Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Political Volatility

This isn’t the first time I’ve mentioned my astonishment at the unpopularity of the Obama agenda. Less than two years ago, Obama got more votes than any Democratic presidential candidate since LBJ promising to reform the health care delivery system, address climate change, restore the country’s reputation among international elites and actively manage the economy by directing capital to where it would do the most social good over the long haul. Since taking office, Obama has been as true to his word, and as ideologically consistent, as you can reasonably expect a president to be. Yet the electorate as a whole has plainly stopped buying what he’s selling, particularly the independents who broke decisively for him two years ago.

What gives? Since it’s public opinion we’re talking about, and only individual people have opinions, it’s natural to reach for a psychological explanation of why so many people seem to have changed their minds so quickly. And since it’s implausible to think that so many people could have changed their considered opinions about public affairs that decisively in the space of two years, it’s natural to look for non-cognitive causes.

Once a determined ideologue starts looking in that direction, it’s never hard to find a reassuring explanation of the public’s fickleness. Liberals are happy to believe, for instance, that Obama has lost the public because of the combination of his own inept messaging and Republican disinformation, or because he can’t help exciting racial anxiety, or because his cerebral style doesn’t comport with the paranoid style of American politics, etc. None of these explanations are very convincing, however, because they point to causes that pre-existed the change they’re supposed to explain. Obama’s messaging limitations or Republican zeal to mislead the public didn’t keep him from getting himself elected president four years out of the Illinois state senate, paranoia has always been the mother’s milk of American politics, Obama didn’t start being black after his inauguration, etc.

I don’t think we’ll get very far in understanding political volatility as long as we presume that it’s primarily a psychological phenomenon. The only things we really know about the distribution of political preferences is revealed by election results and polling data. That means that "public opinion" is crucially a function of the menus of options that the electoral system or pollsters put before the public.  So if it's more volatile than it used to be, that's more likely to be a matter of changing menus than changes in the voters’ psyches.

Consider in this connection David Paul Kuhn’s suggestion that political volatility is mostly a function of the weakening of the establishments that used to control the political parties:
“Politics has moved from top-down to bottom-up. The liberal netroots of 2006 was a harbinger of the larger and more influential tea party movement. Both capture our new politics: where power is more fleeting, where politics is increasingly de-centralized and influence more democratized. The tail easily wags the dog in modern politics.  . .

“Technology was the tipping point. The Internet does not mean people feed politics. But fundraising is now no longer the province of big money alone. Campaign communication can now be cheaply sent online. Digital cameras, YouTube, have made producing advertising cheap. And like all advertising, political marketing is now increasingly micro-targeted. Minority ideological coalitions can now rapidly unite and influence the party as a whole through online social networking (see MoveOn or Tea Party Express).”
I don’t know how well Kuhn’s theory stands up against a systematic encounter with the facts. But I suspect that its institutional form puts him on the right track when it comes to explaining the increase in political volatility. Party establishments (acting in league with labor unions, business groups and professional associations) used to enjoy a near monopoly over the means of political organization. That meant that, over substantial stretches of time, the same people (or different people with roughly the same institutional interests) were putting the menu of political options before the voting public. Under those conditions, you’d expect the distribution of revealed preferences among the electorate to be relatively stable, until insurgents, like the Reaganites in 1980 or the McGovernites in 1972, installed themselves as a new party establishment with a new political agenda.

Technology has swept away the barriers to entry keeping new menu-setting players out of the political market. That means that the political menus presented to the base of each party, and by each party to the general electorate, will change more rapidly between elections than ever before. The revealed preferences of the electorate are bound to change along with them.

People on the losing side of the latest shift in public opinion console themselves with the thought that political volatility is superficial.  They tell themselves that, underneath the political surfaces on which political skirmishes and mid-term elections take place, the bedrock values of the electorate remain relatively stable. So today’s political losers figure that, if they can just hold their ground through some tough times, the political pendulum is bound to swing back in their direction. (See this Peter Beinart post for a lucid expression of this view.) They’re betting that voters’ core values are the ballast that keeps the ship of state sailing in a tolerable direction through the ephemeral political storms generated by the last news cycle.

Someone should remind them that no one has ever seen, or could see, that ballast for themselves.


Dave said...

