Negative Interest

Someone at the Times has it in for political scientists

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What other explanation could there be for running yet another column by Drew Westen, sending poor Jonathan Bernstein and John Sides into fits of despair? Bernstein and Sides cover most of the not-so-good stuff (Bernstein corrects basic facts about the Affordable Care Act timeline and Sides corrects facts about voting, partisan identities, and public opinion), but it takes a village to fully correct the nonsense Westen continues to peddle.

Here is Westen (a psychologist) explaining the psychology behind modern conservatism:

Conservatism is by its nature concerned with preserving tradition, and with tradition comes a greater emphasis on obedience and hierarchy. “Spare the rod and spoil the child” rolls off the lips of many of my fellow Georgians, but it’s not among the top proverbs in Manhattan. Because of their attitude toward authority and hierarchy, Republicans in Congress are more likely to follow their leaders (although the tea in the Tea Party has added some libertarian spices for which some Republican leaders are still trying to develop a taste). This aptitude for synchronized swimming can lead to Olympic victories, but also to Pyrrhic ones.

Sides handles the “more likely to follow their leaders” claim (“Democrats in Congress are as unified if not more unified than Republicans in Congress.  See here or here“). But is Westen really willing to claim that the defining hallmarks of conservatism at this point are obedience to authority and hierarchy? The Republican Party is in the midst of a three-year tantrum aimed against authority. You have Kathleen Parker, a non-smoker, celebrating Herman Cain’s smoking ad as a rebellion against regulatory bureaucracy and the nanny state. Michele Bachmann introducing the “Light Bulb Freedom of Choice Act.” Mitt Romney and Rick Perry’s greatest respective weaknesses in the GOP primary come from instituting a mandate to purchase health insurance and instituting a mandate for girls to receive the HPV vaccine.

Republicans aren’t even necessarily obedient to their own leaders. 54 House Republicans bucked GOP leadership to vote against the continuing resolution in March. 48 Republicans voted against leadership on the September continuing resolution because it adhered to the spending agreement already approved during debt-ceiling negotiations and not the Paul Ryan budget. There is obvious tension between the insurgent crowd and the leadership in the House. If Republicans were in a position to pass legislation without the threat of a filibuster or a veto, those tensions would have a more obvious effect on the final make up of legislation.

Westen makes some other curiously sweeping claims. There’s this, for instance:

It is deeply ironic that the Republican Party, long the party of privilege, has become the party that champions the view that anyone — from an exterminator (Tom DeLay, former House majority leader) to the owner of a pizza joint (Bobby Schilling, freshman congressman from Illinois) — has what it takes to run a country.

I thought that could use a little revising. Here goes:

It is deeply ironic that the Republican Party, long the party of business, has become the party that champions the view that anyone — from a former business owner (Tom DeLay, former House majority leader) to a former business owner (Bobby Schilling, freshman congressman from Illinois) — has what it takes to run a country.

That reads a bit more smoothly, doesn’t it? Westen also plays the “Democrats are too focused on intellect” card:

Democrats, in contrast, are too likely to view intellect as both necessary (which it is) and sufficient (which it is not) for high office. They have repeatedly presented the American people with candidates — Hubert H. Humphrey, Walter F. Mondale, Michael S. Dukakis, Al Gore, John Kerry — with more than enough gray matter to be the world’s chief executive but not enough of the other skills that matter to the American people.

Bill Clinton famously reinvented the Democratic playbook, a “New Democrat” who could correct the failures of the Carter/Mondale/Dukakis mold of out-of-touch liberals. He could, as Westen puts it, “‘read’ the emotions of the electorate and speak to those emotions in a compelling way.” But let’s look at the vote tallies. Bill Clinton won the election with just 43% of the vote. Of the five candidates Westen mentioned – five candidates with “not enough of the other skills that matter to the American people” – only Hubert Humphrey and Walter Mondale received less than 43% of the vote (Humphrey with 42.7% and Mondale with 40.6%). Dukakis, the epitome of a weak Democratic candidate, received 45.7% of the vote. Al Gore, the epitome of technocratic neoliberalism, received 48.4%. John Kerry, the epitome of effete, elite Northeastern liberalism, received 48.3% of the vote.

Of course, anyone with a familiarity with political science research (or anyone who regularly reads Bernstein or Sides) knows that their are other factors determining the outcomes of presidential elections besides a politician’s ability to “‘read’ the electorate” and “the ability to articulate a vision and a set of values.” I wish the New York Times would leave its political coverage with more political science analysis and less psychoanalysis.

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Written by negativeinterest

October 31, 2011 at 6:52 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

One Response

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  1. […] addresses the same “‘read’ the emotions of the electorate” paragraph that I did: This is classic post hoc reasoning that doesn’t even belong in an undergraduate essay in an […]


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