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October 02, 2012 1:44 PM The Narcissism of the Narcissism of Small Differences

By Andrew Gelman

In an otherwise reasonable article, Felix Salmon writes:

In America’s two-party system, you’re given a simple choice: this guy, or the other guy. If you find yourself in wholehearted agreement with one of the two, then the other one becomes the enemy, the obstacle standing in the path leading your guy to the White House. And under the rule of the narcissism of small differences, everything which separates your guy from the other guy becomes a monstrosity to be fought at every turn, and a grievance to be nursed and rehearsed ad nauseam. (Liberals, in truth, are even better than conservatives at this kind of thing: just remember what they thought of Reagan, whose policies were not particularly to the right of Obama.)

Huh? Ya gotta come up with a better example than that! Reagan wasn’t running against Obama, he was running against Carter and Mondale (and, in policy terms, against congressional Democrats such as Tip O’Neill). I think it’s safe to say that Reagan’s polices were to the right of Carter, Mondale, and Tip O’Neill.

This is not to say that all anti-Reagan sentiment was at the policy level, but the differences between Reagan and Mondale, or between Romney and Obama, are not so small. In a comparative study, my political science colleagues John Huber and Piero Stanig find the differences on economic policy between Democrats and Republicans to be relatively large (compared to left vs. right in other countries). And, indeed, the rich-poor gradient in vote preferences is larger in the U.S. than in most other countries too. (We also discuss this in chapter 7 of Red State Blue State.) And, sure, Carter was a moderately conservative Democrat, but Reagan was a far-right Republican for his time. So I don’t think “narcissism of small differences” is an appropriate description.

[Cross-posted at The Monkey Cage]

Andrew Gelman is a professor of statistics and political science and director of the Applied Statistics Center at Columbia University.