« The State of Play on S-CHIP | Main | LOLCats r In ur magazine, taking ur column inches »

July 26, 2007

The Rationalizing Voter

Political science paper discussion time! Woo! I was saving string on the Bartels/Achen paper (pdf) on how voters rationalize their decisions, but I decided to do my column on S-CHIP instead, so lets talk through things a bit here.

There are basically three theories of how voters think about issues when casting their ballot for a candidate. The first is "policy-oriented voting," in which a voter examines the various candidates on offer and votes for the one whose policy proposals most closely match the voter's own preferences. The second is "persuasion," in which the voter alters their own opinions to more closely conform with those of the candidate or party they favor. And the last is "projection," in which voters convince themselves that the candidate or party they favor really does possess the same beliefs that they do.

Sadly, persuasion and projection are much more common than policy voting. Voters aren't stupid. They're just much more committed to political parties and candidates than they are to issues. And we're not talking about the faceless rubes in the hinterlands. The effects of partisan bias actually become stronger as a voter's level of political information rises. High information voters, then, are actually more likely to warp their opinions based on their political allegiances. An example of this comes with the trajectory of the budget deficit during Clinton's first term. Bartels and Achen write:

the views of Republicans and Democrats diverge as we move from the bottom to the middle of the distribution of political information; partisan inference seems to dominate throughout this range, since the widening gap owes at least as much to Republicans moving further from the objectively correct answer as to Democrats moving closer to it. The pull of objective reality only begins to become apparent among respondents near the top of the distribution of political information. Among the best-informed 10 or 20% of the public, even Republicans were slightly more likely to say that the deficit had decreased than that it had increased, and Democrats -- untroubled by any contradiction between the facts and their partisan expectations -- were very likely to recognize at least some decrease.

The self-deception of high information voters is not, I think, much of a victory. In a basic way, high information means that you take in a lot of information. When that happens, you begin to pick out guides to help you make sense of the torrent of data and facts This blog, say. Or David Brooks. Or George Will. Depending on the orientation of those guides, you'll see different facts emphasized and a general impression emerge. If that general impression is that "Bill Clinton is a bad president who doesn't know anything about the economy," your sense of the deficit will probably be that it increased, even if you've not actually been lied to on the subject. As a high information voter in other words, you know enough to seek out information sources who will validate your world view -- which can then deceive you.

Bartels and Achen thus conclude that "Most of the time, the voters are merely reaconfirming their partisan and group identities at the polls. They do not reason very much or very often. What they do is rationalize. Every election, they sound as though they were thinking, and they feel as if they were thinking, as do we all. The unwary scholarly devotee of democratic romanticism is thereby easily misled."

This is different than saying that voters are
irrational. Voters are quite rational. Indeed, asked about their political opinions, they tend to be quite consistent. When queried, in isolation, about policy matters, they tend to give reasonably well-informed answers that demonstrate impressive internal coherency. But come election time, that rationality is overridden by tribalism. So Achen and Bartels propose something of a distinction. It's not enough to merely have rational voters. You need civic competence, too. "Competence," they write, "requires not only logical consistency and cognitive efficiency, but also some modicum of accuracy in perception and receptiveness to new and, perhaps, disconfirming evidence." And that is what the voters simply don't demonstrate -- and nor do their guides, the hyper-high information pundits.

If you need evidence of how tribalism destroys a high-information citizen's person's receptiveness to contrary data and disconfirming evidence, you need look no further than the
current conservative frenzy over the statements of Private Scott Thomas Beauchamp. In this case, some very smart, very high-information pundits on the right have managed to convince themselves that a series of statements are false not because they have discovered any falsehoods, but because Beauchamp's tales from Iraq do not accord with their beliefs about the military. All the time spent fact-checking and arguing over the issue makes it look like the braying fact-checkers are thinking and studying -- and to a reader, all that fact-checking and arguing almost certainly looks credible -- but in fact all they are doing is rationalizing their preexisting opinions. They only look like they're thinking

July 26, 2007 | Permalink


Only problem with this whole entire theory is: the Bush' administration. They continue to operate issueless, and it is clear the Republicans intend, by viewing their debates, to win again in 2008 by going, as did George W. Bush', completely issueless.

The only cnadidate with worthwhile information on the issues, is Hillary Rodham Clinton. No one else, Democrat, or Republican, after viewing the debates, so far, even appears to know what an issue is. And, those anti-issues, election's free of issues, issueless values, types like George W. Bush', even mock her, in public, for her attempts to move discussions to issues.

The real issue, I'm sold on with regards to Senator Clinton, is her representation of her New York state constituency. She, has proven, her fiasco in congress while first lady, pursuing her own dream of nationwide, healthcare for all, regardless of ability to pay, has been proven, not to occur when shes an elected candidate. There, she represents her constituency, even if their wishes are contrary to hers. That's right, she will put aside her own views, and serve the interests of her constituency.

Which is why she is the only candidate running, I consider can even be president, she will represent the American people, even if we all want, other than what she does. And, this means, her ability, to demonstrate knowledge of issues, and what the actual issues are, will allow her to inform us, the American people of what we really face, so she can then pursue the course for this country, most Americans choose.

