Murdering A Political Theory With A Brutal Gang Of Facts

A sentiment registering somewhere between disgust and loathing rose up in my chest yesterday when I read that Delaware Tea Party candidate Christine O’Donnell had claimed on the site LinkedIn that she had attended the University of Oxford.  In case you don’t know which Oxford this is, it is the one in England where all the Rhodes Scholars go to study.  And even if you are not a Rhodes Scholar, it is the kind of place that requires a little more than just spit shining your high school diploma to get in the door. In other words, it is the kind of place Christine O’Donnell didn’t have a chance in hell of attending.

And yet her supporters continue to stand behind her as if she is Joan of Arc, making what should be a thirty point polling gap between her and Mike Castle only 15 points.

I get the same feeling when I see Georgia’s GOP candidate for governor Nathan Deal on television, trying to explain away the discovery of his latest financial irregularity. Deal has so many financial and ethical problems they trail behind him the way black smoke follows a small plane with engine trouble. And yet his supporters continue to stand behind this self described fiscal conservative as if he isn’t a man who has never met a government trough he didn’t abuse, putting him in the lead in the polls over the admittedly lackluster Roy Barnes by almost ten points.   

Sharron Angle requires no explanation – unlike the two candidates above, who will at least address media’s questions about the issues swirling about their campaigns, she can’t seem to run fast enough when unsympathetic TV personalities or news reporters Nevada try to get her to talk about the controversial statements she has made in the last few months as a candidate for Senate, and not 15 or 20 years ago like O’Donnell. She is a woman who comes across as having reached the limit of her mental capacities, unable to do little more than repeat over and over her own loopy versions of the national GOP talking points…

…and yet, according to just about every political poll out there, she is either neck and neck with Harry Reid, or ahead by a nose.

Who are these people who are willing to support such poor excuses for candidates? Are a large proportion of the populations of Delaware, Arizona, and Georgia really so damn dumb that they may elect these miscreants? Although I can understand the anti-incumbent fever, especially during tough economic times, I have been simply flabbergasted at the caliber of people the electorate is willing to send to Washington or to our governor's mansions in their stead. 

It is worth noting that very few politically consequential facts are subject to direct, personal verification. If an ordinary citizen is asked whether the president is a crook, whether the unemployment rate is 4% or 8%, or whether a distant regime possesses weapons of mass destruction, her response will reflect a judgment cobbled together from various more or less pertinent and trustworthy sources, including news accounts, water-cooler conversation, campaign propaganda, and folk wisdom about the way the world works. It will be perfectly rational for her assessment of the inherent plausibility of alternative states of the world to be based, in part, on how well they square with her partisan predispositions.

 It Feels Like We’re Thinking: The Rationalizing and Electoral Democracy

Achen and Bartels lay out a host of reasons to explain why voters are willing to support extreme or ethically lapsed candidates in their research paper. Most of it draws the kind of conclusions one would expect. But the conclusion that stuck in my mind the most, the finding that went totally counter to established conventional wisdom, was their discovery that high information voters were actually more likely to rationalize a candidate’s negative, irrational or illegal behavior than low information voters.

To paraphrase Benjamin Franklin, since the authors of this paper have done such a fantastic job of murdering my pet theory—that the people supporting O’Donnell, Angle and Deal must be total idiots—with a brutal gang of facts, I guess it means I need to go back to the drawing board to see if I can make any sense of this year’s political climate.

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