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Are Voters Just Lemmings?

Legitimizing the belief that voters have no actual beliefs or preferences is not only intellectually sloppy—it’s politically dangerous.

In 2008, the political scientists Marty Cohen, David Karol, Hans Noel, and John Zaller released a book called The Party Decides: Presidential Nominations Before and After Reform. The basic argument is that, despite the ostensible democratic machinery of state primaries, party elites were the ones who really made the decisions. The authors showed that even after the presidential primary reforms in the late 60s and early 70s made the nomination process more reliant on voters, the candidate who collected the most endorsements from party grandees still ultimately locked up the nomination.

A semi-bastardized version of this argument quickly became conventional wisdom among the pundit class.1 Although The Party Decides itself contained extensive caveats and qualifications (especially concerning its minuscule sample size), the book came to be treated as all but ironclad proof that the voters had no say whatsoever in the selection of their party’s nominee.

Everybody adores a secondary headline

Hegel remarks somewhere that all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce. Caussidière for Danton, Louis Blanc for Robespierre, the Montagne of 1848 to 1851 for the Montagne of 1793 to 1795, the nephew for the uncle. And the same caricature occurs in the circumstances of the second edition of the Eighteenth Brumaire.

Naturally, we already have a tertiary headline

Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.

The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living. And just as they seem to be occupied with revolutionizing themselves and things, creating something that did not exist before, precisely in such epochs of revolutionary crisis they anxiously conjure up the spirits of the past to their service, borrowing from them names, battle slogans, and costumes in order to present this new scene in world history in time-honored disguise and borrowed language.

Thus Luther put on the mask of the Apostle Paul, the Revolution of 1789–1814 draped itself alternately in the guise of the Roman Republic and the Roman Empire, and the Revolution of 1848 knew nothing better to do than to parody, now 1789, now the revolutionary tradition of 1793–95.

Let us now consider the quarternary headline

In like manner, the beginner who has learned a new language always translates it back into his mother tongue, but he assimilates the spirit of the new language and expresses himself freely in it only when he moves in it without recalling the old and when he forgets his native tongue.

When we think about this conjuring up of the dead of world history, a salient difference reveals itself.

Camille Desmoulins, Danton, Robespierre, St. Just, Napoleon, the heroes as well as the parties and the masses of the old French Revolution, performed the task of their time—that of unchaining and establishing modern bourgeois society—in Roman costumes and with Roman phrases. The first one destroyed the feudal foundation and cut off the feudal heads that had grown on it. The other created inside France the only conditions under which free competition could be developed, parceled-out land properly used, and the unfettered productive power of the nation employed; and beyond the French borders it swept away feudal institutions everywhere, to provide, as far as necessary, bourgeois society in France with an appropriate up-to-date environment on the European continent.

And so we come to our quinary headline

Once the new social formation was established, the antediluvian colossi disappeared and with them also the resurrected Romanism—the Brutuses, the Gracchi, the publicolas, the tribunes, the senators, and Caesar himself. Bourgeois society in its sober reality bred its own true interpreters and spokesmen in the Says, Cousins, Royer-Collards, Benjamin Constants, and Guizots; its real military leaders sat behind the office desk and the hog-headed Louis XVIII was its political chief.

Entirely absorbed in the production of wealth and in peaceful competitive struggle, it no longer remembered that the ghosts of the Roman period had watched over its cradle.

Finally, we consider the uses of the Senary Headline

But unheroic though bourgeois society is, it nevertheless needed heroism, sacrifice, terror, civil war, and national wars to bring it into being. And in the austere classical traditions of the Roman Republic the bourgeois gladiators found the ideals and the art forms, the self-deceptions, that they needed to conceal from themselves the bourgeois-limited content of their struggles and to keep their passion on the high plane of great historic tragedy. Similarly, at another stage of development a century earlier, Cromwell and the English people had borrowed from the Old Testament the speech, emotions, and illusions for their bourgeois revolution. When the real goal had been achieved and the bourgeois transformation of English society had been accomplished, Locke supplanted Habakkuk.

Thus the awakening of the dead in those revolutions served the purpose of glorifying the new struggles, not of parodying the old; of magnifying the given task in the imagination, not recoiling from its solution in reality; of finding once more the spirit of revolution, not making its ghost walk again.

