Do the People Have a Choice?

A voter in Zimbabwe’s rigged elections, 2008 (Reuters)

Jay Nordlinger, in a post entitled “We the People” (including quotation marks), argues that this election is finally placing a clear choice before the American people:

For some Republicans, it is never the people’s fault. I’ll tell you what I mean: If the Republican nominee loses, it’s always because he ran a lousy campaign. Couldn’t communicate. Made tactical blunders. Etc. I say, the electorate always has a clear enough choice. Sufficient information. . . . This year, the electorate has a very clear choice, not least when it comes to economics. . . . You can’t force people to save themselves, or their country. If they don’t want to — they don’t want to. In a democracy, people get what they deserve (or at least a majority does). Republicans often say, “The Left controls education from kindergarten to grad school. They dominate the movie industry. The news media. Entertainment television. Popular music. Everything except talk radio!” Okay — and if you think that, do you have any right to be surprised when the people vote Democrat? The 2012 election, I think, is not so much a test of Obama or Romney as a test of the people. There is a clear choice, with two very different candidates, each an excellent exponent of his view. Whatever the outcome of the election, the people will be responsible for that outcome.

I affirm Nordlinger’s urgent desire to remind us that voters have real agency. There is a disturbing trend among some social scientists to dismiss elections as mere legitimizing rituals that have very little impact on the behavior of the state. That theory doesn’t survive an encounter with the facts. Just to take the single clearest example, the elections of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan were indispensable to western victory in the Cold War.

Yet Nordlinger’s understanding of what elections are and how they work is inadequate. This, too, would not survive an encounter with the facts. Indeed, I think it is precisely in reaction against this sort of oversimplication that some social scientists overreact into the opposite oversimplification.

If I recall from my grad school days correctly, research finds that over 80% of voters (something in the lower 40s for each party) form a party preference early in life and vote for that party with few changes throughout life. You can explain that in terms of good behavior – people figure out early what their basic values, principles and aspirations are, and identify with the party that represents those; or you can explain it in terms of bad behavior – voters form party allegiances for essentially non-rational reasons and then rationalize their votes based on whatever arguments their parties supply. What I think you cannot do is attribute all agency and therefore all responsibility to the voters. Regardless of how much you see the stability of party preference as the result of good or bad behavior, their partisan consistency reflects the reality that what choices the electorate is presented with when it goes to vote is largely determined by forces outside the electorate’s control. For example, the electorate did not vote to change the economic direction of the country in 2008 partly because that option was not on the ballot.

The other forces constraining the electorate’s responsibility fall into roughly two big classifications, both of which are dismissed by Nordlinger. One is the choices of the parties and campaigns themselves. The other is the ability of non-electoral cultural institutions (“education from kindergarten to grad school . . . the movie industry. The news media. Entertainment television. Popular music.”) to control how we describe our reality and thus to control what options are within the bounds of socially defined legitimacy.

But setting aside the claim that the electorate is always responsible, periodically we get elections, like Thatcher and Reagan, where the electorate is really in the driver’s seat. When it comes to 2012 I think Nordlinger’s point is well taken. Here we really do have “a clear choice, with two very different candidates, each an excellent exponent of his view.”

Take a look at that woman voting in a sham election in Zimbabwe and be thankful we really do have the right to choose our rulers.

13 Thoughts.

  1. Greg, perhaps you could clarify something for me. Are you saying that an elector’s responsibility can be limited because (a) he lacks sufficient information to inform him of what the candidate will likely do if elected, (b) candidates do not (and as a practical matter, cannot) describe their position on every conceivable issue that may arise in the course of their term of office, and therefore the responsibility for those undisclosed positions should not be laid at the electorate’s feet, or (c) outside forces (acting through cultural institutions) create an insurmountable barrier to an elector’s ability to make an unfettered decision of his own? Or perhaps all three?

