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The Idiot Vote: A Theory


Political scientists have long puzzled over why there’s such a strong tendency for the out party in American midterm elections to gain seats relative to the party in control of the presidency.

The leading theories appear to be or have been that presidential elections feature a coat-tail effect that midterms don’t, that midterms are indirect referenda on presidents who generally experience a decline in popularity in the first two years of their terms, and the most popular view among political scientists at present, which is that swing voters engage in “balancing” behavior by voting for the out party, to balance the ideological tendencies of the party in control of the White House.

On the basis of zero evidence other than following media coverage of American politics I’m going to suggest a fourth theory, which I’ll call The Idiots Who Think Max Weber Was a Bowling Superstar Theory (TIWTMWWABST for short).

Weber famously described politics as the slow boring of hard boards. TIWTMWWABST posits that, in the current American political climate, swing voters in particular are consumerist morons, who expect political parties to fix things in more or less the same way that McDonald’s is supposed to fix your drive-thru order when they get it wrong the first time.

Hey look it’s yet another NYT story explaining that white Americans vote for proto-fascists because of economic anxiety:

Both Democrats and Republicans have largely coalesced behind their own party’s congressional candidates. But the poll showed that Republicans opened up a 10-percentage point lead among crucial independent voters, compared with a three-point edge for Democrats in September, as undecided voters moved toward Republicans.

The biggest shift came from women who identified as independent voters. In September, they favored Democrats by 14 points. Now, independent women backed Republicans by 18 points — a striking swing given the polarization of the American electorate and how intensely Democrats have focused on that group and on the threat Republicans pose to abortion rights.

The survey showed that the economy remained a far more potent political issue in 2022 than abortion.

“I’m shifting more towards Republican because I feel like they’re more geared towards business,” said Robin Ackerman, a 37-year-old Democrat and mortgage loan officer who lives in New Castle, Del., and is planning to vote Republican this fall.

Ms. Ackerman said she disagreed “1,000 percent” with the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade and erase the national right to an abortion. “But that doesn’t really have a lot to do with my decision,” she said of her fall vote. “I’m more worried about other things.”

What sorts of things?

The issues that mattered most to voters aligned heavily with partisan preferences. Voters who were focused on the economy and inflation favored Republicans over Democrats 64 percent to 30 percent. Democrats held a 20-percentage-point advantage among voters who cared the most about any other issue.

The economy was the most pressing issue for voters in both the July poll and now. The challenge for Democrats is that the share of voters focused on economic matters is bigger now.

“It’s all about cost,” said Gerard Lamoureux, a 51-year-old Democratic retiree in Newtown, Conn., who is planning to vote Republican this fall. “The price of gas and groceries are through the roof. And I want to eat healthy, but it’s cheaper for me to go to McDonald’s and get a little meal than it is to cook dinner.”

Hey “retired” Gen X slacker, did you ever consider getting another job instead of voting for a party that has quite literally gone fascist while you were channel surfing?

As this Noah Berlatsky essay points out, citations to the state of the economy are largely just ex post facto rationalizations voters use to justify their choices, rather than actual causal explanations for those choices.

Anyway, back to Max Weber, champion bowler. Anybody who thinks there’s some sort of considered choice to be made between any Democratic and any Republican candidate in any election in the USA at the present time, from the local school board to the presidency of the United States, is somebody who probably believes that it’s the job of politicians to “fix” things like “the economy” or “crime” or “the weather” aka climate change, right now, not next year, and if they don’t successfully do these things on a two-year timeline, well then it’s time to try the other team, even though the other team disagrees with the previous team on issues like whether we should be a democracy or women should have the same reproductive rights they had in 1890 rather than 2021.

In other words we’re talking about the common clay of the West (and the East and the South and the North).

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