The Prevailing Myth of American Politics
A bit of a rant, I expect.
A quote from an article about the midterms in James Joyner’s post, Democrats’ Messaging Challenges, hit me right between the eyes:
“It’s amazing that this is a competitive election at all,” he said.
And there it is: the fundamental misunderstanding that I often talk about. We, as a nation, seem to buy the mythology that these contests are utterly fair processes wherein the best team wins if they play their best.
Most seats are not competitive. They aren’t even contests.
Geography is more important than message in our system.
And yet politicians and the media pretend like there is level playing field and all that matters is strategy.
Plus: this is a midterm and the patterns for the party in the White House are pretty clear.
Plus: has anyone noticed that we are currently experiencing a generational-level event as it pertains to inflation? Does anyone really think that messaging will rescue the party in power from that?
I think all of this is a combination of a deluded self-image, denial, and the media.
I think our self-image of being the Greatest Country in the WorldTM (coupled with a general ignorance of the rest of the world) makes it very difficult to accept that we might have a problem.
I think that even if we start to see problems we deny they are as big as they are (or default to assuming that it seems like it used to work, so maybe it will all just correct itself). No one wants there to be a real problem, so denial is an easier route to take., Plus really understanding complex problems is hard!
I think that every election the media goes into full horserace mode and always makes the process sound like it is constantly a real contest (The Dems are gaining! The Reps have stumbled! Now the Reps have gained momentum! etc,) that it sure sounds like it is a competition.
Sure, people who pay attention know that the Senate probably comes down to a few states and the House is almost certainly going to the GOP (and there are a lot of people who have understood that that was the probable outcome since November of 2020).
But, the reality is, that’s not how political actors, and especially the media, talk about it so the casual observer thinks that the winner is the party that did the best job of convincing the voters, which is largely not what is happening.
I say that, by the way, not to lament a specific outcome, but because it is true. There simply isn’t a national competition for Congress and the vast majority of House seats are predestined. And the operative issues in the handful of competitive seats are as much influenced by geography and the campaign calendar as they are by messaging.
I am not saying that campaigns don’t matter at all, but I am saying they don’t matter as much as the narrative says that they do. And I am definitely saying we have got to stop talking like each election is a fair contest wherein the best team wins. We have got to understand that that is a myth.
(This was going to be a comment on that post, but it got out of hand).
Well ranted! Cogent and insightful. Thank you.
ETA: Though I’m not sure that geography is more important than message, geography is certainly at least equally important to message given that message will almost never beat geography all by itself. It usually needs some additional intervening force (an ephebophilic candidate on the other side in a special election, for example). But message sometimes pulls out amazing come from behind victories.
Until a couple weeks ago I didn’t even know there is a GOP challenger to my incumbent Democratic Congressman. I guess that tells you how that “race” is going to go.
Over to Marginal Revolution Tyler Cowen uses a piece by Paul Krugman on the electoral effect of high gas prices to argue Democrats have lost faith in democracy. As I commented there, more politely, the post is gobbledygook unless you accept an unstated assumption that “faith in democracy” = confidence it will always produce the outcomes I want. I didn’t bother pointing out all the undemocratic features of our system a good democrat, e.g. Dr. Taylor, might point out, nor all the threats by Rs to make it even less democratic.
@gVOR08: I will never forgive you for having to wade through all the other comments I had to wade through on that post to get to yours.
@Mikey: Sorry. MR us supposed to be a more intellectual blog, but comments aren’t much of a step up from Fox or Lucianne. Gawd. In any blog post I comment on you can always skip a lot of nonsense and go straight to the cream of the crop by text searching in your browser for my handle.
But parties acting effectively and convincing voters do matter at the margins, and those are the races that most media and political hobbyists focus on. It’s hard to argue that candidate quality is irrelevant in some key contests this cycle, for instance, just as it was a massive factor in 2016.
You can look at, for instance, the differences in the level of support for Warnock and Abrams in Georgia. Both of these are a state-wide contest, yet Warnock seems to have a non-trivial higher level of support.
I don’t see many people buying into that myth. Sure it’s true that geography matters, and I don’t think most people are ignorant of that. Many people seem to actually like it, which helps undergird political and ideological sorting.
And most people don’t think of fairness in the way you do. The elections are perfectly fair in terms of the rules and conditions under which they happen. People expect that a state or district that is solidly on one ideological side or the other will see that side win in a “fair” election because that side has the majority.
