Thursday, January 20, 2011

Hope Springs Eternal

Here’s Jonathan Chait trumpeting the latest example of “epistemic closure” in the conservative community, viz., the obliviousness of conservatives to polling data showing that ObamaCare isn’t nearly as unpopular, and ObamaCare repeal not nearly as popular, as they’d like to think:
“I've noticed that conservatives still reside in a world in which the public overwhelmingly wants to repeal the Affordable Care Act. The Weekly Standard writes, 'Reflecting the clear and strongly held views of the vast majority of Americans, the House has voted overwhelmingly to repeal ObamaCare.'"
Chait then directs our attention to a cross-section of reputable polls, none of which shows anything like a "vast majority" in favor of ObamaCare repeal and some of which show its distinct unpopularity.  The disparity between actual polling data and conservative incantations about the unpopularity of ObamaCare demonstrates, to Chait's satisfaction, that conservatives have an extraordinary capacity to insulate themselves from inconvenient facts.  Maybe so.  Under the circumstances, you can't blame liberals for hoping that conservatives urging ObamaCare repeal are in for an unpleasant surprise.

Chait's surely right, even after the last election, to keep his mind open to the possibility that the public is warming to ObamaCare over time. In politics, as in life, once improbable-looking things happen all the time. He's right, moreover, that there's a basis in publicly available polling data to keep liberal hopes in this connection alive.  But when it comes to laying your money down on political predictions, you have to ask yourself a question: what’s a more reliable measure of the state of politically relevant public opinion, the polling data Chait cites or the actual operation of the political process?

The answer, it seems to me, is a no-brainer. It’s not just that there’s reason to think that publicly available polling results aren’t a particularly reliable measure of "public opinion," inasmuch as they’re generated through the application of contestable polling methodologies by pollsters employed by media outlets that have an institutional interest in telling their audience things it wants to hear. The deeper problem with the polls in this connection is that the public opinion they measure is, at best, only indirectly relevant to what we really care about, viz., the future outputs of the political process.

The popular will that matters in politics isn’t something that, existing independently of the political process, is discoverable by pollsters interrogating a representative sample of individuals about the merits of discrete issues. It’s an artifact of the machinations of politicians trying to win the next election by acting in light of the last one. To that end, they fashion competing agendas that stand or fall in elections as a package.   That doesn’t mean that polling data on discrete issues is irrelevant to predictions about future legislative and political outcomes.  But even polling data about an issue that excites as intense voter reactions as ObamaCare is relevant mostly insofar as it affects the conduct of politicians (who presumably have a lot better polling data at their disposal than anything published by major media outlets).

So, if you ask me, the polling data Chait cites says a lot less about the political future than the way politicians are now putting their political chips on the table.  Two hundred and forty-two Republicans and 3 Democrats just voted in the House to repeal ObamaCare (compared to the 218 Democrats and one Republican who voted for it in the first place) and Harry Reid has gone on record saying that he won’t bring a repeal vote to the Senate floor. That means Republicans want to be seen voting for ObamaCare repeal and Democrats don’t want to be seen voting against it.  I wouldn't get my hopes up about the political future of ObamaCare until that changes.


Anonymous said...

I agree. When we see Democrats welcoming a vote on PPACA repeal, we'll know that the idea of public opinion is really turning.

Anonymous said...

Harry Reid is a dictator.

John Wayne said...

Ay, Carumba!

I live on a planet where the Republicans spent the last two years in continuous obstruction. Is Mitch McConnell a dictator too?

Anonymous said...

No, Mitch McConnell is not a dictator. Minority leaders can't be dictators. Only majority leaders can be dictators.