Thursday, June 21, 2012

On Voter Behavior, Action, Veepstakes, and Civil Rights

I'll warn you going in: this is going to be one of those meandering posts that sort of wanders around a bit to get where it's going. I think there are some really important issues here about politics and political science, but I'm going to get to them in a less direct way than I might.

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.


  1. I think this is where social scientists can learn something from the humanities, where there's a lot of attention to things like language and narrative and how they color our thinking. For instance, in this passage --

    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.

    -- the problem is that the word "they" is operating in two different ways. It is simultaneously being used to refer to lots of people as individuals (in which capacity "they" might well be interested in VPs), and also to refer to those individuals conceived as a group (which will, predictably, not vote based on VPs). A subtler language would give us two different pronouns in place of "they," but we're mostly stuck with languages that didn't evolve to capture such nuances.

    Another issue is differences in time scales. We're all familiar with how weather changes from day to day, while climate doesn't (though it does, worrisomely, change over longer -- or, increasingly, shorter -- periods). By analogy, one formulation I myself tried out in my early work was this: Cultures are stable at the level of years and decades, unstable at the level of generations and centuries. I'm not sure I'm happy with the way that's phrased, but the point it makes is that we can be quite sure (for example) how African-Americans will vote in any given year, or even over the next couple of election cycles, because there's a lot of stability in voting patterns over such short periods. But we could not have been sure that the Civil Rights Movement would arise in the mid-20th century or play out politically the way it did. Retrospectively, we can narrate any of these events in ways that make them appear to be (in Arendt's terms) action rather than behavior; but the same things that are actions in one time frame become behavior if we switch to another. Over the course of weeks, months and years, King and Humphrey and Thurmond all took actions. But part of why we remember those individuals and not others -- say, the group of Alabama clergymen who urged King to go slower, leading to his famous "Letter from the Birmingham Jail" -- is that King and Humphrey and Thurmond did things consistent with the larger movements of the time (civil rights and white backlash) that ended up politically "counting." In retrospect, knowing how it played out, we find King and Thurmond both commanding our attention in a way that Bishop George Murray or the Rev. Edward Ramage no longer do. It's a kind of Darwinian selection in which we focus on the people who spoke for the groups or movements that turned out to be the key players. Those larger groups were arguably just "behaving," but when we narrate, for example, the history of the 20th century, we can treat "them" ("the Civil Rights Movement," "southern whites," etc.) as single entities, which allows them to function in the narrative as if they were historical actors themselves.

    This problem of language, narrative, agency, etc. has been a big preoccupation in philosophy, literary studies, and to some degree history over the last hundred years, and particularly in the last 40 or so. But it's been recognized as a problem for much longer; you can find versions of it, for instance, in medieval scholastic debates over nominalism and realism. What I've just said barely scratches the surface of those discussions, but there it is FWIW.

  2. Really great stuff.

    And once again, quantum mechanics covers it:

    We are part of large populations (waves); we are individuals with choice (particles). Through choice, we can precipitate out from the wave; that movement can be perceived as a discrete event, and can be recorded as fact--as opposed to the probability that the wave represents. The nature of that event may be indistinguishable from all other nearby particles (so it looks like behavior), or it may stand out as rare, or singular (so it looks like an action). That action may or may not influence other elements of the wave to choose to precipitate out as particles, and act.

    1. Yeah, that's really good -- I knew there was an analogy with quantum particles, something better than climate and weather, but couldn't put my finger on it. (Downside of a humanities education, maybe). If I may borrow it to clarify something I said above, there's an additional quirk when we're talking about history and politics -- or maybe when talking about physical realities too -- namely our role as observers in defining what set of quantum fluctuations counts as an "event" for whatever purpose interests us and is motivating our observation. Particles are precipitating out from the wave all the time, but most of these we don't attend to; we treat them as random noise. The ones that seem to be "acting" and not just "behaving" are the ones we choose to attend to at a given moment.

      So for instance: There have been other people besides Martin Luther King who tried to found or lead politically important movements. But the ones that fail disappear back into the wave; if they're lucky, they get a Wikipedia page or something, but otherwise we forget about them. Or we remember them for some one spectacular act that comes to look like (at best) an anomaly. Timothy McVeigh, for instance, thought -- I guess -- that he was striking some great historical blow against government tyranny. But since all he actually did was kill random innocent people, his action has no real historical meaning. Of course, in prosecuting him for this, the government was rightly treating him as having acted, not just behaved; but in some ways he's more useful now for purposes of writing history if we study his behavior, i.e. how he was part of a (fortunately, still small) wave called "the militia movement" or "the paranoid right-wing fringe" or something. Conversely, there are enormous numbers of people who have been part of historical waves that now interest us, and so we want to recover what the people who were part of those movements were thinking. Social history does this, trying to reconstruct the daily lives and beliefs and decision-making of ordinary people/particles who happened to be part of the Civil Rights Movement or the industrial revolution or whatever.

