“Blind Retrospection Electoral Responses To Drought, Flu, and Shark Attacks”

That is the title of a 2004 paper by Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels (pdf), perhaps it will prove relevant this week or next:

Students of democratic politics have long believed that voters punish incumbents for hard times. Governments bear the responsibility for the economy in the modern era, so that replacing incompetent managers with capable alternatives appears to be a well-informed, rational act. However, this vision of a sophisticated retrospective electorate does not bear close examination. We find that voters regularly punish governments for acts of God, including droughts, floods, and shark attacks. As long as responsibility for the event itself (or more commonly, for its amelioration) can somehow be attributed to the government in a story persuasive within the folk culture, the electorate will take out its frustrations on the incumbents and vote for out-parties. Thus, voters in pain are not necessarily irrational, but they are ignorant about both science and politics, and that makes them gullible when ambitious demagogues seek to profit from their misery. Neither conventional understandings of democratic responsiveness nor rational choice interpretations of retrospective voting survive under this interpretation of voting behavior.

Here is my related Slate piece with Angus.  For the pointer I thank Angus.



Remember the blizzard of '79? Former Chicago mayor Michael Bilandic does.

Another reason that the state is a bad idea.

Unless you have a better idea on how to handle mobs of the disenfranchised, states are what we've got.

The conscientiously limited state died the day society stopped being willing to shoot unarmed protestors for obstruction and trespass - by the same token, unless you're willing to do the shooting instead, you need to settle for merely mitigating the demos toward a semblance of organization.

DocMerlin's comment reminds me of something I've read recently. What was it, what was it...oh, yes: "ignorant about both science and politics, and that makes them gullible when ambitious demagogues seek to profit from their misery."

"The greatest argument against democracy is a five minute conversation with the average voter." - Churchill

Sadly, +100

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Final paragraph of the paper: "We end, then, on a discouraging note. For those who take the evidence about voter capacities seriously, neither Rousseau nor Downs will save us. Democracies take their electoral direction from human beings with fewer capacities for self-government than either writer imagined. Under sufficient pressure, those voters may lash out blindly. Such events are not bizarre historical footnotes rendered irrelevant by modern education and hygiene. They are inevitable consequences of human cognitive limitations—limitations which democratic government has not altered. Thus, as Sophocles taught and as the destruction of the Weimar Republic reminds us, when the inevitable hard times appear, tragedy may ensue."

What concerns me is the "therefore" implied throughout: Leave governance to the experts. People are too stupid and emotionally reactive to self-govern. The final paragraph purports to describe the irrationality of the electorate at large, but the article implies that the educated and scientifically-minded would more capably govern, freer from emotional reactivity. Where is the evidence for this? Besides, why is the removal from office of an elected official the authors deem competent a "tragedy"?

I'm not sure why you assume the authors are advocating an alternative system. I read it more as saying: "Well, this is why we're fucked".

Maybe the lesson is that not every problem has a solution?

I always get a laugh from the academic concern-troll genre on ignorant voters. It's like watching a distracted pedestrian crash into a window.

Voting against incumbents when things are going badly is a decent strategy, not because it's particularly good at selecting high-quality candidates, but because it gives the politicians in office the right incentives. They get re-elected if things go well enough, and not if things go badly, so it's in their interest to make things go as well as possible. Random external shocks might increase or decrease their chances of getting re-elected, but they don't change their incentives.

It's similar to a job where employees get paid for results. There are a variety of causes outside the employee's control that might make the results better or worse, but instead of trying to monitor all of those causes and distinguish which are in the employee's control and which are not so that they can pay the employee what they "deserve" based on their contribution to the results, the employer can just pay for results which gives the employee the right incentives to try to get good results.

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