One fact

Jon Chait wrote earlier this week:

If you only learn one fact about American politics, it ought to be that Americans hate government in the abstract and favor it in the specific. That basic truth determines the shape of political debates over and over.

Indeed!  Yet, if only learning one fact, is that really the most important?  Maybe, but I started thinking about what I would suggest.  I thought about things such a: rules matter, institutions matter, incentives matter, history matters– and I think these are all quite important.  They all also apply to politics quite broadly.  Still, I was thinking about the major themes of my Intro class, and I think for me it comes down to: “we’re dealing with humans, here.”   I.e., to understand politics it really helps to understand political figures as rational actors– whether a candidate making a presidential primary strategy, a bureaucratic trying to increase his budget, a lobbyist trying to gain influence, or a voter deciding whether to support a third party.  But I’m no rational choice guy–  humans are also supremely irrational actors.  Humans are easily frightened into irrationality, they’ll answer polling questions with no idea what they are talking about, they will support completely contradictory policies, they’ll make important decisions based far too much on transient factors, etc.  So, for me, I think it comes down to embracing both what rational choice (the rational) and social-psychology (the irrational) can helps us understand about political actors.  A lot more complicated that Chait’s suggestion, but, perhaps also more broadly applicable as a result.  What would be your “one fact” about American politics?

About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State http://faculty.chass.ncsu.edu/shgreene

2 Responses to One fact

  1. I like your “we are dealing with humans here”… so that is my first choice but how about “you get what you pay for”

    D

  2. David says:

    Oh this is a fun one. Hopefully this gets picked up by more bloggers/commentators, as those things go.

    But I would emphasize, given the frame of reference that you give here, that our constitution and political institutions are the product of conscious choices of the actors that created them. There’s a tendency, I think probably instilled by high school civics classes, that the way we do democracy, with separate institutions sharing powers, two catchall parties and a federal vertical structure is the “default” design of democracy, and a lot of Intro to American Government students probably don’t realize that this is false. There’s more than one way to skin the cat, as my own Intro professor was fond of saying.

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