects artificial barriers to entry, and also provides cover to extremist politicians who hold the symbolic positions literally; one should cut the Gordian knot and restore power to the people (e.g., via ballot initiatives). 
The point is, you can resolve this contradiction either way -- aspiration + weakness is operationally similar to hypocrisy -- but they give you different prescriptions re what to fight for.


James said...

I think there is another plausible reading, one that doesn't have to do with second-order preferences or shibboleths. People economize on information (perhaps a nice way of saying they are ignorant). They are likely to extrapolate heavily from areas in which they feel confident that they know the truth.

And which voters think they know a lot about, say, vaccines? Voters who have read 20 pamphlets (or websites) on the subject. So what we have are political "entrepreneurs" who don't need a majority to get their way: they just need to "inform" a relatively small core of voters who will then become the equivalent of single-issue voters. The irony here is that these voters may not even care the most about, say, vaccines - they may care a lot more about macroeconomic conditions. But they don't know anything about macroeconomics, so they can't internally adjudicate political disputes on things like stimulus or inflation. But what they can do is infer that the guy who got it right on vaccines is probably right on macroeconomic policy, too.

So this isn't necessarily a story about expressive politics or second-order vole-itions. It may just be an exploitation of an otherwise rational strategy for a limited-information voter.

Zed said...

But that's very specific to Grob's vaccine example. You can't understand the nasty Tory problem that way, or the rest of it either. (Perhaps Grob's example doesn't really belong with the others. You could argue that many swing voters are pamphlet-driven single-issue voters, but I believe this is not actually the case.) The puzzle is that people often vote against their views on issues they care about, because they think worse of politicians who appear to share these views. It is possible that all that is really going on here is a subtle fallacy of composition, but the dynamic that Ian Leslie describes sounds fairly plausible to me; the point is that, to the extent that this dynamic exists, it poses some weird if probably solvable problems for preference utilitarianism.

James said...

Well, I think #4 and #5 go together somewhat. Republicans are allowed to say crazy things in part because everyone understands the political necessity to do so. (I note that Democrats are allowed to say crazy things about unions, green jobs, etc., although generally the degree of craziness is much lower.)

And the political necessity stems from the existence of a sizable minority of Republican voters who earnestly believe, for instance, that Obama and Bernanke have debased the dollar and brought economic ruin upon us.

This actually ties in #1 as well. I earnestly believe that the U.S. meat industry is barbaric, but I wouldn't be inclined to support a politician stupid enough to say so publicly. Likewise, people may be reluctant to support, say, Tory politicians stupid enough to campaign as Tory caricatures, however popular the underlying positions may be. (The danger being that what you have is an actual Tory caricature, or a true moron.) This is counter-intuitive but not really that bizarre or problematic, and to the extent it involves irrational voters painting with a broad brush, it can stem from the same dynamic as #5.

Zed said...

I think your meatpacking example doesn't work: the Q. is not why you want politicians to express positions you don't yourself hold, but why this should happen with _unpopular_ positions. I.e., "electability" cannot be the primary issue here, as there is presumably always more room to expand toward the center than toward the fringes. (Though you could argue that appealing to the fringe is a low-cost strategy because centrist voters are the least likely to be paying attention. But the point is that e.g. Rick Perry is fine with expressing positions that are in many ways further right than the median high-info GOP primary voter. Similarly with the SPD view on eurobonds in Germany.) The reason I think vaccines are different is that these issues that appeal to crackpots can cut across ideological lines, so it isn't obviously just playing to one's own fringe.

Of course, to the extent that you're relying on "irrational voters"-based explanations you're not expecting democracy to aggregate preferences so the Q. of which preferences not to (expect to) aggregate is moot.