Did the public really change its mind about the Obama agenda? You suggest that because "Obama got more votes than any Democratic presidential candidate since LBJ" that this means the public supported his *agenda* in 2008. But people tend to vote on much more than agenda. Among other things, voters base their decisions on:

1. The Who (the person's character, intelligence, experience, leadership ability, proven competence, charisma)

2. The What (their agenda: what are their stated priorities when taking office)

3. The How (their policies: e.g. how will they reform health care, how will they resolve the banking crisis)

Rightly or wrongly, many voters have little knowledge, understanding, or interest in agenda, and even less so in policy (and many candidates pointedly avoid giving policy specifics, as any given policy tends to be less popular than an undefined alternative). And I expect that in presidential elections, there is far greater emphasis on the Who -- the broader voter turnout alone pretty much ensures this (if we assume that the incremental voters are less wonkish). Similarly, I would suspect that Independents place more emphasis on the Who as well (relative to party loyalists, they'd almost have to).

But most relevant, the election of Barack Obama went far beyond your typical election in its emphasis on the Who. Let's face it, Obama is (or at least was in 2008) crazy charismatic. He was inspirational. He sent a tingle up our leg. And his potential to be the first black president was thrilling to many. (Meanwhile, candidate McCain had lost whatever charisma he once had, and was painted as a retread of the uncharismatic Bush.) I would wager that Obama's voters put more relative weight on their belief in the man himself -- as opposed to his agenda or policies -- than any other president in history.

(Again, as one point of evidence I'd point to the huge turnout in Obama's election, including normally disengaged voters. I seriously doubt these disengaged voters had stayed away from the polls prior to 2008 because they were waiting for the right agenda to be presented. They turned out because Obama, the man, excited them.)

Was Obama's agenda popular in 2008? Maybe. But his vote count doesn't directly imply that, and the nature of his campaign and the makeup of his voter base make that correlation weaker than usual. And given a choice between two hypotheses -- (1) the public radically changed their mind about politics in only two years, or (2) the public voted for the man, then found that they don't like his politics --to me, the latter feels more plausible.

Ron Replogle said...

Dave: Great comment. But it seems to me that your explanatory option (2) is subject to a pretty substantial objection: why would the people that were disengaged enough to vote for Obama because they didn't understand or care about his agenda suddenly get engaged enough to reject Obama because of his agenda? That doesn't sound psychologically plausible to me. And how would you explain that something similar to what's happening to Obama happened to George Bush? He won a pretty substantial victory in 2004 only to see popular support for his agenda (partial privatization of social security, making the tax cuts permanent, etc.) evaporate by the end of the first year of his second term. It wasn't that the people who'd voted for him in '04 were blinded by his charisma.

Anonymous said...

How about this as an explanation -- people don't really know what they want. A presidential vote can be just as much a vote against someone as it is for the other. A lot of people voted for Obama because he wasn't McCain. It doesn't necessarily mean people all wanted what he promised. It was so ethereal -- that hopey, changey thing. When people woke up after the inauguration, and realized they got what they asked for, they might have said to themselves, oh no, be careful what you wish for. There have been no checks and balances, with both houses of Congress in his pocket. It's scary to many to see how sweeping changes can go through without people even reading the bills. I like all your explanations, and Dave's too, but maybe it is just as simple as getting what you wished for, and wished you didn't.

KenB said...

My impression was that the drop in post-election popularity for new-ish politicians is par for the course -- prior to the election, they can be vague and try to appeal to both partisans and moderates, but once they're in office, they're forced to make specific decisions that will inevitably put off some faction of their electoral supporters. I definitely see this dynamic with Obama, although I'm too lazy at the moment to go find some specific examples.

Dave said...

I would like to meet those people who were blinded by W's charisma in 2004! :) And you raise a strong objection.

I think Anonymous gets at the same point (much more succinctly) that I was trying to. People vote from their gut, and they're subject to a lot of wishful thinking about what they're going to get. Call me a cynic, but I guess I just have less faith that votes, especially in presidential elections, represent policy mandates.

Example: "Kerry was a flip-flopper." "Bush kept us safe." How many average Americans in 2004 were casting a vote in favor of privatization of social security? How much of his later unpopularity was due to his attempt to make the tax cuts permanent?

Anonymous said...

I think this post and all of the comments lead me to one strong belief, which is an answer to a previous post on this blog: Can Palin win the Republican nomination? I think it is entirely possible. I agree that people vote from their gut. To me, this explains both Obama's election and his nosediving popularity, and the possibility that Palin could win. I saw a poll result today that said something like 35% of Americans would rather have Bush back in office today. If that's not your gut talking, I don't know what is.