I hope to see you after 2008, back in an America; we can again call a democratic republic, with a president named, Hillary Rodham Clinton.


Mark Robert Gates

Please my blog:

Posted by: Mark Robert Gates | Jul 26, 2007 12:44:38 PM

not a bad synopsis. I was struggling through that paper last night, and you did about as good a job as I could imagine sorting out the basic premises of it.

And Mark,
what the hell are you talking about?

Posted by: Captain Goto | Jul 26, 2007 1:52:11 PM

1)"...you begin to pick out guides to help you make sense of the torrent of data and facts.."
2)"They're just much more committed to political parties and candidates than they are to issues."

The first is an advisor. One that you choose.
The second is a package. One which you may even have a
part in handling. It does the wrapping for you.

Both are just ways of ordering information. Which gets more important as you gather more of it.
Data flooding.

But to contort the information to make it fit your thesis or belief system is always wrong.
Whether the jiggering is conscious or naive.
One may even make it broadcast, but it is much worse as a self-deception which embeds, barb'd.
Usually into fear.

But none of this covers purposeful disinformation which
is just nasty fuc*king Goebbels/Rovian
(and some 'Advertising'-type) stuff.

Posted by: has_te | Jul 26, 2007 2:11:51 PM

so where does voting for the not quite as bad of choices fit? I guess that would be policy, but is that really reasonable when the policy only matches 1 in 5 areas and you don't project or presuade yourself.

Posted by: BillCross | Jul 26, 2007 2:44:36 PM

And Mark,
what the hell are you talking about?

Well, the odd amateur operative can pop up anywhere, and it seems like a fair number of HRC supporters are relative blog newbies anyway, having only gotten involved in this sphere because it's a longstanding weak spot of hers.

Posted by: latts | Jul 26, 2007 2:51:26 PM

There's nothing necessarily bad about persuasion (in the technical sense given here). Find a source you believe to be reliable relative to your values and beliefs, and listen, and you might well be persuaded. It can be rational or irrational.

The example of the yearly deficit the authors stress so much is poorly chosen. People have always confused the yearly deficit with the debt. They heard their favored sources complaining about the then still increasing debt and, I suspect, confused that with the deficit. Their confusion wasn't actually as material to their basic concern about spending at that stage of Clinton's term: the problem was still there and growing. The main disconnect was about whether any kind of progress was being made, which, in an important sense, it was, even if it was only progress in slowing the growth of the debt. A better example could have been chosen, I'm sure. That's not to say that there's nothing to the effect the authors posit, only that it's not so clear and undoubtedly doesn't have entirely the negative significance they give it.

But come election time, that rationality is overridden by tribalism.

I assume you take that to be irrational. Whether it is as much s it seems is debatable. It may be that, given the knowledge a typical voter has, tribalism better promotes his policy goals than what we think of as more rational analysis would. At least it may not be as irrational as it appears.

Some related thoughts: I think the authors overstate their case, but even without all the fancy mathematics the basic point that voters are moved by irrational factors is pretty plain. To expand my previous point, one interesting question that arises from this is whether their behavior is at all irrational in a broader sense that considers the opportunity costs of being well informed. This question can be approached from a collective angle by considering what this economy would be like if most voters spent as much time and effort informing themselves and trying to sort our politics at even the federal level (let alone local and state) as we do. There's a division of labor, of course, and tribalism can be understood partly within that context, with each tribe having its pundits that the tribe listens to. Is there a better system? Possibly there are tweaks that would improve things, but the basic structure may be the best available. The kind of tweaks that come to my mind are the ones I often raise here, about good will, good faith, not having double standards, etc, something the pundits ought to lead in. There arise further questions, then, about whether those tweaks would actually work, whether the untweaked wouldn't attract more power, for example. That discussion requires tweaking of the tweaks.

There's also the closely related question, following from the one Ezra raises about competence, under what conditions more knowledge and keener intellect lead to better beliefs. Competence in the sense of knowing and responding to facts isn't enough. There are usually experts on each side of an important controversy who know all the relevant uncontroversial facts known to the other side, who are aware of which of their own beliefs are controversial, and who take into account all of that. Yet they come to opposite conclusions. Again, I think the tweaks mentioned are in play here. Among other things, I think they would reveal more about how little we actually know in some cases where hard lines are drawn anyway. And they would lead to more flexibility on all sides, I expect. I harp on the importance of both sides so much because thinking they apply mainly to the other side is a pretty good sign that they aren't being applied properly.

Posted by: Sanpete | Jul 26, 2007 2:55:58 PM

While I don't disagree with this, I'd like to make a counterpoint. We live in a republic and most people have relatively little time to research issues. Voters do not and should not vote for people who will pass laws exactly as they want. Instead, people should vote for those who will act like them if they had the time and staff to research the issues.

In other words, tribalism and identity politics isn't quite as irrational as it seems. Unfortunately, it is easily abused by dishonest politicians who only pretend to be like those they represent.

Posted by: Mark | Jul 26, 2007 3:13:13 PM

Captain Goto:

And Mark,
what the hell are you talking about?
Maybe he's serving as an illustrative example of The Rationalizing Voter?

Posted by: Susan | Jul 27, 2007 11:56:07 AM

The comments to this entry are closed.