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September 09, 2004

Not the fattest worm

The truth hurts, especially from Louis Menand:

If you look to the political professionals, the people whose job it is to know what makes the fish bite, it is clear that, in their view, political philosophy is not the fattest worm.

Menand's essay, The Unpolitical Animal reviews some major empirical findings in the the social science of public opinion. I'm warning you, it isn't prettty.

The essay casts doubt on the claim that the average voter has political beliefs. Maybe it's unfair to say that the average voter lacks political beliefs. Some will insist that the average voter has beliefs, just not the kind that are stable, well-supported by evidence, or mutually consistent. These are beliefs that flicker into existence when a pollster asks for an opinion but subside just as rapidly, leaving no behavioral residue. They shift shape depending on the phrasing of the question or the color of the interlocutors tie.

These ephemeral mental events wouldn't count as beliefs if their ostensible object were anything other than politics. Imagine a guy with a very tenuous conceptual grasp of weather-related issues. The weather just doesn't affect him in any predictable way. He's as likely to bundle up when it's cold as when it's hot. He's as likely to say that galoshes go with tank tops as with rain slickers. He opens his umbrella at random. When asked point blank, he will sometimes affirm that it is raining. Sometimes he's right. Every so often, he'll toss off phrases like "It's not the heat, it's the humidity," but he looks at you blankly if you ask him what he means. We would hesitate to say that this guy has any beliefs about weather at all.

Some social scientists think that the average voter has a lot more in common with the non-weather man than we'd like to think. Menard favors the semi-reassuring hypothesis that expert opinion is a crutch for people who lack beliefs of their own. The hope is that if they outsource their behavior to competent professionals, they can act as if they had coherent beliefs without all the epistemic hassle. Maybe our non-weather guy just needs a weatherman who knows which way the wind blows. For all we know, our non-weather guy might even have good reasons for trusting the CNN weather report over the Fox weather report. At the very least we ought to be able to predict what the non-weatherman will do by watching his preferred broadcast. Sadly, the data make even this metaphor seem overly optimistic.

Don't take my word for it. Read Menand's essay. Then ready Digby's post how these dismal facts apply to real campaigns.


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