  • Clearly, it’s time to panic about What This Is Doing To The Discourse.
  • When Burger King tweeted, at the height of Milkshake Panic, that they were “selling milkshakes all weekend”
  • Definitely a sign that the multi-billion dollar company is committed to the principles of antifascism, and definitely not an attempt to use outrage as a cynical tool to shift product
  • People rushed out to say that the corporation was behaving irresponsibly.
  • Lots of journalists and sensible-looking people came out to say that no, spilling creamy beverages on people you find morally abhorrent is absolutely not the right way to do things. If we tolerate milkshakes, then what next? Pancakes? Meringues? (Sometimes meringues can be quite hard, if you overcook them.) David Frum called milkshaking a “symbolic assassination” that has no place in a healthy political culture.

When it comes to presidential primaries at least, The Voters Are Stupid. They might think they have some say in choosing their party’s nominee—said the wonks, nodding sagely to one another—but in reality, they were merely validating the pre-existing choices of the elite class.

Two books
I am an inline img who got automatically placed inside a stock WordPress figure/figcaption arrangement. As opposed to the image further down, who's just a standalone img element.

But by 2015, this consensus was melting like snow before a stream of hot urine, as Donald Trump contemptuously bulldozed the Republican establishment and locked up that party’s nomination. Indeed, not only did he casually brush aside unified opposition of nearly the entire Republican elite, but he did it despite having no formal political experience of any kind. It seemed the voters had some kind of a voice after all.

Two books

But this changed political context did not spell the end of the Stupid Voter narrative: It merely changed form. Whereas voters were previously deemed stupid because they had no influence on political outcomes, they were now deemed stupid because they had too much influence, influence that thwarted the wise and sensible aims of political elites who otherwise would have governed in the public interest.

Mike, the whole world is a circus if you look at it the right way. Every time you pick up a handful of dust, and see not the dust, but a mystery, a marvel, there in your hand, every time you stop and think, "I'm alive, and being alive is fantastic!" Every time such a thing happens, Mike, you are part of the Circus of Dr. Lao.

Crow T. Robot

In 2016, political scientist Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels published a much more ambitious book called Democracy for Realists: Why Elections Do Not Produce Responsive Government. It is, basically, The General Theory of Stupid Voters. It has become the latest conventional wisdom about democracy, garnering near-universal praise in the elite press, from the London School of Economics to Foreign Affairs to the New York Review of Books. The Economist deems it “the most influential recent book on voting.”

At wonk central HQ Vox, it has been cited as definitively proving that “everything you know about democracy is wrong,” namely that “the problem with democracy is voters.” It was cited as “the best book to help you understand the wild 2016 campaign,” because “people in general have cast their votes for no particularly good reason at all, so there’s no reason to expect Trump supporters to be any different.”

A particularly howling absence from Achen and Bartels’ account is that of unions, which were one of the key props of the New Deal coalition.

There is much to recommend about the book, and many of its assertions are certainly at least partly right.

Instead, our brain says: well, that person’s wearing a suit. They speak nicely. They didn’t say any bad words. They seem very confident. People in important positions in the media are speaking to them, and I trust their judgment. People I don’t like criticize them, and I don’t trust their judgment. You might not be wholly convinced of everything they say right away, but don’t underestimate the ability of even smart, successful people to be taken in by surface-level presentation. By mentally placing them within the realm of acceptable discourse, you have already made it possible for them to convince you.

Obviously we do not live in a time where the media is a totally top-down thing. You want to be informed? You want to read the news? Okay, here’s your newspaper, and here’s the fucking opinion columnist, and you don’t really get a choice in the matter. When actually, put to a vote, when it becomes a matter of analytics, and clinics, most of these people, who are dog shit writers with bad opinions, are not being read at all. You don’t have to live in fear of these people if they don’t matter. Like, one thing that doesn’t matter, and has never mattered, is fucking newspaper endorsements, and elections. And yet, campaigns are still obsessed with them. Donald Trump proved that they were fucking bullshit. So, yeah, I would say that not living in fear of the conservative gaze, and also just not living in fear of the media apparatus, generally. Maybe you want to say these are one in the same things.

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Awards : : Here are just a few awards that Steven has been honoured with over the years; : : First Annual Environmental Media Awards September 30, 1991 : : PETA Humanitarian Award in 1999 : : Sashi 2001 Humanitarian Award : : Honoured as the first private citizen to destroy a Nuclear Device : : Steven is also a frequent visitor to many Children’s Homes, Orphanages and Hospitals the world over where he brings gifts and his love to the sick and disadvantaged Children. : : “My devotion to the children stems directly from my devotion to the Divine,” : : “The Buddhist philosophy is to put others before ourselves.” : : STEVEN SEAGAL

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They’re not! The average person does not know who the fuck David Brooks is. That’s true. That is true. I could commission a poll, and it would give me that result. And it doesn’t matter, and it’s ludicrous that he speaks to conventional wisdom. He speaks to decision makers. That’s really the only argument that he matters, in an existential sense, is that the fucking president would read his columns? That’s it. But by that token, the president fucking listened to Jay-Z.

