Bryan Caplan  

Roosevelt and Retrospective Voting

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I just finished V.O. Key's 1966 classic, The Responsible Electorate.  It's a seminal work in the retrospective voting literature.  Key tries to convince his fellow political scientists that democracy works well because the electorate rewards success and punishes failure.  He's quick to admit, of course, that many citizens (the "standpatters") simply vote a party line.  But "switchers" are more numerous than we realize, and ultimately run the show.

Key then considers an important objection: Isn't it possible that switchers switch on the basis of personality rather than success?  He admits that personality matters to a degree, but denies its importance.  And to cement his case, he appeals to the experience of Franklin Roosevelt:
How do we cope with the assertion that the series of Democratic victories reflected the massive appeal of the personality of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and nothing more?  Even the most cursory reflection destroys this type of explanation in its crude form.  It becomes ridiculous immediately if one contemplates what the fate of Franklin Delano Roosevelt would have been had he from 1933 to 1936 stood for those policies which were urged upon the country by the reactionaries of the day... His position derived not so much from the kind of man he was as from the kinds of things for which, and against which, he fought.
Key's passage is bizarre on several levels.  The most glaring: Roosevelt is the best U.S. counter-example to the thesis that voters reward politicians for delivering prosperity and peace.  FDR's track record is bizarrely bleak: Nine years of uninterrupted depression, followed by four years of war that left half of Europe in the hands of Stalinist Russia - one of the two original aggressor nations.  And the American voter loved him anyway! 

Key's defenders might object that he's making a weaker point: That FDR's supporters agreed with his policies.  But if you're willing to say that most Americans supported FDR's policies despite their unbroken association with failure, why is it so hard to believe that most Americans would have supported FDR even if his policies had been markedly different?  Indeed, it is easy to believe that FDR could have won election after election with reactionary policies - as long as he remembered to call his policies "progressive."

What FDR really shows is that for voters, believing is seeing.  Since people loved Roosevelt, they imagined that he gave his country thirteen golden years.  And as V.O. Key himself reveals, even brilliant political scientists are not immune to such delusions.



COMMENTS (15 to date)
Steve Roth writes:

Americans supported W's policies despite their unbroken association with failure, why is it so hard to believe that most Americans would have supported W even if his policies had been markedly different? Indeed, it is easy to believe that W could have won election after election with progressive policies - as long as he remembered to call his policies "conservative."

Jayson Virissimo writes:

It seems Steve Roth has demonstrated that Bryan's argument still works if you replace the name of the politician and their self-described ideology.

Kurbla writes:

The problem is, there is no consensus about Roosevelt. I think he cannot be guilty that Russia occupied / liberated half of the Europe, but he was guilty for his own war crimes (Hamburg, Dresden), racism, including some is Mengele-like experiments (Tuskegee syphilis case), forced sterilizations of mentally retarded... his voters didn't cared. There are very few politicians such that consensus can be reached; the most obvious is Hitler who had perfect democratic legitimacy, and who was worse than his predecessors. So, democracy doesn't guarantee quality - or improvement. It is trivial but strong example.

Advantage of democracy is in peaceful resolution of political problems of the moment. Counting votes is better than counting bullets. Quality of decisions should be improved on some other way.


Daniel Kuehn writes:

I'm not sure I follow your logic on FDR. The economy was bad but it was growing through his entire first term. I imagine people attributed that to his policies. The re-election happened before the 1937 episode, which was the only large blemish on the recovery. Maybe voters are just better at thinking in terms of counter-factuals than we thought (and to be honest, better than a lot of economists seem to be).

As for the war - I'm also not sure people are going to view a war against that Nazis as a bad thing. Why would you assume that would be a negative mark on FDR? If Bush had attacked an Adolph Hitler over-running half of Europe I probably would have been more supportive than I was of him. Why would a war against - not just fascists - but fascists on an imperial war-path - be a BAD thing? That seems like something you would RE-ELECT someone for.

Blackadder writes:

I agree with Daniel. The economy was improving from 1933-37, when FDR and the Democrats were doing well politically. After the 1937 recession you have the 1938 midterms, where the Democrats do very badly. By 1940 the recession is over, and other issues (i.e. the war) predominate.

As to the war, the fact that half of Europe would end up under Communist control wasn't apparent until after FDR died. If you look at the next election after the Yalta conference both the ruling party in America (Democrats in 1946) and the UK (Conservatives in 1945) did very badly.

Mercer writes:

"that left half of Europe in the hands of Stalinist Russia "

Do you think he should have gone to war against Stalin in 1945? That was the only way to prevent Soviet domination of Eastern Europe.

Norman Pfyster writes:

Your are missing the other half of the equation, though: retrospective voting applied equally to the Republicans. Even now, they still have problems living down Herbert Hoover.

Kurbla writes:

Mercer, I think that Bryan wants to convince his readers that Hitler was less radical version of Stalin, and that FDR should ally with Hitler as lesser evil against Stalin. But he doesn't want to say it openly ... yet.

Godwin writes:

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Eric Rasmusen writes:

I like the point of the post. It's quite true that the economy was in rotten shape all during the 1930s. Unemployment remained at what we'd now consider unacceptable levels, even though there was growth because it gradually declined.

The real question is why he did so well in 1936. By 1940 and 1944 foreign policy was playing a role.

Brett writes:

Where are you getting this "uninterrupted depression" from? As your own chart shows, unemployment was falling for almost every single year that FDR was President in the 1930s, except for a single rise in 1938 (which was still much lower than the 1932-33 peak). That same year, the Democrats suffered some serious setbacks in Congress (although they still dominated).

david writes:

The people's (and political scientists'?) romance.

Foobarista writes:

What would "success" have looked like? Not that I'm a huge fan of Roosevelt's economic policies, but to define "failure", you have to have a definition of "success".

And no, it can't be "we read minds and kill Hitler with a super-targeted James Bond type, off Stalin too, and do policy magic that makes the depression disappear and launches us into a land of infinite peace and prosperity".

Babinich writes:

As to the war, the fact that half of Europe would end up under Communist control wasn't apparent until after FDR died.

I have a question and a comment.

Question: Was Roosevelt in a vaccum? The SU under Stalin meant one thing: subjugation.

Comment: The fate of eastern Europe was sealed at Tehran.

Curmudgeon writes:

On the Ludwig von Mises Institute site, there is a puzzling article by Mark Thornton ("The Real Reason for DFR's Popularity", October 20 2010) suggesting that FDR's popularity was due to his repeal of prohibition. Voters might have beeen grateful throughout all these years.

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