The ubiquitous political junkie fantasy

by: Chris Bowers

Fri Apr 23, 2010 at 14:54

Jonah Goldberg's pseudo-intellectual discussion on "what kind of socialist is Barack Obama" reminded me of an idea I have been kicking around this week.  I call it the "ubiquitous political junkie fantasy" of political punditry--the assumption that political issues which could only ever resonate with hard-core consumers of news and politics are actually issues that the general public cares about.

The ubiquitous political junkie fantasy is affects political commenters of all partisan and ideological inclinations.  Here are some recent examples of the fantasy in action:

  1. The assumption that the public actually cares about Congressional procedure.  Democrats and Republicans alike often accuse each other of abusing congressional procedure, and engaging in obstructionist or totalitarian tactics.  However, only 26% of the country even knows that 60 votes are required to break a filibuster in the Senate, and only 3% of the people opposed to the health reform bill that passed Congress last month cited a procedural issue as the main reason for their objection.

    The truth is that congressional procedure is obscure to the vast majority of the country, and even people who know about it don't place its proper usage very high on their list of priorities.  Thinking that the abuse of congressional procedure can ever be a successful political attack is an excellent example of political junkies assuming the entire country is full of political junkies.

  2. The assumption that irregular voters actually legislative wonks. This is one that you see mainly on the left these days, but which was rife on the right when Republicans were in charge.  Even though irregular voters are, of all portions of the electorate, the lowest consumers of news, and the least knowledgeable about legislative details, many political activists and junkies will claim that "unless the Governing Party does X, then turnout among irregular voters who are ideologically aligned with the Governing Party will drop."  For example, Representative Luis Gutierrez made this claim earlier in the week about need to pass strong immigration reform in order to increase turnout among irregular Latino voters.

    This is another excellent example of the ubiquitous political junkie fantasy.  Irregular voters are not legislative wonks.  Their turnout is not dependant upon the details of what legislation is, or is not, passed.  This is the sort of politics that is important to transactional, advocacy group organizations, but very few members of those organizations are irregular voters.  If you join an issue advocacy group, odds are you are not an irregular voter.

    In order to avoid the ubiquitous political junkie fantasy, claims of this sort should be restricted to activists.  It is a lot more credible to claim that activists won't donate, or volunteer, for a governing party unless that party passes specific legislation.

  3. The assumption that the public actually cares about academic "-isms" This example returns us to the Jonah Goldberg discussion mentioned at the start of this piece.  There is a not insignificant section of the political junkie world that seems to think it matters if a leading politician credibly fits the definition of "socialism," "neoliberalism," "fascism," "corporatism," or other "-isms" that are rarely used in our national political discourse.

    This might be the most gratuitous example of the ubiquitous political junkie fantasy of all.  Not only do these terms mean little to nothing to the vast majority of the country, but the excessive application of these terms is itself an example of sloppy thinking.  Terms like "capitalism" and "socialism" can, in the abstract, present a picture of two diametrically opposed, individually discrete ideologies.  However, the reality is that these terms are ideal points on either end of a continuum, and that everyone falls at some point along that continuum in between those two ideal points.  Just labeling someone a "capitalist" or a "socialism" (or a "fascist," or a "libertarian," or whatever) can often amount to an intentional suppression of detail and exactitude--a bit of lazy thinking to avoid precision.

    So, not only do most people not care about these terms, but the terms themselves are often used poorly.

There are more examples too, but I will start with those three.

It is a good rule of thumb, when developing new talking points or ideas for electoral campaigns, to test those ideas against the "ubiquitous political junkie fantasy."  If the idea fails the test, and is likely to only appeal to activists, then it should probably only be targeted at activists.  Attacks, campaigns, and talking points of the sort listed above simply will never have mass appeal, primarily because they all assume we inhabit an entire country of political junkies.

Chris Bowers :: The ubiquitous political junkie fantasy

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A Couple of Caveats (4.00 / 2)
While I agree with the general thrust of this argument, there's a couple of wrinkles here that deserve noting.  First off, the Gutierrez argument and its variants aren't premised on assuming that occasional voters are policy wonks.  They're arguing about major legislative actions that can make a huge difference in tens of millions of people's lives.  And the argument isn't simply premised on those voters, but also on the motivation of those needed to most effectively outreach to them, down to the most thankless GOTV work.

