Thursday, September 11, 2008

The Outrage over the Outrage

People are grousing about this "lipstick on a pig" scandal, how it seems a new low for American politics. Rick Shenkman, a history professor at George Mason University, recently came out with a book with the transparent title Just how Stupid Are We? He has the typically littany of statistics on how little people know about the basic working of government or elemental facts about ideas. This research has been confirmed again, and again, and again. He claims that the increased sophistication of public opinion polling and the increased control over political institutions given to the masses gives the people too much power.

Shenkman and others may be right. But It seems beside to point to say that the public is interested in the visceral over the rational. His prescription is that we should "put the people in their place" so to speak and change institutions so that the people do not have as much direct control over their elected officials. But in reality, there seems to be little prospect of either of those recommendations coming to pass.

There's enough research on the brain that suggests that power of emotional appeals over rational ones. It strikes me that we should take this as fact and move forward from there. A more important question seems to be "is there anything of value in the current way voters make decisions about politics." If people are basing their support for a candidate based on their affinity for him/her, then we need to engage the problems of civic engagement on those terms.

It is logical that people vote based on affinity. A recent ABC News poll found that Sarah Palin has 80% support among White women with children. Why? Because of propinquity. Propinquity, or the degree of likeness between people, is a heursitic device used to make a choice in the absence of other information. Herbert Simon used the term satisficing to describe roughly the same thing. People take short cuts in making decisions that are time bound and require large amounts of data. One easy way to make the "safest" choice is to say " If she's like me, then she's likely to understand what I am going through and is likely to advocate for me in the White House. And if she's not advocating for me, then at least it's cool for my daughter to see a Vice President who looks like their mom." Of course there are many among that 80% who are conservative evangelicals and are voting their policy preferences, but for the rest, it is a pretty logical heuristic cue to use when the intricacies of policy seem so remote.

We as social scientists might wish it were different, but let's put the different systems of choice in perspective. On one hand, you vote for someone who supports the policies you support. Given the dense system of checks and balances in the American system, it is unlikely that those policies will be passed. Even if they are, they are not likely to produce immediate results or may very well produce unintended consequences (shout out to Thomas Merton!)

The same goes for what many view as simplistic and disingenouous appleals about "keeping us safe" and "country first." This morning I watched the very moving 9-11 ceremonies and the speech that President Bush gave at the event in NYC. In his speech, he made the observation that we Americans had not been attacked in over 1,500 days. From an emotional brain perspective, that's a powerful argument. It is understandable that a voter might take that portion of the speech and satisfice and say "that's good enough for me." Protection for external threats is a visceral concern. it seems foolish to have an esoteric argument about how people should use more rational decision rules when selecting a president. Until the Democrats can frame their issues in ways that create a visceral concern among the American public, they aren't going to get anywhere. And in one sense, they probably shouldn't.

1 comment:

rmccarthy said...

I definitely think that people vote based on what their familiar with, like you said about the women with children voting for sarah palin because she's a woman with children. but is this the right way to vote? should people vote based on what theyre FAMILIAR with, as opposed to what they want in a president? this is probably the reason why older people tend to vote for mccain, women voted for hilary clinton, and why african americans are voting for obama. could part of obama's support be exactly the OPPOSITE though? could it be that people are voting for obama because he is DIFFERENT? not only are some people NOT voting for him because he is black, but lots of people are probably voting for him just because he IS black. that being said, do those numbers cancel each other out? is one bigger than the other? and i know that race indeed does play a part in politics, but i dont think it should. does no one vote based on POLICIES anymore?!?!