Friday, December 30, 2011

Post-partisan depression

I wonder how often this story gets written? I don't think I've seen it with this much front-page splash:
Jonathan Gabhart, a 21-year-old college student from Spencer, Iowa, is leaning toward voting for Ron Paul because of the Texas lawmaker’s unpolished speaking style — a “high-pitched, squirrelly voice,” as he put it. “He seems like a real person because of his eccentricities.”
Nancy Weaver, a 60-year-old retiree in Grinnell, Iowa, favors Representative Michele Bachmann because the congresswoman raised 23 foster children. “That’s a huge endeavor for any man or woman,” she said.
Iowa and New Hampshire Republican voters interviewed by Michael Barbaro and Ashley Barker at the Times knew nothing or next to about candidates' policy positions and programs but lots about their families and personal quirks, and were making their decisions on that basis. But isn't this actually pervasive, among Republicans and Democrats and those crusty old independents alike?

This is especially true at primary time, when most people are selecting out of a list of candidates from the party they identify with, so that there is no partisan bias of the sort you get when voters vote between different parties. For independents, it's all the time, as portrayed in 2004 in the wonderful jeremiad by Christopher Hayes:
Undecided voters aren't as rational as you think. Members of the political class may disparage undecided voters, but we at least tend to impute to them a basic rationality. We're giving them too much credit. I met voters who told me they were voting for Bush, but who named their most important issue as the environment. One man told me he voted for Bush in 2000 because he thought that with Cheney, an oilman, on the ticket, the administration would finally be able to make us independent from foreign oil. A colleague spoke to a voter who had been a big Howard Dean fan, but had switched to supporting Bush after Dean lost the nomination. After half an hour in the man's house, she still couldn't make sense of his decision....

...the staggering incompetence and irresponsibility of the Bush administration and the demonstrably poor state of world affairs seemed to serve not as indictments of Bush in particular, but rather of politicians in general. Kerry, by mere dint of being on the ballot, was somehow tainted by Bush's failures as badly as Bush was. As a result, undecideds seemed oddly unwilling to hold the president accountable for his previous actions, focusing instead on the practical issue of who would have a better chance of success in the future....

Occasionally I did encounter undecided voters who were genuinely cross-pressured--a couple who was fiercely pro-life, antiwar, and pro-environment for example--but such cases were exceedingly rare. More often than not, when I asked undecided voters what issues they would pay attention to as they made up their minds I was met with a blank stare, as if I'd just asked them to name their favorite prime number. The majority of undecided voters I spoke to couldn't name a single issue that was important to them.
I don't know how we do democracy in this situation, but I'm pretty sure of one thing: What we need is more partisanship rather than less, to get people identifying with an idea rather than a squirrelly voice or that strange parade of (generously state-subsidized) foster children.

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