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Are American Voters Fools?


About a half century ago, noted political scientist V.O. Key published The Responsible Electorate, in which he huffed, “the perverse and unorthodox argument of this little book is that voters are not fools.” He was writing in response to the now-famous study by University of Michigan scholars, titled, The American Voter. Key believed the authors of that research unfairly disparaged what were then called “swing voters,” who in his view switched their votes according to rational considerations of their policy preferences. In short, switchers acted exactly the way aficionados of democracy prescribe: investigate, analyze, compare, decide, and vote!

Fair enough. For the moment, however, put aside these fabled political swingers—now referred to magnanimously as the independent voters that comprise perhaps a third of the electorate—and look at the rest of the electoral landscape. Reports from pollsters often reveal contradictory findings about masses of voters who spike our national political pulse every other November. What is a typical result? Call it electoral dyslexia, the sort that lurks beneath a person’s conscious thoughts and nudges them in directions that rational analysis rejects out of hand. Choose your metaphor, but there’s no satisfying way to explain the difference between a 10-percent approval rating for Congress as a whole and a 90-percent incumbency return rate.

Indeed, crunching a few numbers from our last election shows a kind of gaping political cognitive dissonance between our actions and professed beliefs, one that makes the Grand Canyon look like a prairie ditch. Let’s take just the House of Representatives, for example:

Republicans picked up 63 seats in the House in 2010, which gave them a majority, but which also comprised a little over 14 percent of the total number of seats up for grabs, which is 435. If today’s voters were as rational as Key’s switchers, they would consider the results of returning the same people to the House, election after election, and instead throw some 90 percent of the bums out. Of course, political scientists love to point out the importance of partisan stability over the course of decades, the effects of gerrymandering, the value of veteran legislators, and how even unpopular policies and congressmen garner 30 or 40 percent support. Perhaps voters should not be taken seriously on this question.

Still, it gets worse. Look at Scott Rasmussen’s March 2 essay, in which he reported that 77 percent of voters think the federal government should reduce the deficit. Now look at President Obama's unprecedented multi-trillion dollar deficits in light of his approval ratings, which hover in the high 40s, sometimes pushing into the low 50s. Anyone see a discrepancy here? True, voters have other matters on their minds besides the public debt, but the discrepancy is significant—and lets our spendthrift president off the hook (for now, at least).

Okay, then, let’s consider something that really does affect voters personally, the price of a gallon of gas. Again, pollsters report that by huge majorities, Americans prefer lower gas prices and are in favor of additional drilling in Alaska and offshore. Moreover, a majority of Americans are in favor of the Keystone pipeline, which would provide much-needed oil from a reliable source and which President Obama rejected last year. In fact, Democrats in Congress have largely run our energy policy since Jimmy Carter’s “malaise” speech, either through majorities or veto-proof minorities.

But in case one thinks that those who vote Democratic are mostly to blame for our nation’s excursions into political myopia, let’s cast our lamps on the Republican primaries. Many Republican primary voters say they are “uncomfortable” with their current frontrunner, Mitt Romney, and prefer instead the flavor of the month. One might rationally ask primary voters who question Romney’s conservatism just exactly what they are waiting for. If the issue in question is experience and electability, such enthusiasts should consider the last time Republicans short-circuited their reasoning processes and didn’t consider that a vote for an unlikely winner in November is a vote for his or her opponent: Barry Goldwater, anyone? Or, more dramatically, Teddy Roosevelt, 1912? In case you don’t remember, both candidates lost. Hugely.

Do these considerations, and many other disconnects between voters’ choices and public policy—affirmative action, national health care, and abortion come to mind—point to the conclusion that voters are fools? You decide. Or, think seriously about how elected officials regard those who put them in office. Do they think we’re mostly fools?

Perhaps this November’s election will provide the answer … which is another way of saying that I love my particular egghead but can’t stand the omelet mixture when you throw him or her in with the rest, scramble vigorously, and pour the results out in legislation.

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