Bryan Caplan  

Bait-and-Switch: The Myth and the Reformulation

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Mark Smith's The Right Talk: How Conservatives Transformed the Great Society into the Economic Society is full of insight. He crushes the myth of Republican "bait-and-switch" - the idea that Republicans focus on the culture wars during elections to mask their unpalatable economic policies. Smith provides tons of straightforward data showing that Republicans heavily emphasize the economy during elections, do so far more than they used to, and have won more elections as a result of the change.

According to many scholars and journalists, American politics tilted right in recent decades because Republicans routinely downplayed the economy and instead focused their attention, particularly during elections, on social and cultural issues. On the contrary, this chapter has shown, economic issues were continually accentuated in campaign platforms, the state-of-the-state speeches of governors, and the rhetoric of the GOP's presidential candidates... Rather than running away from the economy, the GOP made it a higher priority and linked more issues to it.
Before the '70's, Republican rhetoric focused on liberty, not economy - a point Smith drives home with a detailed comparison of the rhetoric of Goldwater versus Reagan. For example, on taxes and spending:
...Goldwater does not bother mentioning their economic effects until the closing sentences of the chapter. It is almost as if he is saying, "In case I haven't convinced you with my primary arguments, let me add a subordinate one to the mix."

In Reagan's speeches, the effect of taxes and spending on the economy was never the secondary claim; instead, that effect continually stood at the forefront of his rhetoric.

I would add, however, that there is a plausible way to reformulate the "bait-and-switch" argument. Namely: Even though Republicans do spend a lot of time talking about economics, their specific economic policies usually are less popular than the Democrats specific economic policies. Raising taxes on the rich to spend more money on health care, education, and the environment is a popular ideas; so are crack-downs on gas "gouging" and Chinese imports. Republicans do not use the culture wars to hide their economic policies. Rather, they use popular economic generalities (like "we think people spend their own money better than the government does") to hide unpopular economic specifics (like "we're spending enough on health care, education, and the environment as it is").


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COMMENTS (8 to date)
Floccina writes:

The moral issues and economic issues run together in that many people concerned with moral issues see Government programs removing the consequences of immoral behavior thus encouraging immorality. Also some social conservatives see government forcing people to support others, for example through farm subsidies, as undermining morality. Some even see accepting tax dollars as immoral, far fewer take this position today than did when I was a child.

Lord writes:

Like cutting taxes to balance the budget. Tax and spend becomes borrow and spend, and little more than lip service to economics, that and a penchant for the most expensive and most wasteful of all government, war.

General Specific writes:

Seems to me Mark Smith is—to a degree—arguing against a strawman. He is only arguing with the central tenet of Thomas Frank’s “What’s Wrong with Kansas?” In no way does Mr. Smith touch the argument in “The Big Con: The True Story of How Washington Got Hoodwinked and Hijacked by Crackpot Economics.”

Jonathan Chait, many others, and even Thomas Frank have long pointed out what is above called a reformulation—more precisely the misleading way Republicans talk about economic issues.

Republicans reformulate their econo-speak to make it publicly palatable, then spend the rest of the time engaged in culture wars—e.g. abortion, xenophobia, and more generally: fear, fear, fear. Or just smearing their opponents.

Mark Smith does not crush the myth of bait-and-switch. He crushes a misleading strawman. Anyone can do that.

General Specific writes:

Almost forgot: Republicans are also good at talking about cutting taxes when in fact all they really do is defer them to future generations.

skeptical writes:

[Comment deleted for supplying false email address. Email the webmaster at econlib.org to request restoring this comment. A valid email address is a requirement for posting comments on EconLog.--Econlib Ed.]

8 writes:

Before 1999, when Newt left town, the Democrats were responsible for increased spending. Republicans abandoned their thrift when they decided to take issues away from Democrats before 2000. Bush followed the same policy, trying to outspend Dems to take away their issues. Republicans can never admit that policy to the public, but 2006 and current polling shows the public has had enough.

Buzzcut writes:

I think the more interesting question is, what lies do rich libs like Thomas Frank, Warren Buffet, and Manhattanites tell themselves in order to vote Democrat. Clearly, they are voting against their own economic self interest.

THAT is an underanalyzed topic!

I'll tell you one thing, as bad a President as Dubya has been, he hasn't raised my taxes. I got a big honking tax cut. Now, you may say that I just deferred my taxes to the future, but I don't see that happening. Tax revenue is increasing. If Bernake can keep us out of a recession, I don't see any reason that taxes must increase in the future.

David J. Balan writes:

Like some of the earlier commenters, I don't see much there here. Republicans talk a lot about economics, they just lie about it all the time. Furthermore, the lies they tell about economics fit together with the non-economic parts of their program (those same Washington bureaucrats who want to force you to have athiestic gay abortions are also after ma and pa's farm).

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