Thursday, July 7, 2011

Political Strategy of the Right: Counting on Voters Who Don't Pay Attention to Politics but Have Strong Opinions Anyway

So what is behind all the gridlock in Congress about raising the National Debt ceiling?  Why can't the men and women we elected and are paying quite handsomely come to an agreement to prevent the United States of America from defaulting on it's debt?  It might be related to the fact that Americans have stopped paying attention to politics for sometime now.  But they vote anyway because of strong opinions they have despite their ignorance of the political process and issues of the day. This year, the Republican Party is taking full advantage of that ignorance and betting that the worsening of our economy will be blamed on President Barack Obama and the Democrats.  Do you think they are going to win the Presidency in 2012 based on such a strategy?  NPR had an interesting story on this in their review of a 2007 book called The Myth of the Rational Voter: Why Democracies Choose Bad Policies.  In part, here is what NPR had to say about the author's theory:

As politically informed American citizens go, Bryan Caplan, an author and professor of economics at George Mason University, probably knows more about the issues than most people. He doesn't vote.
"For me, it's all too depressing," Caplan says. He's spent years studying the way voters are (or aren't) well informed about their government. He's also written a book, The Myth of the Rational Voter.
"If Republicans care about their party getting the presidency next year, it might be better for them if things don't improve," he says.
That's because, Caplan says, voters perform pretty poorly when it comes to assigning blame for political problems. Caplan's research has shown, for instance, that voters often blame the president and Congress for problems with education — not local and state governments, which actually control the schools. They also assign more blame for budget issues to the Federal Reserve than to the White House or Congress.
The problem, Caplan argues, isn't just that voters aren't paying attention to politics.
"If people who didn't know what they were talking about didn't pay attention, politicians could just focus on winning over people who actually know what the facts are," he says. "One of the main problems with democracy is that people who don't know what they're talking about still have opinions — very strong opinions. And they vote on them."
That means a bad economy — no matter who could be blamed for it — usually benefits the party out of power. Democrats learned that firsthand in 2008, Caplan says.
"John McCain, according to betting markets, was ahead in August — then everything tanked," he says. "It seems pretty clear that was good for Democrats."

If author Caplan is correct about the American voters being so disengaged in actually understanding the politics behind the budget gridlock, then the angry condemnations of President Obama in Right Wing Talk Radio, Fox News and negative Political Ads that we are daily immersed in will be the most important factor in voter motivation. It would seem the moral of this story is that if the Republicans want to win the White House in 2012, they should do nothing to help our economy get better.  Indeed, insuring the collapse of the nascient economic recovery from 8 years of Bush economic policies is what is most important to the Republican Party and their Tea Party backers in 2011 Debt Ceiling negotiations. 

No matter how much compromise is made by President Barack Obama and the Democrats, the Democrats will find that they cannot win over the Republican law makers if this political strategy is the prevailing meme.  Not everyone in the economic recovery life boat is rowing, indeed, there are quite a few dragging an anchor to stop economic recovery.  I can only hope that the American people are smarter and more engaged than Mr. Caplan postulates.  If the majority of American voters mentally sit this election out and either fail to vote -- or vote against their own interests -- our democracy is doomed. 

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