Friday, October 08, 2010

Interesting At The NYT - But That Bias, Again

My uncle sent along this NYT article, which I reprint in full. Though if you'd rather read it there, it's here. My comments follow.

Voter Disgust Isn’t Only About Issues

KEANSBURG, N.J. — If you tune in to any of this week’s candidate debates around the country, or watch any of the ads that are beginning to dominate the airwaves, you will hear that next month’s midterm elections are about all the things you probably thought they were about: job losses and federal spending, the health care law and the Obama agenda.
And yet, if Democrats lose their grip on Congress in November, President Obama will become the third consecutive president to see his party tossed from power on his watch — a sequence that has never happened before in the country’s tumultuous political history. This suggests that however much the issues of the moment may seem to be defining these elections, there are some deeper forces at work, too.

A conversation among a group of independent voters in this working-class town may illuminate at least one such longer-term trend.

The fast growth in the number of independent voters — a broad category that includes those who choose not to register with a major party even though they tend to identify with one more than the other, as well as a lot who are skeptical of both — has been making American politics more volatile. According to a Pew Center poll a few weeks ago, the Republican advantage at the moment is mostly grounded in the party’s 13-point lead among independents, which is about the same margin by which those voters supported Democratic candidates in 2006 and Mr. Obama in 2008.

In other words, independent voters have tended to side with whichever party can legitimately claim not to be in charge at the moment, and ideology doesn’t have a whole lot to do with it.

This tends to make strategists in both parties insane, since they spend most of their time trying to draw out the contrasts between the two parties, and it seems to them that the least the voters could do is pick a side and stick with it.

Democratic and Republican pollsters try to understand these voters by trapping groups of them behind panels of two-way mirrors and asking them lots of multiple-choice questions about the parties and the issues. Whom do they trust to handle the economy? Who stands up more to the “special interests?” That kind of thing.

But three New York consultants who specialize in corporate marketing, taking on tasks like predicting the behavior of shoppers in supermarkets, have been experimenting with a different approach. The three — Jeff Levine, a pollster who has worked for Democratic candidates, and the marketing consultants Claire Tondreau and Christopher Brace — have been convening small groups of self-identified independent voters who are friends or relatives of one another for focus groups in a participant’s living room.

No campaign or client is sponsoring the research, and no one is looking to “move” the voters with slogans or ad scripts. In fact, very little, if anything, is even mentioned about partisan politics. Instead, the facilitator asks the half-dozen or so voters to invent their own countries and to compare their idealized versions with the country they actually live in.

The focus group that met here in New Jersey on Monday included a bartender, a lawyer and a school bus driver. The dominant theme of the discussion, in which jobs and taxes came up only in passing, seemed to be the larger breakdown of civil society — the disappearance of common courtesy, the relentless stream of data from digital devices, the proliferation of lawsuits and the insidious influence of media on their children.

One woman described a food fight at the middle school that left a mess school employees were obliged to clean up, presumably because the children couldn’t be subjected to physical labor. A man complained about drivers who had grown increasingly hostile and inconsiderate on the roads, which drew nods of assent all around. Another described the Internet as just plain “bad.”

The economy was discussed mostly in connection with these other stresses. “We all think that if we had a lot of money,” one woman said, “everything would slow down and we could enjoy ourselves.”

These voters did not hate politicians. They simply saw both parties, along with the news media and big business, as symptoms of the larger societal ailment. And this underlying perception, that politicians in Washington conduct themselves just as childishly and with the same lack of accountability as the students throwing chicken casserole in the lunchroom, may well be the principal emotion behind the electorate’s propensity to vote out whoever holds power.

Bill Clinton certainly thought so, which is why his rhetorical emphasis on personal responsibility resonated with many independent voters. But as president, Mr. Clinton immediately found himself pulled into polarizing debates (gays in the military, “Hillarycare,” and so on) that contributed to his party’s undoing in the 1994 midterm elections. The same thing ultimately happened to George W. Bush, who promised a return to civility and core values and ended up running a White House in which every issue, from war to welfare, was heavily politicized. Now the tide threatens to swamp Mr. Obama, whose stirring call to “put away childish things” seems 100 years in the past.

