What even smart people don’t get about politics

I’ve really been enjoying David Roberts’ work at Vox.  He’s got a really nice piece looking at how even otherwise really smart people who understand a lot of things (i.e., brilliant Silicon Valley tech nerds) have some key misunderstanding about how American politics actually works.  Of course, they are far from alone in these misunderstands (one of the fun parts of teaching American government is redressing so many), but Roberts finds it interesting and notable that some really smart people get it so wrong.  For my purposes, the best part is where Roberts nicely summarizes just what it is they, and so many Americans, do get wrong.  I love this part because, like any good Vox writer, Roberts respects the Political Science (I assume we have editor-in-chief Ezra Klein to thanks for that).  Anyway, here’s some of the good stuff:

I think that these two narratives — disdain toward politics, and the parties as mirror images with rational thinking in the center — are connected. That vision of the political spectrum implies that one is partisan precisely in proportion to one’s distance from rational thinking. It defines partisanship as irrationality, as blind, lemming-like behavior, the opposite of approaching things “from a standpoint of rationality and what I think makes sense.” The independent thinker takes a bit from this party, a bit from that one, as rational thinking dictates…

Let’s start with a few findings in political science that have not yet sunk into common knowledge.

First, independents are not independent. In fact, “independent” may be the second mostmyth-encrusted, poorly understood phenomenon in US politics (the first is coming up). The key thing to understand about independents is that they generally vote like partisans

Second, the most myth-encrusted phenomenon in US politics is the “moderate.” The popular conception of moderates is that they gravitate toward the political center, splitting the difference between the mainstream positions of the two parties.

If that’s a moderate, then America doesn’t have many of those either. In fact, the relative prevalence of moderates in popular polling is almost certainly a statistical artifact. A voter with one extreme conservative opinion (round up and expel all illegal immigrants immediately) and one extreme liberal opinion (institute a 100 percent tax on wealth over a million dollars) will be marked, for the purposes of polling, as a moderate. What’s really being measured is heterogeneity of opinion, not centrism. In fact, most moderates have at least one opinion that is well outside the mainstream of either party.

Moderates also tend to be more disengaged from politics. More engaged voters will tend to follow the lead and adopt the positions of party leaders. People who know little about the landscape of politics or the mechanisms of policy will tend to support positions outside the mainstream, often positions that more experienced political observers will find ludicrous (for good or ill). A voter with deeply informed, mildly center-left positions will code as “more partisan” than a moderate who has ill-informed positions that are all over the map, but that doesn’t mean the moderate is more centrist or more rational…

Third, in practical coalitional politics, the “center” will tend to be shaped not by rational thinking but by money and power. If there is any space left for bipartisanship in US politics, it is around measures that benefit corporate elites.

The right-wing base has a coherent position on climate change: It’s a hoax, so we shouldn’t do anything about it. The left-wing base has a coherent position: It’s happening, so we should do something about it. The “centrist” position, shared by conservative Democrats and the few remaining moderate Republicans, is that it’s happening but we shouldn’t do anything about it. That’s not centrist in any meaningful ideological sense; instead, like most areas of overlap between the parties, it is corporatist.

The previous three points show that the American political spectrum is not composed of two irrational extremes with calm, independent-thinking moderates in the center. But there’s a deeper problem, which is that the spectrum isn’t composed of two mirror-image sides at all. It turns out the sides are quite different. [emphasis mine]

I’ve written enough about the asymmetry that I’ll spare you an even longer excerpt.  Suffice it to say, that under the guise of a piece about Silicon Valley and politics, this is actually one of the best explanations of how American politics really works that I’ve read in a long time.  So, if that’s something you feel like you could stand to learn something on (and if you read this blog, that damn well better be you), please do yourself a favor and read the whole thing.

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

6 Responses to What even smart people don’t get about politics

  1. John F. says:

    Now if only we could get the parties to recognize this so that their candidates clearly represent profound differences and illustrate clear contrasts instead of merely appeasing the corporatist class so often.

  2. R. Jenrette says:

    It makes sense that so called independents lean Republican or conservative. Individualism is more in line with today’s conservative thinking. Liberalism is more good of the group oriented.

    • Jon K says:

      the point is that there are not really any independents. people may be registered unaffiliated but if you look at how they vote it is usually consistent and in support of only one of the two major parties. someone like me – who has always voted republican but is strongly considering voting democratic in the next election – is incredibly rare for a variety of reasons. most people become emotionally invested with one party or the other and that explains why they vote as they do. I can attest this is a real phenomenon. My views have shifted more and more away from the GOP, but I still feel a strong emotional connection to the party and it makes supporting the other side an incredibly tough call. if i were completely rational i’d be a hillary supporter at this point. instead i’m still hoping that the GOP will nominate a candidate I can feel comfortable voting for. people vote for a lot of reasons but rationality is only one of them.

  3. rgbact says:

    I wouldn’t really call it “corporatist” to not want to pay sky high electricity rates, like Europe. The point about moderates having immoderate positions, just not in a consistent fashion, makes sense though.

  4. R. Jenrette says:

    The deliberate creation of a Republican base that is focused and stimulated to act by emotional
    appeals has led to a base which challenges the interests of its creators. This base is open to the idea of increasing taxes on the very wealthy, preserving or even expanding Social Security, and even tolerating a candidate who supports single payer medical insurance.
    The only card left is fear….Isis, foreigners, liberals, etc.
    Maybe that’s where the moderate Republicans have gone ….gone to be independents, every one.

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