Friday, March 04, 2005

Political Bullshit and Market Failure

I'm reading The Myth of Democratic Failure by Donald Wittman. He argues, among other things, that voter ignorance isn't the problem we typically take it to be because, especially in a two party state, voters have to be only minimally informed to make the "correct" choice. It's not necessary for voters to know their elected officials voting records in detail, just that voters have a broad sense of what's happening. In particular, the elected official's opponents will be a good source of information about the important details.

This raises the question how did Bush win for we liberals like to use voter ignorance to explain it. In particular, we see Bush winning because he both lied about his positions and because he created an environment in which disagreements were not to be taken seriously, the obvious corrective mechanism in the political market.

We can imagine a candidates public pronouncements being largely bullshit (in the Frankfurt sense), then what happens with voter ignorance? Then the obvious corrective mechanism in the political market is for the Kerry campaign to point this out. Somehow in Wittman's model voters are supposed to come away with an accurate take on Bush's positions. But if one candidate is willing to spout bullshit, or lie, how does this happen?

I see several mechanisms:
- The statement is so obviously bullshit/a lie that voters know it to be so and react accordingly.
- Your well-informed friend tells you it's a lie, and you believe him.
- The other campaign is able to convince the public that it is a lie, and the public believes this other campaign.
- Experts say this is so, and the public believes it
- Similarly, reporters say it is so, and the public believes it.

Excepting the first and possibly the second, I'm convinced that you could see the 2004 election as proving that in some cases the other three mechanisms fail. The Kerry campaign was unable to shift the debate or the facts when it wanted to. And the Bush campaign managed to "pollute the waters" through talk of patriotism and through the broader right wing attack on universities such that experts were not to be trusted because of course that was unpatriotic or just so much partisan hackery (I'm thinking specifically of economic policy and the lack of weight the almost unanimous disapproval of Bush's economic policies by economists held). And reporters were either not to be trusted or wrote he said/she said stories.

If these mechanism fail, then what? This doesn't actually undermine Wittman's thesis, for you could see the same thing at play in economic markets with corporations lying about their products or themselves. But those things are regulated -- to a degree -- and because the interaction is repeated more times, it's easier to adjust behavior. Yet there aren't that many presidential elections. The issue here is that a market failure in the political market seems to have much more dramatic consequences than a market failure in the economic market. Sure maybe these things are temporary (but then how is it that views shift over time and issues are framed?), but temporarily much damage can be done.


Anonymous Dick Swift said...

Isaac... good reading...and a great subject.. Briefly, I believe that the Bushites, who were in command of talk radio for a decade or more and the additional popularity of the FOX gurus, used two mechanisms that were abetted by 9/11: they managed to connect any lie they wished to promote with "patrioism" and with "God".

They took any premise they wished and deemed it patriotic and/or pro-God.

Then, by unrelenting repetition, they made their case. Actually, by this method, they did not have to prove anything using logic. The repetition is tantamount to yelling or screaming to win an arguement. Totally irrational, but effective.

Democrats are too intelligent to play that game so they can lose.

One answer must be educating of the proletariot to recognize when they are being had by irrational republican zealots, especially those of the media.


5:26 PM  

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