Thursday, April 11, 2013

Catch of the Day

To Mark Blumenthal and Emily Swanson, who recreate the classic "1975 Public Affairs Act" survey and find -- no surprise -- that lots of people are very willing to share their opinions about a fictional law when they get asked, and that they'll even fall into familiar partisan reactions if properly prompted about fictional political controversies.

It's a great item, and lots of fun.

I'll just add one important thing: those of us who are constantly harping on this stuff are not saying that voters are stupid. I don't believe that voters are stupid! Well, I suppose some of them,, really, I don't. It's all just about two things: knowing that most people don't pay a whole lot of attention to politics, and knowing that we shouldn't take polling results at face value -- especially when it concerns things that most people don't may much attention to.

Look: when people's immediate interests are affected and they get engaged in politics, they often are quite sensible about it. But for most of us, most of the time, that's not the case.

Now, I think a lot of people who ignore politics, a lot of people who cynically dismiss the possibility of effective political action, a lot of people who think that only big shots can make any difference...I think they would find not only that individuals can make a difference, but that they would really find a sense of meaning and fulfillment if they got involved (what the American founders called "public happiness"). And I'm with Machievelli, Arendt, and others, including in my view Madison, in believing that one of the real reasons to have a republic is to allow access to that sense to every single citizen.

But I'm also willing to accept the facts, which is that most people don't do that. And that's fine, too. Fortunately, it turns out that democracy works well enough even if most citizens do little more than vote and use shortcuts such as party even to do that. And there's nothing insulting or dismissive in accepting that they do that. Nor is there anything insulting or dismissive in realizing that people give survey answers which shouldn't be taken at face value because they barely pay attention to politics.

At any rate: great catch!


  1. Do you think that polls can be self fulfilling, not because of the people, but because of the way the media cover politics? I think that most journalists want to provide what they think of as objective reporting. If they see polls that say, for example, 90% of the country is in favor of universal background checks, that they will report more positively on the subject--or at least, more positively than if the polls said the number was 40%.

  2. I'm not sure this survey tells us all that much about voter involvement in political life. Before we draw conclusions about that issue, we must first eliminate the subset of respondents who just want to sound smart in response to a professional pollster. Not even smart to the pollster; smart in their own self-regard vis-a-vis the pollster.

    What percentage of the population is so inclined? The desire to have self-regard about one's own intelligence is a human universal, so the percentage would not be miniscule.

    Where am I going with this? When "don't know" was an option, only 4% of respondents expressed a (false) opinion in the first survey, and 15% in the second.

    Not sure about you, but my guess for the percentage of folks that would fabricate out of sheer preservation of self-regard was higher than 15%.

    So I'm not sure political acumen has anything to do with these findings.

    1. Well, sure, and perhaps I was being a little defensive here (or maybe just skipping steps of the argument) - basically, when I and other remind people that a lot of survey answers are artifacts of survey design plus the way people answer questions, we'll get a lot of responses saying that we're calling voters stupid.

      My guess is that regular readers here are less likely to have that response!

  3. Well, I'll say it: There are a lot of uninformed (stupid), people that vote in this country. The most recent phenomena of the Republican Tea Party is a prime example of the fact that people can be easily misled by professional marketing and hucksters. (See Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, Pat Robertson, etc.) When voting does take place, participation as a whole is not good, and a vocal minority can hold sway in the outcome. This, coupled with the effective gerrymandering in Republican districts has resulted in a majority of the House of Representatives being elected by a minority of the votes cast. How's that for a democracy? Then again, maybe it's me that is stupid.

    1. The casual way in which you equate uninformed with stupid is part of the problem. Information and intelligence are not the same thing (is a first grader stupid?). Moreover, it isn't quite accurate to say that right-wing Tea Party types are uninformed. Most of them are deeply engaged and interested in politics, and while many specific views of theirs may be based on distortions and misinformation, they aren't likely to be the ones who show up on those polls of Americans who can't name a single Supreme Court justice or which house of Congress is controlled by which party.

      Take Dr. Ben Carson, for example. Are you really going to call him stupid? Stupid about politics, sure, but that just goes to show what's wrong with applying a descriptor like "stupid," which is usually taken to suggest a person's overall intellect, not just on particular subjects. And he's not just some rare counterexample. I've known many people who are quite brilliant overall but who would sound like drooling morons if they chose to become political commentators.

      Where I part company with JB is in his insistence that "we" are not questioning the intelligence of respondents to polls like this. Who's "we"? He may not be questioning it, and I may not be, but in my experience there are an awful lot of liberals who use "stupid" as a catch-all term for a whole range of sins, from ignorance to incompetence to laziness, none of which necessarily has anything to do with a person's intelligence. They also reduce all intellect to politics.

    2. Perhaps my use of the terms stupid and uninformed, weren't the right choices. Willfully ignorant comes to mind now that I've had some time to think it over. I don't know how else to explain these people that are likely to know which party controls which house of Congress and can name a Supreme Court justice.


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