Larry Bartels and Chris Achen have an instructive op-ed piece in NY Times today, although they get carried away a bit too far with their argument that voters don’t think and don’t care that much.
Bartels and Achen have been arguing for some time that policy responsiveness by the electorate is largely illusory: as they put it, it feels like voters are “thinking,” but in fact, are merely rationalizing. Actual decisions are made on relatively simple or even simplistic cues, especially partisan and group identities but policy specific reasons, if any, are tacked on as justifications post facto. In other words, tribal ties are what drives vote choices and no amount of triangulation in the policy realm can beat this out.
I think, to a large degree, Bartels and Achen are right, but are rather exaggerating the extent of “tribal” and “partisan” cues. Tribal cues are not exactly exogenous to party politics: parties operate by rewarding their own (and their friends) while excluding the outsiders. Nobody knows the entirety of the policy proposals on hand and even less the specifics of how such policy might be carried out in actual practice and the possible consequences. Even when they say they are deciding on the “substance” of policy, they are doing so on the basis of very limited facts that provide very little guidance on the actual practice. The rest, they do on hope and faith, that the non-policy specific clues that they can see, feel, and hear about the candidates provide enough information about the specifics that they cannot observe or evaluate on their own merits alone.
You might notice that I’ve said exactly this about epistemology of teaching science, as much as politics: when people say they believe creationism or evolution, they are not actually indicating how much they “know” but whether they find the advocates of either camp trustworthy given their background. Creationists are as knowledgeable as “evolutionists” about science facts, given comparable income and education levels, or, in other words, those who claim to be “believers” of evolution often turn out to be utterly ignorant of science. The problem is that the former find such folks as Richard Dawkins offensive and insulting, which Dawkins and his like continue to exacerbate through their overtly condescending attitude. In context of the 2016 election, the real determinant of support for Trump and Sanders alike among voters is the sense that they are not being served–which, in most cases, is unfortunately demonstrably true even if the voters themselves may not be able to describe in great detail how exactly they are not being served or prescribe what exactly they would like done instead. The Clintons, as the embodiment of the Democratic Party establishment, cannot easily command their trust by simply adopting some set of policy positions. Indeed, the voters don’t know what they really want themselves, other than they don’t like what they have and that they don’t trust those who currently hold power.
This is something that Trump, as the quintessential PR man, has an exquisite understanding thereof. Sanders, who, despite current reputation, has been a savvy electoral politician for a long time, likewise has a good understanding of the problem as well. The role of the politician, in dealing with the voters who are unhappy but lost in the sea of political complexities, is not to ask the voters what they want and berate them for not knowing–which, sadly, has been the modus operandus of too many politicians. The job of the politician is to win over the trust of the voters and then tell them, in a manner compatible with their understanding of how the world works, what they should want and why it is good for them. The politician is exactly manipulating the voter: the voter is ignorant, not stupid. The voter knows if he is being lectured, being sold a farcical bill of goods, or being baldly lied to. Blames need to be placed on those whom the voters would find plausbile. Solutions need to be spelt out in big broad outlines, consistent with the voters’ worldview, not in specifics nor in a complex spreadsheet. They need not be completely consistent in the particulars, as long as the big picture remains steady and constant. In all these endeavors, both Trump and Sanders have been remarkably effective in mobilizing slightly different, but partially overlapping subsets of disaffected, largely white (but not exclusively–for both) groups of voters.
Sanders’ failure, I think, is ultimately the product of the institutional status quo: the symbolism of Barack Obama limits his ability to draw on African-American voters–once again, the symbol trumps the substance, and the truth is, it is hardly obvious what exactly it is that African-American voters want in terms of policy, with the size of variance being what it is. At the same time, the distrust of the Clintons goes far beyond policy, although it may well be fueled by it–her policy “failures”–the Iraq War, Libya crisis, Wall Street and financial deregulation, free trade, etc.–are all as symbolic as substantive, indicating how far her world is from the disaffected voters. Just walking back from her positions would not help. As I said in my last post, she needs to go full “working class” in style if not substance. Perhaps the style would be more important at this stage, if she could pull it off with believable show of sincerity. Like George Burns supposedly said, if you could fake sincerity, you got it made: for good or ill, Bill Clinton used to be able to pull it off (and I mean it as a sincere compliment). Trump and Sanders have shown that they can, whether because they truly are sincere or they are that good at faking. I don’t think Hillary Clinton can.