    • What I mean when I say that the voter’s responsibility or agency is limited should probably be clarified. I do not mean that the voter is not fully responsible for doing his best to discern what the right vote would be, and then casting it. I mean that the voter is not fully responsible for the subsequent behavior of the state between elections. The question is not, “to what extent can a voter be blamed for casting a vote badly”? The answer to that is “100%.” The question here is, “to what extent is there a relationship between how voters vote and what the state does between elections?” The answer to that is not 100%. Nordlinger doesn’t exactly say that it is 100%, but he seems to be saying it’s always a relatively high number, whereas I would say in most years it’s a relatively low number (probably below 50%) even if, in 2012, it does seem likely to be an unusually high number.

      So! All that having been said, if you are asking me what factors prevent voters from normally exercising a high degree of control over the behavior of the state, I would say it’s all of them.

      Note with regard to (c) – I would clarify that parties and campaigns are themselves “cultural institutions” whose behavior constrains the voter. My post may have seemed to draw a hard distinction between politial institutions and “cultural” (i.e. reality-describing) institutions, but that was not my intention. The primary way in which the behavior of parties and campaigns constrains the voter is precisely their “cultural” (reality-describing) function.

      • Got it. I agree there is not a 100% correlation between the electorate’s expression of their will and the way the government acts until the next election. But I’m not sure why you score the correlation so low.

        Not every issue gets a thorough treatment in a campaign cycle. One might even say no issue gets a thorough treatment. But it is easy enough to discern the candidate’s basic philosophy and the general direction he intends to take the government.

        Thus, the question is one of comparison. We do not ask whether we knew candidate Obama would add over $5 trillion in new debt, use our money to bail out GM, speculate on Solyndra and others, and apologize to the world for pursuing our vital national interests. Instead, we ask whether we knew he would do this type of thing. That is to say, we ask whether we knew he would be government-centric in his approach to his role as President. And more specifically, we ask that question not in the abstract but in comparison to what we knew about his opponent.

        It was a matter of record, thoroughly known by anyone paying attention, that candidate Obama would pursue a strongly liberal agenda if he won, much more strongly liberal than McCain would have implemented. Now, it is certainly true that not every voter took the time to become well-informed before casting his vote, but for the sake of this discussion that is irrelevant. Ignorance of the law, as we say in the trade, is no excuse.

        So is the electorate directly and entirely responsible for the specific decision to spend over $700 billion on a so-called stimulus that had the utterly predictable effect of changing nothing? No. But are they directly and completely responsible for knowing that Obama was more likely to do that type of thing than McCain?

        Well, we have a saying in the law – actually, it’s more than a saying, it’s a principle of law we apply every day – that people are accountable for the reasonably foreseeable consequences of their actions. It was reasonably foreseeable, for anyone with eyes to read and ears to hear, that candidate Obama would do most of the types of things he has been doing over the last nearly four years, and at least that he would be more likely to do them than McCain. Consequently, the electorate is responsible for those decisions.

        But there are instances in which it would not be accurate to attribute responsibility for a decision to the electorate. For example, we are still at war in Afghanistan and we still hold detainees in Guantanamo Bay. Candidate Obama specifically campaigned against the latter, and pledged a swift and certain end to the former. And what’s more, those positions are what one would reasonably foresee him pursuing once in office. So we cannot accurately attribute responsibility for those actions to the electorate.

        Okay, so what does all this get us? If we are to come up with a “correlation of responsibility” number, I think we have to look at specific decisions and determine whether it is reasonable to conclude each decision was more consistent with what we knew about candidate Obama or, instead, candidate McCain. The resulting ratio would yield what we might call the “responsibility factor.” My guess is that the result would be pretty high – certainly well north of 50%.

      • I think (and I anticipate you would agree with me) that if elected, McCain would have implemented economic policies that were big-government oriented, but not as much so as Obama. The question, then, is how big a difference it would be.

        That depends on the metric you use. (First I haggled over definitions, now I haggle over metrics. You shall not ensnare me in any claim concrete enough to be easily refuted!) In terms of sheer dollar amounts, McCain would probably have been better than Obama by a fair margin. In terms of establishing government control over the economy, I’m not sure how much better off we’d be. McCain would not have enacted Obamacare. However, he would have enacted most of the draconian financial controls – it would probably be worse. Obama is much, much cozier with Wall Street than McCain. And he would have enacted other policies Obama hasn’t gotten, almost certainly starting with a really big environmental bill that would give EPA much greater arbitrary power over people’s lives. So in the end, I’m still not sure 2008 had a 50% impact on the growth of the state 2008-2012.

