Abandon All Knowledge of Politics All Ye Who Enter This Debate

Lord Saletan address the masses on the subject of abortion, with an op-ed predicated on a dismayingly predictable howler:

If you support abortion rights, this idea may strike you as nuts. But look at your predicament. Most Americans support Roe and think women, not the government, should make abortion decisions. Yet they’ve entrusted Congress and the White House to politicians who oppose legal abortion, and they haven’t stopped the confirmations to the Supreme Court of John G. Roberts Jr. and, soon, Samuel A. Alito Jr.

You can tell yourself that the pro-choice majority stayed home in the last election, or that they voted on other issues, or that Democrats botched the debate. But those excuses are getting tired. Sixteen years ago, as the behavior of voters and politicians showed, abortion was clearly a winning issue for you. Now it isn’t. You have a problem.

Um, excuse me? I honestly don’t know what it is about the abortion debate that requires so many pundits to say things about politics that they must know to be false. The idea that “people voted on other issues” is an “excuse” is so abjectly nonsensical I can’t believe that Saletan believes it. To state the blindingly obvious, you cannot infer the popularity of a party’s position on any individual issue from the result of an individual presidential election. As anybody with an even rudimentary understanding of voting behavior knows, the (relatively ill-informed) electorate votes on a complex matrix of personality heuristics and issues, and a party needn’t have majority positions on all issues to win an election (and we know that the Republicans don’t.) Nor, of course, did President Bush say that he wanted to criminalize abortion in either campaign, and the Republicans went out of their way to conceal Alito’s extremely unpopular position on Roe during the confirmation battle.

But it’s worse than that. Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that we adopt Saletan’s transparently idiotic assumption that elections represent plebiscites on individual issues. His argument still fails even on its own terms. The pro-choice party has, of course, won the popular vote in 3 of the last 4 elections, and the one they didn’t win was an historically weak victory for a wartime incumbent. That’s rather odd if the only issue that (according to Saletan) matters is an electoral albatross for the Democrats. Even working from a claim about elections that nobody would make except to gin up a contrarian argument about abortion, Saletan’s argument is still illogical on its face. The implication of Saletan’s argument seems to be that the Democratic position on abortion must be unpopular unless the Democrats win every single election. In other words, to restate the position is to refute it.

I don’t buy Saletan’s normative claim that abortion is always horribly immoral either, but in trying to make it a prescriptive claim he’s engaged in a classic pundit’s fallacy. He’s trying to fix something although he has presented no evidence that it’s broken, and in order to do so he has to present a comically distorted view of how politics works, something that is all too common in the abortion debate.

another good point: Saletan pretends that the connection of contraception and reproductive freedom is some sort of novel insight on his part, when of course the issues have been closely connected by pro-choicers for decades.

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  1. BREAKING! New Deal Programs Extremely Popular - Lawyers, Guns & Money : Lawyers, Guns & Money:

    [...] None of this is surprising, because if you look closely the whole argument it’s a non-sequitur. Positive electoral results can prove the popularity of individual messages only if elections are referenda on discrete issues, which they obviously aren’t. [...]

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