Monthly Archives: October 2017

The Know Nothing Voter

Figuring out why people vote the way they do has been one of the great obsessions of political science. And, after more than fifty years of sustained scholarly effort dedicated to cracking the code of electoral choice, we’re pretty sure that Democrats vote for Democrats and Republicans vote for Republicans. Outside of that, lots of people seem to vote for lots of candidates and causes for lots of reasons. Why? Damned if we know.

This has not been quite the colossal exercise in academic futility the last paragraph implies. True, we’re still mostly at the head scratching stage of a general explanation of how decision making really goes down in the ballot booth. Along the way, though, we’ve managed to expose the most obvious and common rationales for why people vote the way they do as so much bunk. While no one was looking, political scientists have repeatedly and convincingly demonstrated that democracy–or at least democratic elections–do not work as pretty much everyone assumes they do.

Classic democratic theory presumes voters will take their civic duties seriously and cast their ballots on the basis of reasonable due diligence. In other words, there’ll be a good deal of gathering information on candidates and issues, weighing pros and cons, and cogitating on the consequences to the commonweal of backing Joe Blow or Jane Doe. While allowances are granted for slippage between theory and practice, there’s a general assumption that voters more or less know what they are doing when they show up to the polls to pin the tail on the democratic donkey.

It’s a nice story, sovereignty of the people, wisdom of the crowd and all that. Politicians and civics teachers still enthusiastically repeat the tale. And nothing wrong with the story. I like it too. The problem is it’s mostly fiction. Back in the 1950s Angus Campbell, Philip Converse and Warren Miller crushed the idea that the foundation of our democracy was an informed, judicious civitas. They did this using a lot of survey data and an early form of computer (i.e. a bunch of grad students with adding machines). Their classic study, The American Voter, reported that most citizens know diddly about the substance of who or what they are voting for. Instead, they treat politics like beer. They are loyal to a party brand even though in a blind policy-taste test they couldn’t pick a Clinton Pale Fail from a Trump Lout Stout.

Though The American Voter is now nearly 60 years old, its essential conclusion has held up. Umpteen other studies have data-dived the question to death and arrived at the same basic inference: most people are pig-ignorant about policy and politics. Once they decide–often without much in the way of conscious and reasoned deliberation–that they are a Republican or Democrat, or at least lean one way more than the other, that’s pretty much it. People will often pay attention to politics enough to justify their vote, but more in the sense of rationalizing it than coming up with an actual rationale. In general citizens are remarkably innocent of even the most basic facts and knowledge about politics and the political system, and what they do “know” is often just a mish-mash of dodgy first principles, ersatz ideological whinging, logical fallacy, and political fairy tales. It’s all held together with little more than bumper sticker clichés and social media outrage. To a large extent, that’s what our democracy stands on. Scary, huh?

As you might imagine, broadcasting news of general political illiteracy from the ivory tower is not exactly an exercise calculated to endear political science to the masses. How dare the pointy-headed professoriate cast their elitist aspersions upon the wisdom of masses? And what the heck do we know anyway? People don’t really base their voting decisions on little more than an emotional attachment to the letters “R” or “D” printed on their ballots, do they? Surely issues matter? Isn’t that what all the gum flapping in election campaigns is about? And there’s no way the good burghers of this great nation are shallowly treating elections like some sort of intramural sporting event where Ws and Ls matter more than the fate of the Republic? Sorry to send the broken record of my discipline spinning through one more revolution, but the answers to these questions are: Yes. Mostly no. Mostly not. And, sure as shootin’.

There’s little question that in terms of political IQ the vast mass of the electorate is in Forest Gump territory. Political life is like a box of chocolates with this crew, endless consumption of sweet, sticky carbohydrates that leave you feeling sick. Three-quarters of Americans cannot accurately identify the three branches of government in their own political system. One in three freshman in my introduction to American politics class cannot pass a basic citizenship test (the students who tend do the best on this test tend to be, of all things, Eastern Europeans. Go figure). Shoot, one in five Americans believes the sun revolves around the earth. These Einsteins have either studied the matter in-depth and have a logical rationale and sufficient evidence to reject heliocentrism, or science since the Enlightenment just ain’t their thing.

I’m guessing the latter. Alarming numbers of voters on the right deny evolution and poo-pooh climate change, and just-as-alarming numbers on the left believe vaccinations cause autism and genetically modified plants are bad because, I dunno, Franken-corn or something. Anyway, there’s little doubt that given the choice between the conclusions of the best available science and the spewing of the worst of the confirmation bias commentariat there’s no contest. Huge numbers of Americans choose the latter.

So, the bottom line is we haven’t really figured out why people vote the way they do, but we remain pretty gobsmacked about what voters get up to and the far-out (il)logic deployed to justify it. Along the way, what we have figured out is why government is often so screwed up, from left to right and top to bottom. That government is, fair and square, founded on the choices of voters. Given what we do know about how those choices are made, government dysfunction is not surprising. It’s practically guaranteed.

Guns ‘n’ Poses

Americans are unique among citizens of Western liberal democracies in believing that freedom comes from a gun barrel. Outside our shores there’s a more or less universal agreement that the business end of trigger pulling and large bangs is simply a projectile moving with explosive force. Even cheese eating surrender monkeys will allow that said projectile might free someone from their mortal coil, but that’s not the sort of freedom Americans are really talking about.