      With someone like King, we have several options. We can look at him now as a particle leading the wave, as an examplar of the wave (a particle able to articulate why the other particles were moving as they did), as a "mere" particle bobbing along on even larger waves (the various forces that shaped southern African-Americans, black clergy, etc. by the mid-20th century), or as an interesting character in himself. We choose among those options depending on what we're interested in knowing. It's not that historical agency is changing or coming or going, it's that realities are perceptible only as constructions within language and story, and we always have a choice among possible stories.

    2. yes. that's fantastic, I was looking for a way to incorporate the observer. and you went much deeper. wonderful insights.

    3. All of this is good in the way of analogy. It's important to keep in mind Arendt's point that action cannot take place, or at least is nearly impossible, unless the institutional framework exists for it. Action is virtually impossible for a slave in Athens; it's virtually impossible for practically anyone in feudal Europe.

      And her fear -- a fear shared by Weber, and in one way or another by several other theorists of modernity -- is that action will again become impossible in a highly bureaucratized future. Or, perhaps, present, as what she called "the social" triumphs over the political.

      Now, Arendt is confusing and most likely confused on exactly what this is -- see Hanna Pitkin, Attack of the Blob. Without getting into that, however, I think the basic point is sound.

  3. Two quibbles.

    One: You have a "can" where I think you mean't "can't"

    ...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......

    The second quibble: the new Batman movie is very much likely to be of higher quality than any Woody Allen movie. This is both because Nolan is a good filmmaker and has done quite well with the franchise, and because Allen is so overrated as to be ridiculous. Wes Anderson is the modern incarnation of Woody Allen: movies that are funny in the previews, and simply not funny to watch. I realize that a number of people would disagree with me on both Anderson and Allen (and possibly Nolan), but I just couldn't keep quiet. I really, really hate Woody Allen movies.

    1. My expectations for The Dark Knight Rises are out of control. Basically, I'm expecting to have my mind blown. I've only seen one Woody Allen movie (Annie Hall, it was ok). But I'd be surprised if I thought any of his movies were better than any of Nolan's. That probably speaks just as much to how good Nolan is as it might to how overrated Allen is.

    2. I've had mixed reactions to Woody Allen's movies, but I've also had mixed reactions to Batman movies. I don't think there's any point in comparing them -- it's comparing apples and oranges. The fact that both happen to be sequences of projectible pictures on celluloid means about as much as the fact that this blog and and are both politically oriented websites. The medium is not the message, guys.

    3. OK, to clarify: I wasn't intending anything at all about whether the new Woody Allen will be better or worse (or even possible to compare to) the Dark Knight conclusion. Just talking box office.

      I will say that Jarvis is totally wrong about Woody Allen. First of all the "early, funny" movies (up through Love & Death) really are very funny. And while there's plenty of inconsistency (and I've rally tailed off; I think I've only seen one or two of his last dozen movies, so I can't really speak to those at all), there are really a large number of excellent movies at least up through that point -- just from the 1990s, I thought Sweet and Lowdown, Everybody Says..., Harry, Bullets, and Shadows and Fog were all excellent, with Sweet and Lowdown and Bullets both very safe recommendations.

      Hmmmm...only seen Annie Hall? What would a starter set of Woody Allen be? I'd probably go with either Bananas or Sleeper, Love and Death, Annie or Manhattan, Broadway Danny Rose or Purple Rose, Hannah, Radio Days, and Bullets.

    4. Probably depends on what aspect of Allen you think should be highlighted. In terms of his moral anxieties, I'd consider Crimes and Misdemeanors. But I, too, have missed most of his recent work, which is why I never wrote the book for which I had long ago already chosen the title: What Has the Universe Got To Do With It? The Films of Woody Allen. (The phrase is from Annie Hall.)

    5. Yeah...I'm not a huge fan of Crimes and Misdemeanors; I much prefer the Deconstructing Harry version of his angst (which you get in Bullets over Broadway, right?). Or, for that matter, the Love and Death version.

      I'm not sure why I've slacked off; given that I watched the recent Apes movie last night, I don't really have the excuse that I don't have time to watch movies.


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