But its general conclusion that voters are basically incapable of reason, and never vote based on ideological considerations—one which has been similarly stripped of caveats in popular discussion—is far too strong, and even dangerous.

  1. Here’s my counterpoint: throwing food and drinks on people advocating for far-right policies is actually one of the best possible ways to deal with them.
  2. It is non-violent
  3. With minimal collateral damage to innocent bystanders.
  4. The thrower might face legal consequence, but generally minor ones.
  5. It does not bring about all the thorny questions that violent acts against fascists do (there is a case to be made that physical assaults on far-right campaigners constitute self-defense, but at the very least, it raises some legal and practical questions whose answers will not convince everyone).
  6. In fact, it’s a wholesome alternative to harmful physical violence, the exact sort of tactic that those who reject doing injury to others should endorse.
  7. It creates media coverage and, if captured on video, can bring mockery down on the receiver.

Voters are often ignorant, but they are not completely insensible to reality. Blinding oneself to that fact could easily knock the legs out from any attempt to confront Trump, and even undermine our very democratic institutions.

  1. Washington
  2. Oregon
  3. California

An opponent of milkshaking might say: well, what if someone milkshaked a politician YOU like? Well, sure, let’s imagine that.

Sometimes you just need a subheadline

First, let’s take a look at the central argument of Democracy for Realists. Achen and Bartels assemble a huge body of evidence to demonstrate that the voting public is vastly ignorant about policy, tends to rationalize pre-existing biases, and blames the incumbent party for things they could not possibly control, like shark attacks. Even when voters can be shown to be making a sort of judgment about political success on the merits—namely, voting the bums out during times of economic crisis—their decision tends to be severely myopic. Voters generally judge economic performance only on the last few months before election day, not based on how the whole last electoral term has gone.

The authors take aim at something they call the “folk theory” of democracy, which they define as the idea that democracy is about simply representing the will of the voters. The “folk theory” of democracy is the animating force behind initiatives to increase popular participation in decision-making by adding ballot initiative and referendum procedures to various constitutions, so that “the people” can have a direct voice on policy matters. The authors demonstrate many severe problems with this sort of direct democracy — most notably, that it is at least as vulnerable to elite influence as any other sort of democracy, if not more so.

Ordinary citizens really are not equipped to make decisions on complicated policy questions, and have often shot themselves in the foot by voting down water fluoridation measures and so forth (often egged on by well-funded right-wing extremists).

The trouble starts with their formal model of the folk theory, which they represent with an elaborate mathematical system descended from neoclassical economics called the “median voter theorem.” By this view, voters select candidates closest to their own ideology, and assuming voter preferences are represented by a single left-right spectrum with two equal-sized peaks, parties will rationally appeal to the median voter directly in the political middle. This predicts that each party will have the exact same centrist platform. The “rationally ignorant” median voter doesn’t have to do anything to see his preferences validated by the political system.

This model was directly based on similar economic models, which take a lot of assumed background conditions, run them through some intimidating math, and produce a result demonstrating that free market institutions automatically produce the best of all possible worlds. Voting, it’s just like buying peanut butter! It’s sort of an appealing notion, so long as it doesn’t make any close contact with reality.

The authors take aim at something they call the “folk theory” of democracy, which they define as the idea that democracy is about simply representing the will of the voters. The “folk theory” of democracy is the animating force behind initiatives to increase popular participation in decision-making by adding ballot initiative and referendum procedures to various constitutions, so that “the people” can have a direct voice on policy matters. The authors demonstrate many severe problems with this sort of direct democracy — most notably, that it is at least as vulnerable to elite influence as any other sort of democracy, if not more so.

Ordinary citizens really are not equipped to make decisions on complicated policy questions, and have often shot themselves in the foot by voting down water fluoridation measures and so forth (often egged on by well-funded right-wing extremists).

First of all, embedded in your question, is this idea that we’re famous. Which, I guess is true in some kind of very narrow sense. I mean, the show isn’t massive. Like, Beto O’Rourke is not going to stop by and skateboard on into a fucking interview with us. If he did, I’d be very happy to interview him. I think that would be very fun. And you know, I don’t know if Beto listens to your program.

