Democracy Is A Referendum On The Economy — This Is A Defense Of Democracy?
While I regularly disagree with Ezra Klein, I believe that honestly one of the main differences between him and many libertarians is that he still has faith in the political system. He’s smart, he understands incentives, he just refuses to take the next step and start understanding public choice theory and the malincentives rampant in the political sphere (or thinks they can be fixed).
Today, though, he went off the rails. Here is his defense of the political system, regarding political science’s understanding of it:
First, campaigns don’t matter as much as we think. I take that as a good thing: Democracy shouldn’t be overly reliant on whose political consultants are better at spinning the truth into advertisements and attack mailers.
Okay, here I partially agree with Ezra. Advertising is a distinct activity independent of the quality of what is being advertised. If Ezra’s argument was that voters are able to see through the spin and BS to understand the actual qualities of the candidate, I would consider that a great thing. Sadly, Ezra’s next three paragraphs explain that the advertising is not insignificant because voters see through it, but rather because they don’t make decisions on candidates or policy anyway.
Second, “elections writ large depend more on performance than on policy — that is, they depend more on how things are going (for which the incumbent party is on the hook) than on specific policies, bills, legislation, etc.” That’s a bit unfair to incumbents, who aren’t totally responsible for conditions, but it’s nevertheless a fairly decent way for voters to make decisions.
So you’re saying that voters don’t make decisions based upon candidates or policy, they make decisions on conditions like the economy and national conditions. When things are good, they keep the incumbent, and when things are bad, they throw the bums out. How can you possibly square this with the belief that any election is a mandate for policy? I.e. if voters threw the Republicans out of office due to the war and the economy in 2008, can you claim that the voters actually wanted the Democrats to enact healthcare reform?
The argument that Ezra is making is that voters are simple and driven by macro events, while Washington is driven by micro activity (bills, policies, etc). And the argument that voters are making decisions based upon overly-simplistic reasons is used as a defense of democracy?
Third is that voters don’t approach elections with strong views on policy issues. Instead, they look to the political leaders they already trust to tell them what their views should be. If President Romney had proposed ObamaCare before a mostly Republican Congress, it would’ve gotten an easy majority of Republicans — both in Congress and in the country — and almost zero Democrats. Party affiliation drives policy opinions, and not the other way around.
Okay, so the argument here is that Americans voters trust “the guy I’d like to have a beer with”, rather than actually knowing or caring about his policies. And that American voters are tribal and protect “their own”, whether it’s R or D. Further, rather than voting for what they believe, they wait for those in power to tell them what to believe, and vote accordingly.
And again, this is a defense of the system? If voters make their decisions based purely on trust and tribe, why in the world should their decision empower our leaders to do anything?
The political science take on elections is sometimes accused of being nihilistic, as if doubting the importance of campaigns is like quoting Nietzsche and dressing in black. In fact, it’s fairly optimistic: Elections are driven by the real state of the country, not the money candidates spend to advertise to voters. You could say that it would be better if people made their judgments based on the policy Congress was passing to change conditions rather than the conditions themselves, but when you really look into how people decide which policies they support, it’s actually not clear that a more policy-centric process would be an improvement. Conditions are what voters know best, and so it’s good that they rely on them.
Ahh, I see. So the argument isn’t that voters should make decisions based upon policy, because the argument is that voters are too stupid and easily-led to have any reasonable understanding of policy. Thus, they vote purely as a referendum on who’s in power, not whether replacing the group in power will result in better or worse policy.
Ezra clearly explains why democracy doesn’t work, while trying to defend democracy. When Ezra finally realizes this, he might just make a political switch.