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16 August 2009

Politics: Americans Not Playing With a Full Deck

Running short on time today (and will be for the next few weeks), so reposting an essay I found:

If any decisions were to be made by using reason and evidence, political decisions would have to be among them - but Americans generally don't do that. Only a small percentage appear to have a coherent political philosophy, consistent beliefs, and an ability to explain what they decide. The rest go by gut instinct, so they're inconsistent and react poorly.

If this is how people deal with politics, where a significant amount of the relevant and necessary information is right in front of them or easily accessible, can be understood with perhaps just a little effort, and can be sorted out with a little more effort, then how can we expect people to deal with religion any better?

Louis Menand wrote in The New Yorker a couple of years ago:

[W]hen [electoral] competence began to be measured statistically, around the end of the Second World War, the numbers startled almost everyone. The data were interpreted most powerfully by the political scientist Philip Converse, in an article on “The Nature of Belief Systems in Mass Publics,” published in 1964. Forty years later, Converse’s conclusions are still the bones at which the science of voting behavior picks. Converse claimed that only around ten per cent of the public has what can be called, even generously, a political belief system. He named these people “ideologues,” by which he meant not that they are fanatics but that they have a reasonable grasp of “what goes with what”—of how a set of opinions adds up to a coherent political philosophy.

Non-ideologues may use terms like “liberal” and “conservative,” but Converse thought that they basically don’t know what they’re talking about, and that their beliefs are characterized by what he termed a lack of “constraint”: they can’t see how one opinion (that taxes should be lower, for example) logically ought to rule out other opinions (such as the belief that there should be more government programs). About forty-two per cent of voters, according to Converse’s interpretation of surveys of the 1956 electorate, vote on the basis not of ideology but of perceived self-interest.

[A]fter analyzing the results of surveys conducted over time, in which people tended to give different and randomly inconsistent answers to the same questions, Converse concluded that “very substantial portions of the public” hold opinions that are essentially meaningless—off-the-top-of-the-head responses to questions they have never thought about, derived from no underlying set of principles. These people might as well base their political choices on the weather. And, in fact, many of them do. ... Seventy per cent of Americans cannot name their senators or their congressman. Forty-nine per cent believe that the President has the power to suspend the Constitution. Only about thirty per cent name an issue when they explain why they voted the way they did, and only a fifth hold consistent opinions on issues over time.

Rephrasing poll questions reveals that many people don’t understand the issues that they have just offered an opinion on. According to polls conducted in 1987 and 1989, for example, between twenty and twenty-five per cent of the public thinks that too little is being spent on welfare, and between sixty-three and sixty-five per cent feels that too little is being spent on assistance to the poor.

So, it would appear that Americans are just idiots, right? Maybe so — but not in a way that should be surprising. When we take the same sort of behavior and place it in a different context, it looks a lot more understandable:

Any time information is lacking or uncertain, a shortcut is generally better than nothing. But the shortcut itself is not a faster way of doing the math; it’s a way of skipping the math altogether. My hunch that the coolest-looking stereo component is the best value simply does not reflect an intuitive grasp of electronics. My interest in a stereo is best served if I choose the finest sound for the money, as my interest in an election is best served if I choose the candidate whose policies are most likely to benefit me or the people I care about. But almost no one calculates in so abstract a fashion.

Few people have time to do all of the research necessary in order to ensure that they get the best possible stereo in exchange for whatever amount of money they are willing to spend. Their time is worth more than that — they quite simply have better things to be doing. Don’t you? So, naturally, they use mental short cuts and that usually works well enough.

Why would anyone expect people to act differently when it comes to politics? Sure, politics is more important than stereos, but the fact of the matter is people use these short cuts all the time. We’re used to them. Changing all of the sudden is difficult (remember, we don’t vote that often). So it’s only to be expected that we reach for our short cuts in order to reach conclusions. It’s sad, really, but understandable.

And there’s nothing we can do about it. The next time you hear someone complaining about how political ads (or even commercial ads) push style and looks over substance, just remember the above data — and remember that the people crafting those ads already know all of this, that’s why the ads look this way.

But what does this mean when it comes to religion? Doesn't it suggest that it may be a hopeless cause to try and get most people to think more critically about religion and theism? Perhaps. Are there ways for atheists and skeptics to take advantage of these shortcuts and get people to use shortcuts that lead them more readily to secular atheism? Perhaps, but then it wouldn’t be an atheism based on reason, skepticism, and critical thinking — and is that any better than a theism that is similarly ill-founded?


Ivan3man said...

It's just as bad, if not worse, here in Britain. Back in the late 1990s, when Tony [Bloody] Blair's Labour party come to power, one young man -- a first time voter -- was asked by a TV reporter: "Why did you vote for the Labour party?"

To which the the young man replied: "Because me [sic] dad voted for the Labour party, his dad voted for the Labour party, and me [sic] great-granddad also voted for the Labour party."

Go figure!

JD Curtis said...

Thats almost as bad as unthinking morons here in the US voting for Obama with the mindset "He's for Hope and Change and stuff" and couldnt name a single accomplishment that the guy ever did.

That and the fact that he voted a non-committal "Present" 130 times while in the Illinois State Senate.