Saturday, September 06, 2008

Politics as Popularity Contest

Many voters seem to worry more about the threat of "liberal elites" looking down on them* than about authoritarian elites skewing the economy in favour of the rich, pursuing a reckless foreign policy agenda that is more about macho posturing than ensuring peace, etc.

Now, if this were a high school popularity contest, maybe it would be understandable to vote for the dumb jock over the aloof valedictorian. (I think that would betray poor taste, but of course I would say that, given my cultural sympathies.) But this is a contest with real and significant consequences. So to let petty cultural resentment get in the way of actually making the world -- and one's own life -- better, seems grossly irresponsible to the point of perversity.

We shouldn't want a 'regular Joe', someone who seems "like us", to be president. We should want someone better than us, who might actually do the job well. Yet people talk as though being a member of the 'educated elite' is somehow a disqualification for the presidency. How backward is that?

* For what it's worth, I'm not sure there's actually much evidence that Democratic politicians (as opposed to a small subset of rank-and-file liberals like myself) are actually contemptuous of 'ordinary folks'. Republican politicians, on the other hand, seem happy to lie and manipulate voters into supporting them against all reason, which seems pretty contemptuous to me. (And, when you get right down to it, a major reason some of us subsequently think poorly of republican voters is precisely because they're stupid enough to fall for it.)

But forget the 'elitism' charge. Get over it. At the end of the day, it shouldn't matter who esteems who (and who merely pretends to). What matters is what they'll actually achieve.


  1. I wonder whether Republicans (or those who would vote for them) really do, in general, worry about "liberal elites" looking down upon them. This is part of one Republican narrative, but it strikes me as a much less influential narrative than others, e.g. Giulliani hit a chord when he charged the Democrats with being unwilling to even say the word "terrorism" let alone having the guts to confront it! The whole process is sickening and the more I watch the polls bounce just because McCain chose Palin as his running mate the more I realize that the election will not, in any significance measure, be decided by the issues. Why don't people care about policy? Maybe its just too boring or too difficult to get their heads around, or maybe they were never taught how to think critically about these issues. I don't know what the answer is, but I feel despondent.

  2. I'm not sure I agree with much of the argument in the post. We should want a regular Joe to be president; some of our best Presidents, Democrat and Republican, have been precisely that: regular Joes who got diverted into politics at some point. It makes perfect sense in a democracy to want to be governed by someone in some basic sense like oneself. It's reasonable for people to worry about the fact that McCain has so many houses he can't keep count and has never had to work a day in his life, for instance; it was similarly reasonable, in the past, for people to worry about any links between Kerry and Teresa Heinz's apparent cluelessness about people who did not have massive millions. People who worry about "liberal elites" don't think such people are really smarter (in any relevant way) than everyone else; they think that the "liberal elites" think themselves smarter but lack common sense and sympathy with the people they are governing, and are therefore extraordinarily dangerous if given power. And one has only to think of the Clintons to remember that Republicans don't have a monopoly on happy lying and manipulating.

    I do agree, though, that there is a danger in 'politics as popularity contest'. In principle, the Electoral College was supposed to minimize the influence of the "low arts of popularity," as Hamilton called them, but the past two hundred years has seen the increasing marginalization of the Electoral College in our election process and the swift inflation of the importance of extraconstitutional party systems, so that our current system has no serious safeguards whatsoever against it -- which means that any election will inevitably become precisely a popularity contest.

  3. Here in Brazil a given middle class, formed by a really small portion of the population, has a very peculiar way of looking at American politics (very, but very different from yours, which they would demonize).

    Imagine you that Bush is seem as too weak, since he would actually have to try to reach consensus with portions of the Democratic Party and with that liberal and rich elite from CFR.

    Anyway, that said, there is also an idea and a fear spread amongst these people about what would be a global government (and Obama is seem as a globalist, which might just destroy the USA, heh).

    I surely don't think Obama will do any of that, but I see the fiscal politics of Bush as just a way of cleaning the American government from the money of that very but very rich liberal elite, which by the way would be subsidizing the State, or literally buying it.

    There is a lot of fear spread in some right-wing portions of Brazil — they're not major in any sense, they're actually a small group of near a thousand people; but fear from what? Fear from "globalist" foundations as Ford and Rockfeller, both which fund left-wing academical research or even core leftist organizations as Forum Social Mundial, which clearly and undoubtely supports socialism.

    Maybe, to turn back to the point, the American people should fear liberal elites...

  4. Richard, it seems to me that you are contemptuous of voters because you consider manipulation to be contemptuous even though voters want to be manipulated. I don't consider argument aimed at you contemptuous even though you want to be argued to, but typical voters would see it as contemptuous to argue with them and as respectful to manipulate them (and the latter would be respectful of their preferences while the former would not).

    Anyway, if the experience of high school makes voters more afraid of aloof valedictorians looking down on them than of bad policy then maybe Democracy with general suffrage OR the involuntary "education" of the general populace can survive but not both as the latter creates so much resentment as to undermine the former.

  5. Michael, what do you mean when you say that voters want to be manipulated (not argued to) and consider this to be respectful of their preferences?

  6. Robin: no more partisan than the truth, I hope. Do you think I made any objectionable claims?

  7. Michael - I expect voters want to feel motivated or emotionally uplifted by a leader who will both promote good things and make them feel good about it. (I think Obama can do this at his best. But not, admittedly, when he starts harping on about the alleged evils of outsourcing, etc.)

    But I very much doubt that voters want to be lied or insincerely pandered to. (Maybe some would like to be sincerely pandered to, but I wonder whether that's just due to a lazy assumption that their prior views are correct, and does not really reflect their fundamental preferences.) I'm also skeptical that their preference would allow being manipulated to bad ends. Nobody's pining for Hitler. Or if they really are indifferent to the normative quality of their politics then I think that's even more contemptible, though for a different reason.

    'maybe Democracy with general suffrage OR the involuntary "education" of the general populace can survive but not both as the latter creates so much resentment as to undermine the former'

    That's an interesting suggestion. I do think we should be looking at institutional changes that could improve the quality of democracy, and education reform is surely right up there.

  8. Michael, I asked for a clarification or elucidation of a claim and your reply is "yes"?

  9. Sorry, I thought that you asked if that was what I meant. I mean that they don't have a concept of "justified belief". They are looking for politicians who make them feel X and don't have a concept that this feeling might be inappropriate or implicitly "wrong".

  10. Michael, I tend to agree with this. I don't know if its lack of the relevant concept that's to blame, but whatever the cause, most folks don't seem to respond reasons. But does that mean they want to be manipulated?


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