Depends on what you mean by “democracy.”
If it’s political outcomes, we can just poll the population to see what has clear majority support and implement those policies. There are many things that the US population wants, writ large, that is not supported by Republicans or Democrats. IOW both parties support things that are unpopular.
Alternatively, you can look at “democracy” as a process that is independent of outcomes and that is the way I look at it. The purpose isn’t primarily outcomes, it’s primarily about political stability and the peaceful transfer of political power.
WRT to gas prices, low prices are simply not compatible with other Democratic priorities:
– Sanctioning Russia
– Opposition to drilling/production/refining in the US
– Opposition to the Saudi government.
– Making fossil fuels more expensive to promote renewables
If those are your most important priorities, then the reality is that you have to accept the political cost of higher gas prices. TANSTAAFL.
I’ve been somewhat disengaged from OTB for the last few months due to a very busy work schedule. However,I realized that I have also disengaged from much of the political media during this time. It’s been healthy for me.
Over the last few days, I’ve thought long and hard about why….
I have realized that I no longer really care. And it was while talking to Michael Reynolds on the phone yesterday that I realized how little I don’t care any more. I said to Michael, “I don’t care any more. You have kids, so you have to care. But I don’t.” What I meant by that is that none of the current issues at play directly affect me – in any way.
Illegal Immigration? Nope.
Student Loan Debt? Nope.
Rising interest rates? Nope.
Climate change? Maybe, but I’m soon to be 63 so not really.
Crime? I supposedly in a hell hole called Los Angeles, yet I don’t have a working lock on my front door.
Homelessness? Nope. Doesn’t affect me at all.
I have been fighting for these things for other people for a long time, and I’ve realized too many of those people don’t want my help.
Granted, this is a very selfish way of looking at the current political situation, but when people like Kari Lake, Doug Mastriano, MTG, Jim Jordan, Steve Bannon, Michael Flynn, Matt Gaetz, can command such respect from the media and 45%+ of the population, it’s time for me to check out and just live my life and look out for me and my family. Because I cannot, and will not, make peace with people that are Trumpers. Easier for me to live in my silo, which I can easily do.
I think the Dems will hold on to the Senate, barely. I think the House will go to the GOP, and we will be in for investigations upon investigations.
The GOP has proven that they’re not interested in governing. The country will deserve what it gets if that’s what the people vote for.
The implication here is that the Greatest Country in the World has been bumbling along since the inception, and there is nothing particularly unusual about the present state of politics. Exception: the non-peaceful transfer was unusual, but that was a whole election cycle ago.
I’d add another obstacle to addressing our electoral problems – a whole lot of people who don’t think there’s a problem at all that elections are not fair contests wherein the best team wins. Of course, there are those on the team getting power due to the unfairness. Electoral inequities are a feature, not a bug, to those folks. And, of course, you have the blinkered who believe the elections are perfectly fair because they were supposedly designed to over-represent the minority.
Most Americans can’t even imagine an Unfree America. Like, the only possible image people have is the sort of freakish science fiction stuff from movies like Hunger Games or whatever.
But what i try to explain to people is that living in an Unfree nation is actually remarkably pleasant and normal…for most people.
Forget Nazi Germany or Stalinist Russia or Maoist China- those stand out because they were freakishly abnormal.
Think of the smaller East Bloc countries like Albania or Romania or Hungary. Think of the various Central American banana republics, or any of the Middle Eastern countries.
Americans routinely vacation and travel to places that are unfree, where there really is no functioning democracy or human rights. And yet, the hotels and tourist playgrounds function normally, and when you walk down the streets they just look like any normal street in any city.
And even here- when you walk down Main Street in Disneyland, you are walking through a re-imagined era in which the majority of Americans weren’t free and enjoyed few of the rights we take for granted. Yet, the Americans of the turn of the 19th/20th century prided themselves on living in a free democracy, even though it was semi-free at best.
If we live in the Trumpist world where roving bands of Proud Boys whip trans people for wearing the wrong loathing, or where elections are prearranged in advance, a lot of people won’t notice. The tee vee will show the same cop shows, the theaters will have the same movies, and all the coffee shops and malls will look and feel just as they do now.
This just summarizes an entire lifetime of commentary by our Dr. Taylor pretty perfectly.
First off, that’s really cool that you and Michael are talking in the real world.
Secondly, you’re not wrong, and that’s the attitude most people have. Prioritizing your particular circle of influence and concerns is what most people do, and there is zero wrong with that.
