Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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August 31, 2004
By: Ezra Klein

Right now, I'm typing from The Tank, which is acting as progressive HQ, with space for bloggers, a "progressive tourist bureau", and constant events of interest to liberals (tonight, for instance, Air America is broadcasting live). The mood is...mixed. With Al Hunt calling the convention "exquisitely directed" and reporting a potential Kerry campaign shake-up (classic sign of weakness), there's an almost palpable frustration that Rudy's straight talk and McCain's maverick status can obscure the actual character of this administration. Most simply cannot believe that this election can even be close, much less locked in a dead-heat. That's not so much a judgment on Republicans as Bush; it's just impossible to understand how anyone can empirically judge this guy's policies a success.

At least on close examination. But for those who aren't going over policy papers with their magnifying glass, it's more understandable. Last week, The New Yorker's critic-at-large engaged voter behavior; past studies have found that only 10% can be considered in possession of a coherent ideological framework while 22% use indicators with no "issue content" whatsoever. However, a theory called "heuristics" posits that this isn't a problem:

People use shortcuts...to reach judgments about political candidates, and, on the whole, these shortcuts are as good as the long and winding road of reading party platforms, listening to candidate debates, and all the other elements of civic duty. Voters use what Samuel Popkin, one of the proponents of this third theory, calls "low-information rationality" in other words, gut reasoning-to reach political decisions; and this intuitive form of judgment proves a good enough substitute for its high-information counterpart in reflecting what people want.

....On the theory of heuristics, it's roughly the same with candidates: voters don't have the time or the inclination to assess them in depth, so they rely on the advice of experts television commentators, political activists, Uncle Charlie-combined with their own hunches, to reach a decision. Usually (they feel), they're O.K. If they had spent the time needed for a top-to-toe vetting, they would probably not have chosen differently. Some voters might get it wrong in one direction, choosing the liberal candidate when they in fact preferred a conservative one, but their error is cancelled out by the voters who mistakenly choose the conservative. The will of the people may not be terribly articulate, but it comes out in the wash.

Hanging over the Tank is that which must not be spoken the possibility that Bush really does represent the American people better than the left and, if so, the country'll get what it deserves. But if you view the election and convention in terms of voter behavior, things begin to fall into place. The problem for bloggers, blog readers, and this top tenth of politically involved folk is that they look at Bush's policy actions and it blow their minds; the guy's been an absolute catastrophe. That anyone could possibly support this schmuck is simply impossible.

Only not. The Republican Party has become masterful at rigging these heuristic signposts into pointing in the opposite direction from the party. Bush's affability, apparent values and general normality signals good president despite the incoherence and incompetence defining his policies. As Matt Yglesias noted, the essential Republican speaker on national security is Rudy Giuliani, a mayor whose emotional connection to terrorism is undeniable, just like his lack of expertise on the topic. This guy has worked on crime, not foreign policy. Nonetheless, his personal reputation (tough on muggers) and clear conviction on terrorism push heuristic buttons, signaling a credibility that isn't actually there.

Further, the media works better on this level of storylines and examples (Dole's fall, Dean's scream, Bush's trouble with the grocery scanner) and is thus easy prey for the GOP's deception. Reporting the guts of issues is a tough business and rarely riveting television, networks that attempt to engage health care lose out to rivals proffering easy to understand character questions.

It's a dynamic that one party has figured out and the other party occasionally grasps (i.e, Kerry's convention turn as the God of War and Death, the prominent display of Kerry's middle-American shipmates), both to the detriment of the electorate. So long as politicians can consciously manipulate heuristics for their advancement and the media will report on that level, there's no chance that such glancing political involvement will lead voters to rational decision making. And that means the media must step up and drill through to the issues or Americans must step up and do the work themselves. Either one would be fine, both would be terrific, but neither would be disastrous.

Edited the ending.

Ezra Klein 6:18 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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