Achen and Bartels blow this theory out of the water, thus defeating their conception of the folk theory of democracy. Most obviously, the parties do not have the same platform and never have, not even during the mid-20th-century period of relative political consensus when this kind of model was somewhat plausible. But since 1980 especially, the idea that the parties don’t have strong and increasingly stark disagreements is prima facie ridiculous.

I am a secondary headline

The authors have a lot of smart things to say about the negative influence economics-style reasoning has had on political science. But they don’t consider the idea that using the median voter theorem to represent the folk theory may itself be misleading.

This can best be seen in their implicit theory of reasoning, which is based on the same neoclassical bullshit. They define it in exclusively individual terms—a fundamental premise of this style of economics. By their lights, political reasoning happens when someone has pre-existing, fully worked-out ideology, and perfect knowledge of how the political system has affected their personal well-being, who then calculates the most rational political decision in terms of their own pocketbook and principles.

It is true that virtually nobody behaves in this way. Many people don’t have a clue what each party stands for, while others are egregiously mistaken about who believes what. But more importantly, Achen and Bartels argue that even very well-informed people tend to rationalize their group identities by adopting whatever the consensus view is—and then argue that, by definition, adopting a consensus view cannot be a “reasoned” decision: “[T]he political preferences and judgments that look and feel like the bases of partisanship and voting behavior are, in reality, often the consequences of party and group loyalties…the more information a voter has, often the better able she is to bolster her identities with rational-sounding reasons.”

There are a lot of problems with the premise of this argument.

First of all, if the most informed people simply adopt the views of their most important identity groups, then where do those groups come by their notions? Presumably, they aren’t just distilled from the celestial ether. It could be a leader simply lays down a party line, which is adopted by rank-and-file partisans regardless of content or hypocrisy. That is perhaps a plausible picture for Republicans, who now apparently hate the FBI and love Vladimir Putin, but is it universally true of all voting blocs?

Take African Americans, for instance. Such people vote almost in lockstep for Democrats (routinely at over 90 percent), a fact which is repeatedly mentioned by Achen and Bartels. Blacks have tended to support Democrats since the 1930s, but not by such huge margins. In 1960, for instance, John Kennedy racked up only 68 percent of the black vote.

But in 1964, Lyndon Johnson racked up 94 percent. The reason, obviously, is that Johnson used his spectacular legislative legerdemain to pass the Civil Rights Act in July 1964, which his opponent Barry Goldwater opposed. Black voters made a collective decision that Johnson was genuinely committed to their interests while Goldwater was pushing disingenuous Dixiecrat politics, and shifted their votes accordingly.

Nathan J. Robinson

Several months ago, if you had asked most people who follow politics, “Who do you think are the most and least likely candidates to dive into the race?” Mike Gravel probably wasn’t coming up that much in discussion. And I think even Mike Gravel probably did not think that he would be running in 2020—but he is. Could you start by telling us how that came to be?

Henry Williams

I would say we were really just trying to do a solid to the one guy on PredictIt that was betting that Gravel would enter the race, and that was the end of it. I mean, he’s about to be a millionaire by now.

David Oks

My god, if we had made some random bet that Mike Gravel would enter the race, I could pay for college.


Alright, well, David, give the path to how this came to be.


We’re active in online leftists circles. We read Current Affairs, we read Jacobin. I believe Henry is on the r/ChapoTrapHouse Reddit.


Indeed, I am.

The authors are so committed to their stupid voter shtick that they generally assume that all political group loyalties must be the dumbest caricature of identity politics.

To their credit, the authors come back from the edge by the end of their book. They do not stoop to the odious libertarian arrogance of Jason Brennan in Against Democracy or Bryan Caplan in The Myth of the Rational Voter to say that democracy is basically bad in itself. They say that opportunities for voter choice and education should be expanded, not abandoned. Their call for reducing social and economic inequality is particularly welcome.

But their hyperbolic, elitist thesis—which wouldn’t have gotten half so much attention if it was more realistic and less contrarian—is still wrong. If the Democratic Party wants to get rid of Trump, it should remember that voters are not gormless sheep. Just because voters are not policy wonks or cool-headed logicians does not mean that they are categorically incapable of perceiving which party is (or isn’t) looking out for their interests. Party elites who blame voters for our country’s political ills would do better to look to some of their own egregious failings, and figure out what it would actually take to build a party worth voting for.

  1. Bellamy’s thing said a thing.
    return to text
  2. Pedantry is not unique to feminist utopia. It’s a charming and nigh-unbearable convention of many early utopian works.
    return to text

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