I like to debate national politics online, but most of my real-world work focuses on my community and my state. I can make a bigger difference there. I find that has been healthier for me, along with ignoring social media and its demand that I must care about the shiny outrage du jour.
@Mikey: Until I got the voters’ pamphlet, I didn’t realize that not only were my Republican state representatives running unopposed, so were all of the county office candidates except for the two races where the challengers will eventually become the office holders anyway (Sheriff and Coroner, btw)
@EddieInCA: Welcome to the club. I wish I could say you’ll enjoy it but we’re happy to have you just the same. I would agree with your list except on two points. On climate change I’m in the “doesn’t matter whether it matters or not since the horse has already (in my opinion) jumped the corral” camp. (First encountered for me in about 2009 reading an opinion piece in the Korean Herald from an environmentalist who even then said that the pressing question for the world is not how can we reverse climate change but rather what are we going to do for the people whose island homes are going to be underwater within a generation. Sadly, I see now that the answer is “Nothing! They shoulda picked better places to be born.”)
The other issue is homelessness. Yes. I agree that from an economic standpoint, I’ll probably not have to worry about physical homelessness (though I do live in an area I can be “priced out” of the rental market in), but at a metaphysical level, I’m just as homeless in the US as anyone living in a tent or under a bridge. If I didn’t have people (and only two at that) with whom I have relationships too valuable to abandon, I could pick a place to live using a map and a dart. It’s certainly the most first world of all the first world problems, but if the whackadoos burned the place down tomorrow, I’d miss none of it. And regret even less.
@Scott F.: I wouldn’t say that elections are perfectly fair to me, but I do think that the system was designed to overrepresent the minority from the outset. Then again, I also think that the founders had no idea whatsoever that the nation would eventually give the vote to everyone and they certainly didn’t think that everyone would include mongrels of part Irish and part Mediterranean extraction. [looks in mirror to check–nope only the name gives me away]
I don’t know, they’re kind of unpleasant to look at.
All other things being equal, I’d rather they were housed somewhere that wasn’t a tent city at the edge of a park. Somewhere nice, and humane. Maybe if we just built more housing, and changed zoning to allow more density.
I think housing costs are out of control in a lot of areas, and it’s going to get real ugly.
I also think Republicans have picked up on this, and any efforts to fix this will lead to many more cries about a war on the suburbs.
@gVOR08: “Over to Marginal Revolution Tyler Cowen ”
It’s amazing how many of these white, econo-libertarians in the end just turned out to be Republicans in bow ties.
Pretty much, I have the same feelings, though I do get behind efforts that I think I can push along. For instance, there are two proposals before the town that plan to build about 550 units of housing, a mix of single family, townhouses and apartments, with about 20% described as ‘affordable.’ For several reasons, I’m favoring this and letting folks know.
For the rest, if the young, middle aged and olds that have grand kids if they don’t care about the future of the country and the world… I’m getting old, I’m white, financially comfortable and likely have less than 20 years before I’m dust in a baggy, I can skate by on my privilege and make small differences when I can.
@EddieInCA: I am very sympathetic to this viewpoint, but am cursed with an outsized sense of fairness and justice.
I would take issue with the “directly affected” perspective though. When people in my community are hopeless, when they can’t get housing or healthcare, when they are destitute and without purpose or meaning in their lives, they make lousy employees – and even worse neighbors.
As a guy living off investments I care about having a productive and happy workforce, which is well-compensated and out spending their money so that I can make more money.
As a guy living in a VERY expensive city with America’s best weather, I want a national program to address homelessness so that other regions don’t just put their homeless on a bus to San Diego and forget about them. If we built low-income housing for homeless folks here, capitalism would eventually move your average grocery store worker into that housing while upper-middle-class folks from Wisconsin moved in to places they can now afford. And the homeless would be back out on the streets.
Even if these things don’t affect you, they affect your community – which in turn affects you directly.
That’s why I don’t get to have peace.
Planning to canvas Dem voters in redneck America this week. I suspect it’s a complete waste of time, but if we lose big and lose the America we love, I would always regret not going the last mile. I’m a veteran and simply can’t quit the fight. Damn the torpedoes and full speed ahead.
This x 100.
No disagreement, whatsoever.
And the history books will write, looking back at our time, that it was fait accompli for Democracy to end…because gas and eggs were expensive.
I think a lot, these days, of the men in those boats crossing the frozen river at Trenton and how disappointed they would be in us.