Halfassed: Ideology Framing Makes The Inevitable Overreading Of Elections A Threat To Democracy

 [Remember, “Halfassed” means I’m pressing the “Publish” button on one of the hundreds of half-done blog posts sitting in my drafts. The stuff about quoting me is jokes.]

From a critic at large in the New Yorker, on the occasion of Lawrence O’Donnell’s new book on the 1968 election: 



Americans tend to overread Presidential elections. It’s not that the results aren’t consequential. It matters which party, and which person in which party, is in the White House. The mistake is to interpret the election as an index of public opinion (itself something of a Platonic abstraction).

In close elections, such as those of 1960, 1968, and 1976, the vote is essentially the equivalent of flipping a coin. If the voting had happened a week earlier or a week later or on a rainy day, the outcome might have been reversed. But we interpret the result as though it reflected the national intention, a collective decision by the people to rally behind R., and repudiate D. Even when the winner receives fewer votes than the loser, as in 2000 and 2016, we talk about the national mood and direction almost entirely in terms of the winning candidate, and as though the person more voters preferred had vanished, his or her positions barely worth reporting on.

The winner-take-all interpretation of the 1968 election was that, with the defeat of Hubert Humphrey, the nation repudiated liberalism. The election supposedly marked the demise of an ideological consensus that had dominated national politics since Franklin Roosevelt’s election in 1932 and that made politically possible the use of government programs to remedy the inequities of free-market capitalism.

But did Humphrey lose because he was a liberal, or because he ran a tone-deaf campaign? “Here we are, the way politics ought to be in America, the politics of happiness, the politics of purpose, and the politics of joy,” he chirped in the speech in which he announced his candidacy. The date was April 27, 1968. Martin Luther King, Jr., had been assassinated three weeks before. It was a bizarre moment to introduce a phrase like “the politics of joy.” And although Johnson had just been forced to withdraw from the race by two candidates who opposed his Vietnam policy, Humphrey did not mention Vietnam in the speech.

Even after he had the nomination in hand, he seemed reluctant to dissociate himself from a policy with which the electorate had clearly lost patience. Yet the popular vote was surprisingly close. The margin was eight hundred thousand votes, seven-tenths of one per cent of the total. Some of the Democratic base did not turn out, and some Democrats—my mother was one—voted but did not check a box for President (another symbolic protest performed for a local audience). Humphrey got twelve million fewer votes than Johnson did in 1964, and he still nearly won a plurality. It’s hard to believe that twelve million people consciously embraced liberalism in 1964 and consciously rejected it four years later.

Then he quotes me without attribution: 

People who write and argue about politics are ideologues. They hold a coherent set of positions that they identify as liberal or conservative (or some variant, like libertarian or leftist). But, to millions of voters, those terms mean almost nothing. These voters do not think in ideological terms, and their positions on the issues are often inconsistent and lacking in coherence. Given the option, they will sometimes identify as moderates or centrists, but this tells us very little about how they will vote.

I have argued that the idea that politics in America takes place on a left-right spectrum is false. I have tried to point out that voters act not according to ideology, that is, "a system of ideas", but rather view the world through their identity and interests and therefore come up with a hodge-podge of policy preferences. Voters look to leaders with whom they identify, who they imagine have similar interests, for expertise in matters they are not overly familiar with. For voters, intellectual consistency simply does not play a role. Moreover, recent studies which purport to show that "conservatism" is genetically coded into certain personality types all suffer from a fatal flaw: they take people's self-identifcation as "conservative" at face value, even though polls show that the word has almost no consistent meaning.

Inside countries, politics is the fights between interests and identities. Rural whites want different stuff from urban multi-racial folks. Neither group has a system of ideas where, eg, "small town values like God and family" are systematically coherent with "govt shouldn't provide health care to poor black people."