Article By: Ryan Symons
I was recently introduced to an article written by Georgetown University professor Hans Noel. The piece is titled “Ten Things Political Scientists Know that You Don’t”, and generally challenges what some see as conventional wisdom in American Politics. I am in no way attempting to challenge the information laid out in this article, only extending Mr. Noel’s views and research to the readers of Mason Votes. In attempt to educate the uninformed and the “informed” reader during this election season, here are the ten things political scientists know that you don’t:
It’s the Fundamentals, Stupid
If it seems as if networks like CNN, Fox, and MSNBC thrive at over-analyzing political events, especially during an election year, you are probably right. A percentage of Americans rely on the analysis and break down of political events by these networks in order to form an overall opinion on the subject matter or person. Others have a pre-conceived ideological stance, and others could care less. The question is all this analysis necessary? According to Noel, “Presidential elections can be forecast with incredible accuracy well before the campaign really begins.” If you look at the state of the economy, you will have a fare idea how the party in power will do. Noel also points to important facts such as whether the country is at war, and how ideologically moderate the candidate is. The fundamentals can even be applied to midterm elections. With no surprise the voter’s opinion on the President plays a significant role in how the midterm elections turn out. The President’s party usually always loses a significant number of seats during the mid-term elections in a down economy. Political pundits and analysts always like to complicate their predictions, but if you go back to the fundamentals, the answer will be out in the open.
The Will of the People is Incredibly Hard to Put Your Finger on
How do you know when a politician is lying to you? When he or she tells you that they know what “The American People” want. Really, do you actually know what each of the three hundred million plus Americans that live in this country want? Highly unlikely, but yes, we do firmly believe in majority rule. That said, the poll system we use in order to determine how the majority feels is not a fool proof tool. Most people who interpret the polls have no idea how to read the polls, and the pulse of the poll can be severely affected by the wording of the question. In my opinion, there are too many variables and too many opportunities for manipulation to fully trust a poll. Noel has instead offered research findings on public opinion.
1.) Most people are not very ideological
2.) Most people do not have strong political opinions
3.) Most people take cues from political parties and leaders
4.) Let the polls be the polls – polls are very good when they ask very specific questions.
The Will of the People May Not Even Exist
The best explanation I could give to describe this is to physically show you an excerpt of Noel’s piece outlining collective rational.
“Collectively Rational: “The American people,” as a collective, should behave
as though they are rational. This means, for example, that if the group
prefers Obama to McCain and it prefers McCain to Romney, then it ought to
prefer Obama to Romney. Otherwise, we have a cycle that could never be
settled. Individual people may sometimes fail to meet this standard of
“rationality”, of course, but we do not want our system of voting to introduce
There is No Such Thing as A Mandate
This section, again, is a section that can be best explained by extracting an excerpt from Noel’s piece. This small excerpt outlines what happens following an election with regards to the “mandate” given to the person who was democratically elected.
“In a narrow sense, winning the election gives you a “mandate.” You are
now legally empowered to exercise your authority. But after every election,
pundits will declare a more complex “mandate.” They will tell you not simply
who won, but what that victory means. The winners won because they promised
X and voters wanted Y and were afraid of Z.”
“These narratives are created after the fact by people who want you to think
one thing or another (Grossback, Peterson, and Stimson, 2006, 2007). Winners
claim a mandate to change everything, and losers explain it all away as an
anomaly. But exit polls saying that some voters cared about some things are thin
reeds on which to spin out the will of the people.”
Duverger: It’s the Law
If you are not familiar with Duverger’s law, it states that the simple-majority simple-ballot system favors the two party system. There have certainly been cases around the world to contradict that notion; however, the American political system seems to be different. If the American people ever wanted a competitive third party, it would need an electoral reform. The Tea Party, Green Party, and Independents might just have to wait until these reforms become a reality to seriously challenge for the White House.
Forgive me if I am misinterpreting, and I do encourage all readers to read the original piece. It is just a reality, no matter who the American people elect, that they will not come together with other members of Congress to find the best deal for the American people. They will find the best deal for their party, whether that is Democratic or Republican. Each party is elected on the specific platform they presented throughout their campaign and that is what is expected to be carried out. This has led to intense polarization of the parties today and will surely play a role in November.
Most Independents are Closet Partisans
When you hear that the independent vote will be critical in the upcoming election, call the bluff. Noel argues that independents are not all that independent when you look at it closely. Independents tend to vote as an “independent”, but it seems as if their independent vote generally looks rather partisan. If an independent keeps voting for the same party with little to no change are they still considered independent?
Special Interests Are A Political Fiction
All of us are backers of “special interests.” We each tend to favor certain pro-environment, pro-business, pro-union, etc. A special interest is an interest opposed to the “general interest”, but if you subscribe to previous views laid out, there is no such thing. Can we fully grasp the “general interest”? Is there such thing as a “general interest”? If not than there is no way a special interest can exist.
The Grass Does Not Grow By Itself
Grassroots movements, largely, are not actually very root-y at all. Think of it how Noel explained it. People generally don’t just go out and spontaneously rally. Someone hosts a rally and invites people to come. Two examples I can think of were Glenn Beck’s “Rally to Restore Honor” and John Stewart and Stephen Colbert’s “Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear.” It is the same thing with grassroots movements; they involve some sort of central planning. So just like the President’s grassroots movement, the Tea Party activists might be saddened to hear that it wasn’t very grassroots-y at all, yet funded from a central organization, probably the Republican party [my own opinion].
We Do Not Know What You Think You Know
A Few things to leave you with:
1. Money buys the votes of the general public. (Maybe savvy donors just
donate to candidates who will win in the hopes of influencing them.)
2. Money buys the votes of elected legislators. (Maybe savvy donors just
donate to candidates who will vote the way they would like, and not to
those who would not.)
3. Parties influence the votes of elected legislators. (Maybe politicians just
sort themselves into the parties they agree with in the first place.)
4. Some candidates are just better campaigners than others.
5. Democracy leads to economic growth. (Maybe economic growth enables
democracy. Or maybe they are spuriously related.)
6. Autocracy leads to economic growth. (Maybe economic performance
enables dictators to hold onto power.)
7. The media is biased. (Maybe they are just trying to tell us what they think
we want to hear.)
8. Voters make choices based on their own self-interest. (Maybe they
rationalize their choices in this way.)
9. Voters choose the candidate that is closer to their own preferences.
10. People are more likely to vote when they think the election will be close.
11. And at least one political scientist, probably many, will insist that some
number of the previous nine items also belong on this list.
To read the original piece I am responding to written by Hans Noel click this link: http://www.ib.ethz.ch/teaching/pwgrundlagen/noel2010_forum.pdf
The views, facts, and opinions introduced in this article are that of the author of the original article, Hans Noel, unless otherwise specified.