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:
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.“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).”
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.