Bryan Caplan  

Aren't Voters Disgusting?

A Deeply Misguided Sentence... Crisis of Abundance Wat...

Drew Westen's The Political Brain is largely a how-to manual for inspiring political emotions. But to be honest, the main emotion is inspired in me was disgust. Here's the passage to which I had the strongest reaction:

[T]he Kerry campaign simply let the flip-flopper charge fester for months. By April, Kerry was reportedly infuriated by it, and he wanted to strike back by showing how much Bush flip-flopped on the issues. This wouldn't have been hard to do. It can be done against anyone with a public record, and particularly against any candidate who has run toward his party's base in the primaries and then toward the center in the general election, as Bush (and most presidential candidates on both sides of the aisle) had done. (emphasis mine)
My reaction: All true, all insightful, and completely disgusting. Once you realize that...

1. Politicians predictably lie to get elected (and unless winning primaries somehow "causes moderation," lying is precisely what Westen is describing).

2. Politicians habitually accuse each other of something they virtually all do.

3. Voters largely ignore #1, but respond positively to #2.

... how can your reaction be anything other than "Yuck!"? Or if you want to be more eloquent, you can vehemently quote Mencken: "Democracy, too, is a religion. It is the worship of jackals by jackasses."

Just to be clear, I commend Westen for his candor about the political process. What's hard for me to understand on an emotional level is how Westen - or anyone - can recognize the above and remain an enthusiastic partisan.

Comments and Sharing

COMMENTS (14 to date)
Caliban Darklock writes:

Politics in general is a disgusting and dirty business. Everyone is down there rooting around in the filth, and they pretty someone up every now and then to pop his head out and tell us how wonderful things are going. The President has the dubious distinction of being both the most frequently prettied-up, and the most shockingly filthy.

Much of that isn't his fault - he's largely inherited the filth of previous administrations. Basically, after inauguration, scary men in black suits take the new President out and say "you will now spend the next four years up to your eyeballs in other people's filth, and we are going to describe that filth to you in excruciating detail to make damn sure you don't carry any significant optimism or ideals into the Oval Office".

Which is why I like my candidates to be a little cynical. You have to be, or the job will just drive you batshit insane. Look at the Clintons.

Dain writes:

Just to be clear, I commend Westen for his candor about the political process. What's hard for me to understand on an emotional level is how Westen - or anyone - can recognize the above and remain an enthusiastic partisan.

For the same reason someone can cheer, say, Erin Brokovich for using lesser than noble means - boobs and seduction - to achieve allegedly noble goals.

An experienced liberal of the Westen sort would tell a liberal with your view of politics to grow up and get real.

Unit writes:

#2 is a lot easier to do for the voter. That's why accusations, whether founded or not, usually stick.

#1 takes work, you need at least to be listening.

After reading your book my reaction is not "Yuck", but 'of course'.

liberty writes:

Funny that you see no contradiction in your two posts: you fend off mortality, despite the 100% chance of dying; similarly, one fights for some cleanliness or some honesty or some good policy, within the inevitably dirty, dishonest and politically backward world of politics.

Dain writes:


It's a difference in kind. Only one involves hypocrisy.


Politicians are not moral philosophers, or really teachers of any sort. Their job is forge compromises among competing interest groups, a job which would be impossible if they tried to stay true to any particular ideology. The moral relativism of political life is definitely part of the reason we need term limits.

I don't love everything Judge Posner has written, but I recommend Law, Pragmatism & Democracy on this topic. The problem is that there are always a few people within any society who are very good at manipulating large groups into following them. Our representative democracy is probably the least violent means for channeling that will to power into relatively benign electioneering and logrolling.

Horatio writes:
What's hard for me to understand on an emotional level is how Westen - or anyone - can recognize the above and remain an enthusiastic partisan.

If you believe your side is right and that others are wrong, it may be perfectly rational to continue using these tactics. Furthermore, you may feel no guilt about lying to and about your enemies. I do not believe Democrats or Republicans deserve any better.

Lord writes:

It may not be pretty, but at its most successful, it does encourage pragmatism.

Grant writes:


You've written that voters are being "rationally irrational". Is it the voters who are disgusting then, or is it the democratic system which makes unreasonable demands of them and promises results it cannot fulfill?

David J. Balan writes:

Echoing some of the above commenters, I don't see what's so hard to swallow here. Voters are a complicated mass of impulses, not all of them noble, and some of them subject to crude manipulation. This fact alone in no way precludes one from concluding that a particular side is, all told, at least far more righteous than another, and at most pretty righteous.

Dr. T writes:

I find it strange that everyone accepts that politics is and must be a slimy business. I do not believe that is universally true. However, I believe it is universally true for democracies involving more than a few thousand voters.

I think we need an entirely new type of electoral system. Each voter could be given a number of chips. The voting booths have slots labeled with characteristics (such as integrity, compassion, drive, competitiveness, assertiveness, collegiality, etc.) for each office (such as president or mayor). The voters can distribute chips as they see fit (5 in one slot, 2 in another, etc.) When the voting is done, a computer generates the composite profile from all eligible voters and selects the candidate (from a large pool of qualified persons) who best matches the profile. Impeachment could occur during a term of office if the electee deviates too much from the composite profile.

This theoretical system is democratic (the voters choose the candidate profiles) yet avoids politicking, mudslinging, and the perceived needs of candidates to pander to single issue groups and voting blocs. Government would be greatly improved, since there will be no voting slots for dishonesty, slanderousness, sadism, etc.

8 writes:

When they are in the primary, politicians use partisan rhetoric or focus on partisan issues. During the general election, they don't change their position, they change how they speak about it.

Genuine flip-flops are harder to find. I haven't heard Obama explain how he supports the DC gun ban and the Supreme Court decision overturning the ban, but I would guess he would parse the "individual right" portion with the regulation. See? No flip-flop.

Sorge L. Diaz writes:

Mr. Caplan:

I've been browsing the book, and it also seems to be a very partisan book. Every thing the left assumes is right, Republicans are not only wrong but evil, etc.

The author seems to have taken one set of assumptions on emotion, and has no sense of irony whatsoever.


Please delete "Arnold" and substitute --Bryan-- in my earlier comment to this post.

The perils of commenting on group blogs. :-)

By the way, had I read more carefully and realized that it was you and not Arnold, I might not have posted that comment. I figure you've probably thought about this stuff way more than I have before publishing "The Myth of the Rational Voter."

Comments for this entry have been closed
Return to top