Thursday, July 14, 2011

"This Time It's Different" Talk

John Sides responds to me (and others) who said, in reaction to his earlier post about the electoral effects of a debt limit related economic cataclysm: yes, but maybe this will be different. You should read what John says (and, by the way, I basically agree with him about Bill Clinton and 1995/1996; that wasn't really part of my argument).

And then Joshua Tucker has a follow-up, in which he basically says what I meant to say in my post. Well, I think so, anyway. What I meant to say is only: there may -- may! -- be a point at which our standard models, which say that the president suffers from economic hard times full stop, do not fully apply. Tucker:
So let’s start at an extreme. If every Republican member of Congress went out and simultaneously tried to physically destroy an important facet of the US economic infrastructure (and admit it, this would make a great scene in a Bruce Willis movie), then I think that we would all agree that that time would be different.
That's, basically, all I wanted to say. But then, of course, we have to think about it. It doesn't really matter, presumably, whether GOP MCs actually try to physically undermine the economy; what matters is whether voters believe it. Moreover, I'm not actually prepared to go ahead and say it would definitely be different. Perhaps the outcome would be that people want to string up GOP MCs...and then, since the economy stinks, they wind up less likely to support Barack Obama in the next election, anyway.

In other words, I'm not confident that we know. I'm not confident that the stuff about bad weather and football (go to John's post) really applies to this case, because I'm not confident that it's a similar enough situation to anything in the past.

I'll put it another way. I agree with Nate Silver when he says that "There’s no especially appropriate precedent for the economy tanking by such an immediate and direct result of action (or inaction) in Washington." But I disagree with his previous sentence, which is that "Whatever else the 2012 election would be if the debt limit is not raised in a timely fashion, it would not be a normal case." On that, I think we can only say: maybe.

It is totally reasonable to be skeptical of "this time it's different" talk. Most of the time, I'm on John's side on that. There's always going to be some slightly new twist to almost any political phenomenon, and in most cases the new twists are a lot less important than the similarities. I'm just not certain that this case would fit that way.


  1. Silver is really doubling down against the political science research. Any response to that?

  2. I'm a Nate Silver fan in general. I do think, however, that he doesn't fully appreciate how much is out there -- that is, how much political scientists have learned about some of this stuff. I don't recall Nate ever referring to any election studies stuff other than the prediction models -- which are useful and interesting, but are hardly the sum total of all people have learned about voters and elections.

  3. Even if Obama pays the expected political price for shutdown-driven economic catastrophe, there may yet be a silver lining for him: as we live it, its fairly obvious that the Republicans are being intransigent, and Obama is doing everything in his considerable powers to drag them to the table.

    Anyone who has ever had to struggle with an irrational neighbor over an easement, anyone who has ever had to work way too hard with a council to get something seemingly simple accomplished, can relate to Obama's exasperation. His range of responses to this predicament pretty much makes him Joe Everyman.

    One of the subjective problems Obama was going to have in a re-election bid is an electorate that, no longer self-congratulatory with racial progressiveness, might turn an unnecessarily harsh eye toward him. I think his handling of this experience will cause a lot more people to identify with him, even if they tag him with the negative consequences.

    That identification with the masses could help Obama at the margins in 2012.

  4. This all supposes that the electorate, in general, pays any attention at all to the details of these matters.

  5. It should go without saying that a breakdown in the political system, simultaneously a breakdown in the economic system and arguably the social compact, would necessarily imply a breakdown, or at minimum the greatly reduced applicability, of conventional political science. It's typical that none of the people speculating about the effects of this greatly abnormal event on normal models actually believes that said event will occur.

    The one thing you can say for sure is that, in the wake of unchecked default of this type, "things would be different," though actually the the discussion is more circular than that. To ask the question at this point can only be to ask whether things already are "different."

    The general impression seems to be "not really, if maybe too close for comfort." Following from the above, that would imply that events seems to be tracing the outlines of a breakdown or rupture in the state, whether viewed in economic, political, or social dimensions (among others), but that we - like international investors or average Americans more concerned about the football or basketball lockouts (interesting symbolic parallels incidentally) generally remain confident that normalcy will be preserved: The sun will come up, and conventional political science models will still be relevant.

    In contrast to most of us, "different this time" is what "the debt" and related concerns already mean for the Tea Partiers and fellow travelers that most of us call crazy. If most of us also believed that things already were "different" in such a way, then, instead of speculating about the effects of this, that, or the other event on electoral outcomes, everything else being normal, we'd be viewing or attempting to act upon history on a different level - at least in that respect like the TPers, if perhaps attempting to apply some other revolutionary or at least re-aligning model.

  6. Since when do you call Members of Congress MCs? It sounds so British. Yet we do need something short, don't we?

  7. Heh. I wondered if I could just slip that one in. They've been Members of Congress since the 1980s at seems to me that they'll eventually be MCs (and I'm hardly the first one to use it), but it's taking forever to catch on, and I'm really not sure about it, yet.

  8. Bajsa has it right. We're talking about something Congress does more than a year before the election. The roughly 10% of the electorate who don't just always vote for the same party and will determine the outcome next November are not paying attention at all to what's going on right now. Sometime in September or October of 2012 these voters will assess the state of their own finances and those of people they know and begin to decide whether to re-elect Obama and their members of Congress or not. The legislative outcome of this debt limit confrontation will barely matter at that point.

  9. ASP: that little abbreviation is very popular in political science, if only because the average paper about Congress is going to use the term at least 30 times, and we're struggling to get under oppressive page limits as it is.

  10. Here is what is potentially different this time. Even Hibbs had a factor for war. There are some things are beyond politics and economics. What both sides have to worry about in hitting the debt ceiling scenario is being blamed for Grandma not getting her SS check. People do not forget stuff like that. Hard core partisans will blame the other side, but if the conventional wisdom takes hold that the Republicans caused the problem, they will pay at the ballot box.

  11. If a default hurts the economy somewhat, the laws of Political Science are likely to hold and Obama will be hurt.

    If a default hurts the economy a LOT all bets are off. Many will be hurt by a single identifiable action. Shaken out of their normal lives, they will decide who to blame.

    I don't know who they will blame, but deep enough pain is like war. It suspends the usual rules because it forces even apolitical people to take a stand.

    FDR remained popular even as horribly high unemployment persisted (and even worsened) because the sheer depth of the trauma touched so many who do not have a firm ideology to guide them. It shook them out of 'things are bad so we need a change' thinking.


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