To begin with: Molly Ball has a mostly excellent post arguing for the importance of Veepstakes. She points out that how a nominee goes about selecting a running mate really does tell us something about both the party and the person. Those are fair points!
I'd say that the danger of Veepstakes for the press is that there's a temptation to speculate endlessly about it. But, sure, reporting on any real news is a legitimate thing to do. And I absolutely agree that reporting on the campaign should not be restricted only to things that will likely affect the outcome. Overall, it's a good post, one that I solidly recommend.
However, I can't agree with one part of her argument:
Can we all declare a moratorium on the trope of pundits deciding what voters do and don't care about? It's condescending -- who are they to say what voters, the vast majority of whom they have never met, care about? It's based on a political-science fallacy -- just because voters are smart enough to base their final judgments on policy fundamentals rather than relative trivia doesn't mean they don't welcome a wide range of information.This is going to lead me into two topics, both difficult (well, three if you include the notion that there's a "political-science fallacy" about basing votes on important things...that's not exactly what political scientists say about individual voters).
The first is, basically, about the validity of survey research and other methods for studying voters. No, no one has met any more than a very tiny portion of the electorate. But that simply doesn't mean that we can learn a whole lot about how the electorate, in the aggregate, behaves. There's nothing condescending about drawing conclusions about aggregate populations from previous research, whether it's old election results or polling or other useful data. Just as there's nothing condescending about saying that traffic will pick up around 7 in the morning and then again at around 5 in the evening (or whatever rush hour is), or about saying that more people are going to go see the new Batman movie than the new Woody Allen. Nor is it condescending to say that people will do that regardless of the quality of those movies (not that I'm saying that the Woody Allen will be better than the Dark Knight conclusion!), and it's only slightly problematic to interpret that by saying that people don't care about movie quality in their choice about which movie to go see. Note, too, that it's really tricky to actually get some of this stuff right; note too that people can't be trusted to correctly report their own reasoning on these things (that is, people might say that they care mostly about movie quality, but in fact can be observed to go to whatever is playing at the closest theater, or always choose big franchise movies).
So that's the first problem.
The other isn't really a problem with Ball's item, but with something of a paradox that we need to acknowledge and deal with properly. This came up recently in the kerfuffle over conservatives and civil rights. When I said that Kevin Williamson's argument was "pernicious (because it attacks motives, and because it assumes a lack of agency on the part of most voters)," Williamson replied:
Jonathan Bernstein is closer to the truth when he writes that my argument “assumes a lack of agency on the part of most voters,” which is true — I think, in fact I know, that voters are in the aggregate ignorant and prone to making bad decisions.That's a non-sequitur.
It is true that "voters are in the aggregate ignorant." But that has nothing whatsoever to do with whether they have the ability to make choices and act on them, regardless of and separately from the larger influences that are acting on them. Or, perhaps, I should write that in the singular: no matter what larger influences can be used to explain any individual voter's choices, he or she is still free to act.
This turns to be a fairly important point. It's a subject that Hannah Arendt wrote about long ago when she presented the contrast between "behavior" and action, in which behavior is defined as conforming to larger historical laws or trends (see The Human Condition, especially 41-45).
When we talk about politics, we need to somehow keep both things in mind, simultaneously. On the one hand, people do "behave" all the time, in theoretically perfectly predictable ways. I know that an overwhelming percentage of African American voters will support Barack Obama this November, and that an overwhelming percentage of LDS voters will back Mitt Romney, and there's nothing wrong with me "predicting" that, just as there's nothing wrong with predicting that Veepstakes isn't likely to affect voter choices. Just to emphasize (given what Williamson said), that has nothing at all to do with how well-informed or ignorant voters might be -- well-informed voters, overall, are somewhat more predictable than ignorant voters (because they're more likely to be solid partisans).
And yet. Action is always possible. Choice is always possible. Action, as Arendt argues, is as unpredictable as behavior is predictable. Of course it is not without influences, but it involves deliberate choice.
