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Political Weirdos, Ignorant Voters and a Wise Democracy

A participant at a Tea Party Express rally displays a sign critical of the Obama administration on April 13, 2010 in Albany, New York. The Tea Party Express will head to Boston on Wednesday where the headline speaker at an afternoon rally will be Sarah Palin.
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A participant at a Tea Party Express rally displays a sign critical of the Obama administration on April 13, 2010 in Albany, New York. The Tea Party Express will head to Boston on Wednesday where the headline speaker at an afternoon rally will be Sarah Palin.

Although it’s a bit far afield from my usual stomping grounds of Wall Street and financial regulation, I think it might be helpful for some of my readers to have a better understanding of presidential politics.

The first thing to remember is we’re living out here on the fringes of America. Going to Wall Street—even just living in and around New York City—is pretty much equivalent to expatriating yourself. Officially, we’re part of America, but only in the same way the Panama Canal zone is part of America according to various treaties of mutual convenience.

So when presidential candidates seem bizarre or fringy to you, you should remember they aren’t usually running to be your president. They are running to be president of another country that happens to share a legal system with us. Your instincts about who is likely to be elected or who would do a good job as president are likely to be way off because you are too far removed from the situation.

On the other hand, we can make a few general observations about how the electorate votes for presidential candidates.

First, the electorate doesn’t have a good idea about which political party or persuasion stands for which policies. They are confused about basic terms like liberal or conservative, and about even the most basic political facts. Political ignorance is the defining feature of our political process.

Second, because of the lack of information, the voters employ various heuristic devices to decide which candidates to support. For the most part, they vote for a presidential candidate based on things like whether the candidate appears to like them, whom the candidate pals around with, and whether he looks and sounds like a leader.

Third, one of the main goals of political campaigns is to get hold of the heuristics of the public and exploit them. This is often called “spin” but the point is that you cannot win simply by adopting either the wisest or most popular policies because communicating this is nearly impossible. So you have to win by aiming your campaign at shaping and pandering to the mental shortcuts voters use to make decisions in the absence of knowledge.

Fourth, the first, second and third points absolutely drive the intellectuals and journalists crazy. They think it is poisonous for democracy to be mired in ignorance and superficiality. They’re always striving either for a better informed electorate or for power to be taken away from the uninformed and handed over to experts.

(Don’t get too upset that intellectuals are like this. Their disposition to overvalue the political effects of knowledge and ignorance keeps them interesting. Imagine how boring things would be if we didn’t have guys fighting over policy all the time.)

Fifth, our democracy actually operates better because of ignorance and hermeneutics than it would if it were based on knowledge of policy positions. There are a number of reasons for this but the most important is that a candidates policy positions are a very terrible guide for what it would be like to have that candidate as a president. Remember, George W. Bush ran on a more humble foreign policy and gave us nation building in Iraq and Afghanistan. Barack Obama ran promising national unity: How has that turned out?

The point isn’t that politicians break campaign promises. I’m sure Bush would have preferred to have spent his presidency concentrating on figuring out how to send more people to colleges, have more people own homes, and have our borders be more open to immigration. And Obama would totally like to have brought us altogether.

Events overtake policy. Policy positions are really just disguised expert forecasts and what choices will be available in the future. But expert forecasting is notoriously inaccurate. So it shouldn’t really be surprising that policy preferences are a bad predictor of governance.

To sum up, voters are ignorant, politics is largely about heuristic symbolism, and intellectuals overvalue the usefulness of knowledge and the dangers of ignorance.

And it’s a good thing, too.

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