My second caveat is not to get caught in the trap you're talking about.  While it's true that most folks have no idea what most  -isms mean, that's not really the point.  For many folks those  -isms function like epithets, and the folks who start the game of throwing them around are generally well aware of this fact.  

"You know what they say -- those of us who fail history... doomed to repeat it in summer school." -- Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Season 6, Episode 3

Agreed (4.00 / 2)
While I agree with the policy wonk point in general, I thought this was a bad example.  The difference between your parents being legally allowed to stay in the country or live the rest of their lives as fugitives is about as far from wonky as you can get.

[ Parent ]
It still doesn't hold up (0.00 / 0)
The -isms, even if used as epithets, are really bad epithets.  Calling someone a $64,000 vocabulary word will have no resonance outside a small circle.

And the immigration bill argument really doesn't hold up at all. There is a pretty large percentage of Latinos in national priority polls, and immigration never comes up on the open-ended CBS polls.

Irregular voters want Congress to make their lives better, no doubt.  But I'm not seeing a large group of voters, Lainto or otherwise, demanding immigration reform in return for their vote.  There is just no evidence of that. At all.

[ Parent ]
Those Who Organized The Massive MayDay Protests Several Years Back (4.00 / 2)
Aren't part of the calculus you describe.  But they very clearly do exist.  And if such legislation were passed, then their potential influence to turn out ocassional voters could be absolutely crucial in a year like this.

This is an example of a much larger phenomena, which Francis Fox-Pivens has described in her work on expanding the electorate.  There's a lot of data out there that seems to suggest that voters and non-voters have similar views on the issues.  But what this overlooks, Piverns points out, is that a different electorate would have the potential to bring forward a different set of issues, our of which very real differences would arise.  And, indeed, some of the more thoughtful polling--such as a 2006 poll by the Public Policy Institute of California--shows that there are pretty substantial differences in attitudes that fall outside the realm of politics as usual.  

"You know what they say -- those of us who fail history... doomed to repeat it in summer school." -- Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Season 6, Episode 3

[ Parent ]
To put it a different way (4.00 / 2)
If people's lives aren't going well, they might blame Congress for it.  However, they are not going to blame Congress's failure to pass Legislation X as the cause.

[ Parent ]
True, But (4.00 / 1)
The bottom line question for turnout in November is the converse--what can Congress do to make their lives better, and thus raise odds of re-election?

And, again, it's not just about the occasional voters, but also about those who would get them to the polls.

"You know what they say -- those of us who fail history... doomed to repeat it in summer school." -- Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Season 6, Episode 3

[ Parent ]
There is a bigger problem here, (0.00 / 0)
a more fundamental problem with those you critique, which I would call (suggested better names appreciated) the "democratic theory fantasy."  That's the assumption that what resonates with the mass of people is what is relevant to American politics. (I'm leaving aside normative questions here.)

To turn a few of your example around, if the village gets the vapors when Democrats "abuse" procedure, and Democrats fear what Sally Quinn or David Broder says about them, they will think twice before fighting for majority rules.  

If Democrats fear being called socialists, they will respond to the epithet regardless of whether voters notice.  

If activists and organized groups fail to work to get the vote out, then irregular voters will vote at lower levels even if they are unaware of the politics that led that to happen.

So while you are right in that Jonah gets it wrong on the mechanism, he's not necessarily wrong on the impact. (Gutierrez  is making the same mistake, at least if we take him literally - the real question is the impact on voters as they are mediated by institutions, not how they respond to developments in Congress directly.)

I'm not saying that people don't matter or that they can't have an impact. But on most issues, most of the time, "the people" are a rhetorical construct that elites use to legitimate their own interests and concerns.  Unless they are mobilized (which usually requires an effort by either elites or activists), what people think has little empirical relevance.  

Politics is the art of the possible, but that means you have to think about changing what is possible, not that you have to accept it in perpetuity.

What kind of pervert is Jonah Goldberg? (0.00 / 0)
That question should also be asked! However, Kudos to Goldberg for giving a new twist to the old joke "when did you stop beating your wife?". Very inventive!


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