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A Pox on Bai

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As always, I was intensely irritated by Matt Bai’s review of Pierson and Hacker’s fine new book. While such events as the failure of Bush’s social security initiative do indeed raise serious questions about the limitations of the thesis, and there are certainly other things one can quibble with, Bai for the most part takes the “shape of the world: views differ” approach he virtually always does. Rather than rebutting their voluminous data about shifts in the Republican caucus that do not reflect shifts in public opinion, he basically declares that since it doesn’t blame both parties equally it must ipso facto be wrong. I see that the authors themselves have critiqued Bai, which saves me the trouble of detailing the obvious problems with this lazy approach. And some of my disagreements with Bai, such as his argument-from-tradition that the Senate’s gross malapportionment must be preferable to a more majoritarian legislature, are just normative. But there is one additional part of the review which should be pointed out:

For all the hype about the so-called religious right, most rural and exurban voters display little ideological zealotry; rather, they seem inclined toward mild conservatism on economics and foreign policy, along with a reverence for individual liberty – a combination which places them firmly in the historical mainstream of American politics.

On foreign policy, I’ll buy it, but he doesn’t let us in on what the evidence is for the alleged economic conservatism and cultural libertarianism of swing voters; I certainly don’t get it out of Hacker and Pierson’s data. Rather, this seems to be the ur-pundit’s fallacy: the idea that swing voters are conservative economically but socially liberal. This is, of course, as Matt recently noted a better description of media elites like Bai than of swing voters. The latter, from the data I’ve seen tend to prefer Democratic positions on economic issues but–with the exception of criminalizing abortion–tend to prefer Republican positions on cultural issues. (This is particularly ironic from someone who applauds the equal representation of California and Wyoming in the Senate because it will frustrate “urban elites.”) Whatever “reverence for individual liberty” rural voters may express in the abstract, they tend to be (for better or worse) more statist in their economic and cultural positions than both political and media elites.

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