Shankar Vedantam writes:
Americans distrust the GOP. So why are they voting for it? . . . Gallup tells us that 71 percent of all Americans blame Republican policies for the bad economy, while only 48 percent blame the Obama administration. . . . while disapproval of congressional Democrats stands at 61 percent, disapproval of congressional Republicans stands at 67 percent.
[But] Republicans are heavily tipped to wrest control of one or both houses of Congress from the Democrats in the upcoming midterms.
Hey! I know the answer to that one. As I wrote in early September:
Those 10% or so of voters who plan to vote Republican–even while thinking that the Democrats will do a better job–are not necessarily being so unreasonable. The Democrats control the presidency and both houses of Congress, and so it’s a completely reasonable stance to prefer them to the Republicans yet still think they’ve gone too far and need a check on their power.
But Vendatam thinks this explanation doesn’t work. He writes:
One explanation for our paradox is that Americans want divided government. If we have gridlock with one party in charge, perhaps we would have more legislative movement if power in Congress were divided?
This might make sense as a national storyline, but it doesn’t make sense in the real world, because wanting divided government doesn’t tell an individual how to vote. If you are a voter in, say Pennsylvania’s 8th District, would you vote against Democratic incumbent Patrick Murphy in order to get divided government if you weren’t sure how people in all the other congressional Districts were going to vote? If you liked Murphy, would you say you are going to vote against him just to get divided government? . . .
Debunking the debunking
I think that, in his eagerness to explain undesirable political outcomes as the product of irrationality and “unconscious bias,” Vedantam is missing the point.
To start with, a small swing of 10% of the vote would result in a large swing in the political outcome. To take the example above, if you like Patrick Murphy, you can vote for him, and if you prefer his opponent, you can cast your vote the other way. No problem. But there are lots of people in the middle. Preference for divided government may be only a small factor, but it can be enough to swing some votes.
Wouldn’t it make more sense to stop worrying about how everyone else votes and simply pick the candidate you like?
Aaahhhh, sincere voting! Wouldn’t that be wonderful. But it’s hardly irrational for voters to be strategic and to not merely “simply pick the candidate they like.” It’s pretty funny for the author of a book called The Hidden Brain to bring up evidence of cognitive illusions from business to sports to politics–and then recommend that voters simply “stop worrying”!
Why does this bug me?
I’m sure Vedantam is correct that voters are irrational in many ways. Voters are also misinformed (we give some examples in chapter 8 of Red State, Blue State) and their perceptions, even of verifiable facts, are disturbingly correlated with partisanship. And I’m a big fan of the research on cognitive illusions. So I’m not at all opposed to applying ideas of “the hidden brain” to politics.
And I’m not saying that preference for divided government explains all or, necessarily, even most of the anticipated vote swing in 2010. But don’t be so quick to dismiss the idea.
What disturbs me in Vedantam’s otherwise interesting article is the oh-so-quick move to explain away uncomfortable political trends with psychological explanations. Whether the argument is that whites voted for Obama because it made them feel good about themselves, or that people are planning to vote Republican in 2010 because “our unconscious bias favors action over holding steady, regardless of whether that makes sense,” my response is: Maybe so. But let’s consider some more direct explanations first.