Friday, July 20, 2012

New Experts

In the aftermath of the Colorado shooting we are sure to hear from a variety of experts.  Lawyers and law professors will talk about upcoming hearing, arraignments and likely trial to come.  Doctors and mental health workers will tell us about mental health issues (what’s the difference between being a weirdo and being psychotic?) while aforementioned lawyers will talk about the difficulties of successfully pleading not guilty by reason of insanity.  In short, experts will talk about their fields to explain complex legal proceedings or how schizophrenia develops to us laymen.  So why can’t we do the same with politics.

There’s a whole world of political science out there that is almost completely ignored by the news media that tells us all sorts of interesting things about how our political system works and how much of what you and reporters believe to be iron clad truths about politics is totally wrong.  Here’s a quick true or false quiz for you to take:

1. Independent voters are the most important part of the electorate because they switch between supporting different parties in different elections.

2. Identifying with a party won’t influence who you chose to vote for very much.

3. Building public support for policies is one of the best ways for a president to advance his agenda through Congress.

4. Public addresses such as the State of the Union or televised address are one of the best ways to change public opinion making the “bully pulpit” one of the most effective tools a president has at his disposal.

5. Presidents don’t try to keep their campaign promises very much.

So how’d ya do?  Unless you answered false to every question not very well.  Indeed a wealth of findings in political science, some of which is empirically tested and goes back decades, tells us that each one of these statements is just wrong.  But I bet that most political pundits and voters would agree with some, if not all, of them.  Let’s go through them.

1. A whole host of data out there tells us that while lots of the electorate, maybe over a third, may identify with the label “independent” but most of those people actually behave like partisans.  That is they cast their votes generally towards supporting one party over election cycles.  And it makes sense, as someone who’s been personally told “I’m an independent but I’d never vote for a Democrat” more than once, I can attest to this.

2. Party identification is one of the strongest influences on how people vote and political science literature has proven this again and again.  In fact, it’s probably as big of an influence as demographic categories like race.  Thus, just as it’s easy to take a good guess as to how a white heterosexual man with a high school education over the age of 40 from rural Alabama or a Jewish mother of two with a graduate degree and lives in White Plains will vote, it’s also easy to guess how someone who identifies with a party will vote.  News stories may be full of people who are a lifelong _____ but are now voting for _____ because _____, but these people are actually a tiny slice of American society.

3. Actually this is false as well.  Time and time again Presidents have tried to get Congress to do things by building public pressure and time and time they fail.  Ronald Reagan summed things up quite well:

Time and again, I would speak on television, to a joint session of Congress, or to other audiences about the problems in Central America, and I would hope that the outcome would be an outpouring of support from Americans…But the polls usually found that large numbers of Americans cared little or not at all about what happened in Central America…and, among those who did care, too few cared…to apply the kind of pressure I needed on Congress.

4.  Just read above. The bully pulpit is in many ways a myth. Presidents can bring attention to issues with it, sort of, but they can’t necessarily do much more. Indeed the original advocate of the Bully Pulpit, Theodore Roosevelt, could speak out about unsanitary conditions in slaughterhouses but he couldn’t change them. That took legislation from Congress and the forming of the FDA and bureaucracies of meat inspectors much later.

5. This one is my favorite.  Ask this of a focus group of voters and most folks will probably sagely nod their heads.  But it’s also false, political science tells us that Presidents at least try to keep their promises.  Both Barack Obama and Bill Clinton campaigned heavily on reforming health care and both spent a good deal of their first terms trying to enact this policy change at great political expense.  And those Bush tax cuts?  They came into being as a way to counter Steve Forbes’s call for a “flat tax” on the campaign trail and once Bush became President they became law.

So there you have it, much of what you take for granted about politics isn’t true at all.  But alas no one wants to do news segments on this even though it’s more interesting that two people screaming at each other on air for 3 minutes.  I think we should get some new experts on cable news, but that’s just me.

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