The trick is that we have to think about these things both ways, at once. Hubert Humphrey may have given his 1948 convention speech because he was a northern politician, and because of Cold War pressures, and because of the general sweep of the way that the Democrats emerged in Minnesota from the confused party structure that preceded their success. But he also made the choice to do it. He didn't have to. He might have chosen otherwise, and if so things could have developed differently. Strom Thurmond might, you know, have chosen to reconcile himself with civil rights then and there, but he didn't; yes, we can think of that decision in terms of his political situation or his upbringing, but it's also an individual choice he (and other Dixiecrats that year and later) made to walk out.
We can similarly examine the choices of other leaders, whether it's Martin Luther King or Thurgood Marshall or whoever. We can even extend this kind of of thinking to larger groups of people acting as individuals, such as those who chose to fight for or against civil rights. And, yes, if you step back far enough a lot of that is going to look like behavior, but it's important not to forget what else is or could be going on.
That is, we need a vocabulary which simultaneously speaks the truth about "behavior," about the way that large numbers of us can be described -- accurately! -- using statistical laws, while also allowing for action: the possibility that each of us, at all times, actually retains the capability of purposefully and deliberately doing what we wish. We are part of a large populations; we are individuals with choice; and we are also members of groups, with the capacity to affect and be affected by others within the group through action.
This is difficult to get right! I have said, and will continue to say, for example, something basically like: third parties have no chance in US politics and are therefore a huge mistake in most circumstances. Because, really, they don't have any chance. Except that there should always be an "if normal patterns hold" caveat on any such claims, because we're still talking about humans, and humans have the capacity for acting outside of their normal patterns. Individually, and through the influence of individuals, in groups, and eventually in large populations.
I'm not sure how to bring this to a close...perhaps this is a situation where it's hard to describe what would constitute getting things right or wrong. I guess what I'd say is that when we're talking about mass behavior -- large populations, to be sure made up of individuals, who nevertheless are behaving as masses -- then it's okay to use the language of mass behavior, but we should be careful not to overdo it. So in the case that Ball cites, I guess technically I'd agree that it's wrong to say that voters "don't care" about running mates, at least without specific polling to back that up...but perfectly reasonable to say that they won't vote based on the VP, even if we leave off the necessary caveat that they might after all. In the case of Williamson, what bothered me (and perhaps some of the others who raised the point) wasn't so much his comments about African American voters in bulk, but that he omitted from his narrative anything about action taken by African Americans, both by top-level elites or even by those who took part in demonstrations and protests and voter drives and the rest of it. It was what they did, as much or more than what white political leaders did, that eventually resulted in party realignment. They made choices; they did not simply behave. They acted, and action, as Arendt says, is "to set something in motion" (177): "The new always happens against he overwhelming odds of statistical laws and their probability, which for all practical, everyday purposes amounts to certainty" (178).
What I do strongly believe is that there's a lot at stake in whether our polity preserves the possibility of action, not just for presidents and others at the top of the system, but for as many people as possible. Even, audaciously, for every individual person. No one before the modern age believed such a thing was possible; the Greeks and Romans never imagined that everyone, and not just a select few, could be citizens and entitled to the possibility of political action (one might say no one before 1865, or 1920, or 1965, even in the US, but I think that's wrong; the principle if not the practice was there in my view from the start). More than that: I tend to believe that preserving, or more properly creating, the opportunity for action is the best justification for democracy...even if you know that most of the time, most of us are just going to be sheep. And from that, I think you can derive federalism, separate institutions sharing powers, strong, but permeable and not hierarchical parties, a relatively weak bureaucracy, and more.
Which I guess is the final point of why I found Williamson's original article so awful, outside of botching the history: the civil rights movement is one of the great instances of people breaking out of mass behavior to really begin something anew -- and Williamson didn't see it, either within the Democratic Party or in the civil rights movement. It is absolutely critical to recognize agency and action when they happen. Without that, democracy itself is, I'd say, hard to justify.