Politics is not a solo sport

Neil DeGrasse Tyson sure knows his astronomy, but just because he’s a smart guy does not mean he actually understands politics.  His failure to do so has led to some really smart responses.  Alas, he’s surely got many more twitter followers than political scientists Jonathan Bernstein or Hans Noel, who expertly lay out the fundamental wrongness of Tyson.  Bernstein:

From the department of not understanding politics, Neil deGrasse Tyson tweets:

Neil deGrasse Tyson@neiltyson
Candidate Endorsements matter if you’d rather have a famous person, an organization, or media entity do your thinking for you

Tyson, a prominent astrophysicist and science commentator (with five million Twitter followers!), is criticizing those of us who rely on this kind of information to vote.

It’s possible that he skips a lot of elections. Most citizens, even those who vote regularly, do. Or he may carefully study the policies and qualifications of each candidate in each election for which he’s eligible to vote and all the bond measures and initiatives too.

I somehow doubt it. To fully examine each of those elections — local, state, national — would practically be a full-time job.

I’ve now voted 188 times in the current four-year election cycle (that is, since November 2012). I’ve voted for president and for members of Congress and for the Texas Legislature on down the ballot to the school board. I’m about as informed a voter as they come, and I don’t feel remotely qualified to develop independent views on half the issues that come up and on many candidates for lower offices.

Here in San Antonio, Texas, the local government has in the last few years debated a complex water issue; the use of city money to help a higher-level minor league team move here; light rail and an intercity rail alliance with Austin; annexation of new areas; various highway expansions; full-time salaries for elected officials, and more than I can remember. Do I have informed views of those issues? Not really; and while I can read (for example) economic impact reports, I’m not going to do it.

Yet I’m quite comfortable that I made good choices most times, if we can define “good choices” as “how I would have voted had I done more research.”

Why? Because I take the shortcuts used by most voters, informed or not. The biggest one is party affiliation. If the party endorses a candidate, you have a good idea how that person will behave in office. As for the issues, your party’s support or opposition can tell you a lot about a specific proposal, or at least enough.

We can also use other sources — such as officials we learn to rely on over time. On local water issues, for example, I know nothing but I trust a particular city council member who works hard to get things right.

As political scientist Hans Noel has pointed out, voting isn’t an individual choice at all. It’s “about acting in concert with others.” It perfectly responsible to vote based on endorsements from the “others” you know.

Yes!  I so love this because I am so a fan of cue-taking.  Sure, at the most basic level this just means the cue of Democrat or Republican, but absent other information that tells you a lot (e.g., protecting the environment vs. cutting regulation; providing services for the needy vs. cutting government services, etc.).  Beyond that, as much as I know and read it’s impossible to be an expert on everything.  Over time, I’ve learned that I can pretty much trust anything Jon Cohn has to say on health care policy or Ezra Klein on economic policy of Michael Spector on issues of science and policy, etc.  On these issues, I would rather have these people do my thinking for me.  Just like I’ll leave my thinking on astrophysics to Tyson.  Now, of course, you want to have the right people do your thinking for you, but if you are smart about that, it’s clearly the most rational and efficient approach.

And Noel:

Tyson knows science but apparently not social science. Why do endorsements matter? Maybe because people don’t have time to think for themselves about everything, so they take cues. I’d dismiss most celebrities, but if you find out that the organization dedicated to your favorite cause is for a candidate, that’s incredibly helpful.

But it’s not just that Tyson appears to be unaware of the usefulness of cues and heuristics. He’s working from a fundamentally flawed model of democracy. Voting is not about “thinking for yourself” at all. It is about coordinating with your fellow voters. So especially in a primary, you need to know which candidate the people like you are backing, so you can join them. Endorsements help.

Anyway, I’ll stick with looking to Bernstein, Noel, other people I have come to recognize as super-smart, well-informed, and sharing a similar worldview, to help with my thinking about politics and make no apologies for having other people “do my thinking for me.”  For such a smart guy, pretty dumb from Tyson.

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

4 Responses to Politics is not a solo sport

  1. hopdavid says:

    “Neil DeGrasse Tyson sure knows his astronomy,”

    Well actually…. Neil makes mistakes in astrophysics as well. Also biology. Medicine. Aerodynamics. History. Misinformation on many different topics. This guy doesn’t deserve the cred people give him.

    Here’s a list of Tyson errorsFact Checking Neil deGrasse Tyson

  2. rgbact says:

    I’m often amazed how very smart people can be so clueless on politics. Tyson is just another. Oh well, so long as he bashes Christians and Republicans, he’ll alway have his fans.

    Cue taking…….boy has that gone to hell this year.Sadly, its part of the continued breakdown of Americans trust in their institutions.

  3. Alex says:

    It seems that this “cue-taking” meshes perfectly with your earlier post about how the media will help Trump this election. Specifically, part of the reason that a Trump-Hillary race wont’ be as much of a landslide as it might otherwise be is because the fact that he’s been “endorsed” as the Republican party’s nominee (and the leaders are (mostly) falling into line) is a giant cue. (That’s not to say the media bias won’t have an effect, but I think the “cue effect” is as strong, if not stronger.)

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