  2. You’ll not get out of this quite so easily. With every step towards generalization in describing governmental decisions, there is a correlative move to generalization in the electorate’s responsibility. Yes, McCain would have grown government too. But unless you can identify some specific McCain proposals that would have had the cumulative effect of increasing the size of government beyond what Obama has actually accomplished, I think we must conclude that Obama represented the “bigger government” option while McCain represented the “bigger, but not that much bigger” choice.

    Between those two, the electorate chose “bigger government” when they could have had something less. If, given the option, you choose a two-scoop over a 1-scoop chocolate ice-cream cone and the question is whether you dislike chocolate ice-cream, your choice says “no.” Well . . . .

    • Well, right – the blamability of the electorate, while not 100%, is not 0%. As I said before, the question comes back to how big the gap is. McCain’s environmental proposals would have expanded government control over society radically. As much as Obamacare? No, but in the same vicinity. Again, in dollar terms McCain would have been much better, but in terms of principles I don’t see the difference as huge.

      Here’s another way of putting it. George W. Bush was a big-government conservative. McCain was even more so. So whoever you voted for in 2008, you were voting to make the expansion of government even worse than it had been under Bush. Seen from that perspective, the difference between McCain and Obama doesn’t look as big.

      • You’re right that, in absolute terms, there would not have been a huge difference. But the amount of the difference is not the point. The point is the vector’s direction (don’t think of this sentence in mathematical terms, it won’t work).

        Given the option between large and not so large, the electorate chose large. If there had been a “tiny government” candidate, they would still have chosen large, but the difference between the two positions would have been more dramatic.

        The gap, therefore, is just a matter of appearance; it doesn’t actually convey any useful information. The only useful data is that the electorate wanted bigger government and it got it in spades. So the electorate is totally responsible in this situation for the effect of its vote.

        Now contrast that with the conclusion if McCain had won. There is no way of knowing if he would have won if he had advocated an even smaller role for the federal government, so we don’t know if the electorate (in this hypothetical) wanted McCain because they wanted a government of the size he advocated, or because they wanted smaller government and he was the only one who pointed that direction. In that circumstance you would have insufficient data to determine whether the electorate was effectively responsible for the growth in government.

        If we turn the perspective about entirely, and ask whether the electorate is responsible for not increasing government at a rate even greater than Obama, we would run into the same lack of data. Because there was no viable candidate advocating an even more extensive governmental role, we do not know whether Obama’s position was the best they could get, but would have chosen more if available.

        So if the question is whether the 2008 electorate wanted a larger and more invasive government (and is therefore completely responsible for choosing it), the answer is absolutely, unquestionably, 100% yes. That’s irrefutable just as a matter of logic. But if the question is whether they would prefer a government even more intrusive than the one they got, we don’t know because the election did not provide that data.

        Your analysis, however, works with respect to those issues that do not dominate a campaign. An election is a blunt instrument (an MC Hammer, perhaps?). Voters cannot use them to make fine calibrations on each of the issues the candidate advocates. You get him in whole or not at all. So it is not possible to tease out how much the electorate actually agrees with the victor on the lesser issues. Thus, we can legitimately reduce their responsibility by a probability factor (which would use the defining issue as a proxy for how likely the voters would be to agree with the issue under observation). But because the big issue generally flows from the same philosophy as the lesser issues, I think even when discounted by the probability factor the electorate’s responsibility is greater than 50%.

      • No, I think you’re shifting back to the question “how responsible is the voter for making the right choice?” On that, I agree the answer is 100%. But if the question is “how responsible is the voter for the mess we’re in?” I think the answer is well under 50%, because I think we’d be in a pretty big stinking mess at this point regardless of how the voters voted in 2008.

  3. Mmmmm, might have to agree to disagree on this one. When the elected do what the electors asked them to do, they are 100% responsible. It’s only when the elected do something that cannot be directly attributed to the electorate’s expressed will that we must speak in terms less than 100%.

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