What Americans, or at least the millions of National Rifle Association/Second Amendment gun rights purists, are talking about is actual freedom, individual liberty, guns as a prophylactic against unwanted coercion by government or the neighborhood bullyboys. Sure it’s good to have freedom of assembly and the right to speak your mind and all that. Without a shootin’ iron, though, any Tom, Dick or Redcoat can cozen you out of those hard won liberties. It is only our plug-a-thug capacity that stands between us and terrorists, robbers, Obama, the gummint and sundry other evil doers. True, all this freedom and vigilance does involve collateral damage. Others you might end up shooting include your spouse, your child,  your mailman, your teacher, your preacher, your neighbor, some random tourist, or those dern teens playing their hippity-hoppity music.  And, of course, yourself.

That’s said without any intended sarcasm, irony or condemnation. Near as I can tell, it’s an accurate statement of a belief genuinely held by lots and lots of Americans. It’s a much rarer attitude in other countries where democratically elected governments have enacted strong gun controls with, if not full-throated support, at least without the implacable enmity of the people. The Dunblane massacre in the UK and the Port Arthur massacre in Australia, for example, resulted in a swift regulatory response.  Dunblanes and Port Arthurs are not shocking one-offs in the United States. We have them with a truly disturbing regularity. In response, the government does mostly nothing.

Many outside, and plenty inside, the United States find all of this baffling. It’s not even really a question of public opinion and preferences. There are lots of gun control measures that research suggests will reduce (though far from eliminate) gun violence and already have high levels of public support  (you can see a list here).  Every time there’s a massacre–Sandy Hook, San Bernadino, Virginia Tech, Pulse nightclub–these proposals are lofted back into the Republic’s political discourse only to go splat on the Second Amendment shield hoisted by the NRA. For those expecting the Las Vegas bloodbath to result in any different outcome … um, I’d prepare for disappointment.

Like it or not, the legal right to keep some serious bang-bang in our pockets is pretty much etched into American culture and it’s not going anywhere that isn’t on an NRA-approved map. Las Vegas, no doubt, will set off another competitive round of Second Amendment parsing, but chances are it won’t change the status quo much. The interesting question is why so many Americans are so uniquely attached to unregulated gun ownership that they are willing to put up with gun violence on a scale unthinkable in other places (the US has roughly one mass shooting per day).  A shooting tragedy that elsewhere would be met with a forceful response from the political system in America only evokes some version of, “awful, terrible, thoughts and prayers, yada, yada, yada, but, meh, whaddya gonna do?”

Maybe this is because it’s deeply embedded in the American psyche that our independence was won by a populace taking up arms to take down a tyrannical government. The experience lingers in the national consciousness, so we still feel the need for lots and lots of military-grade firearms because you just never know when the gummint’s gonna get too big for its britches. Yet a lot of the yeoman of nostalgic worship also took up arms for the British. Their guns were deployed not for, but against the cause of liberty (or, depending on perspective, illegal usurpation).* Maybe we should regulate guns because you can never tell who’ll turn out to be a Tory bastard taking potshots at his neighbors for the king. The logic behind that argument seems equally as sound as its opposite, but, whatever. The point is that the whole justification for bearing arms as a check on central government is an anachronism. If nothing else, I seriously doubt that what we’ve got in the gun rack is going to leave the 82nd Airborne or the Coldstream Guards shaking in their boots.

Well, what about the personal protection argument? Despite liberals sputtering to the contrary, that argument actually holds some water. The ability to lay down some lead can be a pretty effective counter to a mugging or home invasion. There are roughly a couple of hundred justifiable gun homicides a year, and 1 percent of crime victims use a gun in self-defense (numbers and source here). So, no mistake about it, guns can and are used to put the hurt on baddies. Just not that much, and not very often. So, if political freedom is secured in America, as it is in all comparable polities, not by guns but by stable democratic institutions and the rule of law, and personal armories are rarely deployed to secure the personal safety and security of individuals, what’s the deal? Why are Americans so attached to the weaponry?

It’s simple: We. Like. Guns.  Stripped down to its essence, that’s pretty much it. We love guns. We own more of them than any other stable democracy (roughly 300 million). We have entire media enterprises–magazines, TV shows, YouTube channels–dedicated to them. We get switched on by thrusting bullets into a chamber and feeling that stress relief when we pop them off. We like a lot of gun violence in our novels and movies. We adorn our vehicles with gun slogans: Glock, the point and click interface; guns don’t kill people, I do; you are free to be a liberal thanks to a man with a gun; and so on and so forth. Is all this fetish-y? Gun porn-y? Well, yeah. That’s kind of our thing. And we’re serious about it. One of the most powerful private political entities in our entire commonwealth–the NRA–is dedicated to making sure not just that we can own shotguns or hunting rifles. In NRA-world we have the inviolate right to own assault weapons, silencers, armor-piercing ammunition, and to conceal about our persons various phallic instruments giving us the power of life and death over our fellow citizens.

Of course there’s a price to be paid for the freedom to indulge such proclivities. Someone’s gonna get killed adjusting their bra holster, the odd toddler is going to get killed searching for candy in grandma’s purse, some guy will accidentally loose off a round while sitting on the crapper in Walmart,  random dipsticks living low-rent Bonnie and Clyde fantasies will shoot up neighborhoods for no reason at all, and suspected terrorists will be legally allowed to buy to guns because they have Second Amendment rights too. Oh, plus there will be the not-so-occasional massacre.

As I said, lots of people don’t get this. This sort of stuff just doesn’t happen in other countries, at least not with the metronomic regularity it does in America.  And if did happen in other countries, it’s a dead certainty some attempt at mitigation would follow. So why do we put up with it? The need to keep a limitation on the encroachment of government? To secure the rights of the Second Amendment? To uphold individual liberty? Personal protection? Nah. Let’s be honest. We just like guns.

* You might be asking if it wasn’t the freedom to bear arms that was the critical element in securing revolutionary victory for the United States, Mr. Smartypants Patriot Disser, what was it? I don’t know (It was the French).