Modern presidents win elections by promising to reform Washington, to make it more ennobling and more responsive to Americans overwhelmed by the speed of change. But once they are elected, they find themselves sucked into the capital’s partisan culture, caught up in familiar debates while the people who supported them struggle with a growing sense of chaos. And so the voters rebel again.
Fascinating. The people doing the research absolutely get it, the guy Matt Bai doing the reporting, absolutely doesn't. He still has his narrative that he can't budge, and interprets even new and interesting data through it. Looking at his telling sentences: "Mr. Clinton immediately found himself pulled into polarizing debates (gays in the military, “Hillarycare,” and so on) that contributed to his party’s undoing in the 1994 midterm elections. The same thing ultimately happened to George W. Bush, who promised a return to civility and core values and ended up running a White House in which every issue, from war to welfare, was heavily politicized." Clinton was pulled into polarizing debates, but Bush was running a White House in which every issue was heavily politicized. Really? Hillarycare just happened to fall out of the sky and Clinton got dragged into it? He's a genteel reporter, doesn't carry blunt slogans on handmade posters at rallies - but the unmistakable thought he conveys is Republicans cause most of this division. It's Journalism 101 to notice this stuff - if one bothers to look. Also of note, he fails to mention that the Republicans gained seats on Bush's first midterm - didn't lose it until the second midterm. All part of the narrative that the Democrat's upcoming loss of seats is nothing big, it's the natural order of events. The last three administrations - and the administrations before that, that didn't lose midterm elections were...

As to the research he describes, I think they are very much onto something. People don't want others to suffer and so support a good deal of social support. But there is this ongoing idea that a lot of folks aren't pulling their weight, aren't doing what they could. Clinton talked about personal responsibility, and despite his own personal record, I think he largely believed in that. When Obama talks about working together, he is usually talking about working politically to pass his agenda. Big, big, difference. People respond to it, because I think pulling together is just something that politicians have discovered, that folks fasten on that, and don't tend to listen to the details.

Most Americans don't want a government that makes people do the right thing, they want people to do it on their own. The political divide comes when people don't do the right thing: do we make them, or do we resign ourselves to an imperfect world, keeping our freedom in it? The difference goes very deep philosophically, because liberals believe that humankind is mostly perfectible, can be improved if we just keep adjusting the environment, and then we won't have problems. So they come down heavily on the side of "let's make 'em do it," however disguised as incentives they propose it. It can sound inspiring, and give people a vision of great things that could happen if we would only set up a nice orderly system. But those who believe that mankind is fallen - that there will always be a lot of misbehavior, selfishness, and friction - tend to cry halt after a certain point. You can't fix everything. You make it worse when you try. Just set up a general framework that punishes the worst offenders - or lets them punish themselves - and let the rest go.


james said...

The loss of a common standard (sometimes of any standard) of courtesy is a huge problem.
I think of courtesy as an attenuated kind of love--unwritten rules to show the other that "you matter." Without that kind of glue it is hard to band together in any organization bigger than the clan.
Different cultures value different courtesies, which can cause a lot of ill-will until you learn about them, and perhaps even then.(*) That's bad enough, but the toxic opposition to courtesy we get under the name of "honesty" or "authenticity" provides a background of "I want mine and to hell with the rest." Not a lot of responsibility on view there, and not good encouragement for working for mutual defense or the common good.

(*)Come to think of it, does anybody remember being taught about other culture's courtesies in multi-cultural education? I don't remember seeing anything like that in my kid's educations; possibly because it would imply teaching about our culture's courtesies with an implicit expectation that kids should follow them. PC worry about offensiveness, yes; treat gaia nicely yes; positive courtesy no.

@nooil4pacifists said...

I agree that Matt Bai doesn't get it. Neither does Michael Tomasky in the (ultra-leftist) New York Review of Books, for the reasons that Pat Sajak (yes, that Pat Sajak) says.