Kazin Proxy Fight, Round Three

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JONATHAN CHAIT APRIL 29, 2011

Kazin Proxy Fight, Round Three

This is one of the tiresome blog debates you probably don't care about, but there's no space limit on the internet, so what the heck. Michael Kazin called independent voters largely irrational in their voting. John Sides replied that they're not irrational, they vote predictably on the basis of economic growth and peace. I replied that it is too irrational:

The point that it can be predicted doesn't make it rational. Short-term economic growth and military casualties are related to good governance, but only very, very vaguely. A poor economic manager may be presiding over a peak in the business cycle, or a good economic manager may simply have run into a recession beyond his control. That's very common. As for casualties, a president may be continuing a war he inherited, or fighting a necessary war.

Sides mostly agrees, but says:

Everyone rationalizes, not just independents. Partisans don't say "I voted for Candidate X just because he was my party's nominee." They will tell you all the other many reasons why they think they voted for this person -- the candidate's views on issues, the opponent's flaws, etc.

Well, sure. But partisans usually have coherent beliefs. At bottom they vote for Democrats because they want to protect abortion rights or they think Republicans only care about the rich, and they vote Republican because they don't want their money redistributed to freeloaders, or because they want a president who won't back down militarily. Then they tend to embrace a lot of silly reasons on top of that, taking partisan sides on issues on which they would happily reverse themselves if the show were on the other foot. But that doesn't make the vote itself irrational. The Wall Street Journal editorial page will forcefully decry recess appointments and fiercely defend independent counsels when the president is a Democrat, and take the reverse position when he's a Republican. Those arguments themselves are irrational. But the Journal's preference for Republicans is not itself irrational. They want what's good for the rich, and they'll defend politicians who share those goals.

Meanwhile, Jonathan Bernstein jumps in on Sides' side in a stronger way than Sides does:

Chait is correct that there's only a loose relationship between what politicians do and short-term results. But that doesn't make it irrational to reward good results and punish bad ones! Voters who do that provide extremely strong incentives for politicians to pursue good policy (that is, policy that tends to result in solid economic growth and peace, and avoids disasters such as Katrina).

Extremely strong incentives? I don't think so. The economy is cyclical, and the point in an economic cycle is a far stronger determinant of short-term growth than a president's economic management skills. Another way to put this is that every president has a mix of good economic quarters and bad ones. Which happens to be the case in the couple quarters leading up to an election is largely random. Voting on economic growth in the couple quarters leading up to the election isn't completely irrational -- it's better than flipping a coin -- but it's less rational than, say, forming some opinion about the proper role of government.

As for wars, that's less random than the economy. But it's not a good measure. Some wars are good! Franklin Roosevelt was taking a lot of casualties in 1944, but I happen to think that reflected well on him as a president. Sometimes presidents are involved in wars because their predecessor started it. At best this is a very crude way to figure out if the incumbent is doing well.

And, in any case, voting on the basis of recent economic growth while convincing yourself you're voting for some completely unrelated reason is almost by definition irrational. That's a point Kazin can make without considering the rationality of partisan voters. The culture places immense value upon non-partisanship, which is seen as evidence of discernment, and frowns upon partisan voting. That's probably why so many people call themselves independent even when they vote like partisans. Kazin was pushing back on that sensibility, and I think he's right.

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posted in: jonathan chait, john sides, michael kazin

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