Thursday, April 1, 2010

Do Ordinary Voters Care About Process?

Byron York reports on a recent Gallup poll showing that a majority of Americans regard the passage of ObamaCare as “an abuse of power”:

“A new Gallup poll shows that a majority of Americans believes Democrats abused their power by using procedural shortcuts and controversial parliamentary tactics to pass the new national health care makeover. And in a striking finding, slightly more people blame the Democrats' tactics than Republican criticism for the threats of violence and vandalism that were reported after the bill's passage.

“The poll asked, "Regardless of whether you favored or opposed the health care legislation Congress passed this past week, do you think the methods the Democratic leaders in Congress used to get enough votes to pass this legislation were an abuse of power or were an appropriate use of power by the party that controls the majority in Congress?" The results: 53 percent say the Democrats' methods were an abuse of power, while 40 percent say they were appropriate

“Breaking down the results by party, 86 percent of Republicans say the Democrats abused their power, while 58 percent of independents agree. Nineteen percent of Democrats say their own leaders abused their power, while 70 percent say Democratic methods were appropriate. . . .

“The new numbers suggest that the public remains troubled by the tactics used to pass the unpopular health care measure. And they suggest that Rep. David Dreier, the ranking Republican on the House Rules Committee, was right when he said, at the time of the bill's passage, ‘The American people have gotten the message that process is substance.’ The usual conventional wisdom says process is simply not important, but the health care debate seems to be an exception.”
Assume that these polling results are accurate and will remain relatively stable between now and November. If so, will they make a difference in the mid-term elections?

I suspect that people’s answer varies according to their ideological commitments. It’s my impression that liberals tend to think that voters’ perception about the integrity of public decision-making processes is mostly a function of their attitude toward the outcomes generated in particular cases. Conservatives, like Congressman Dreier, have invested a lot of intellectual and partisan capital in the idea that process matters to voters in its own right.

You can see the difference the way each side has reacted over the years to hot-button social issues like abortion and same-sex marriage. Conservatives spend as much time talking about the illegitimacy of judicial activism as they do about the immorality of abortion and the moral superiority of opposite-sex over same-sex marriages. Liberals don’t bother saying much about the legitimacy of legal decisions because they dismiss conservative rants about judicial activism mostly as a pretext for moral authoritarianism. That dynamic reappears in each side’s estimation of the political potency of the Tea Party movement. Conservatives see the makings of an electoral tsunami in the “Don’t Tread on Me” rhetoric about the illegitimate interference of the federal government in private lives; liberals disparage that rhetoric as a shallow affectation manufactured by astroturfing corporate interests.

Both sides can find corroboration for their view in the Gallup poll. Most liberals will dismiss its finding about an "abuse of power" as extraneous noise in light of the high correlation between people’s partisan affiliation and their attitude toward the process that generated ObamaCare; 86% of Republicans, but only 19% of Democrats, disapprove of it. Conservatives will see in the makings of an electoral blow-out in the fact that substantially higher percentage of Republicans disapprove of the process than the 70% of Democrats who approve of it, and that 58% of Independents disapprove of it.

This empirical disagreement on the electoral significance of perceptions of legitimacy can only be settled conclusively by the statistical analysis of exit poll data. The next election will tell us a lot about whether liberals or conservatives have a better handle on how elections work.

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