Each of us is entitled to his or her own craziness. It's something we can nourish, cuddle, and call our own. It's part of what makes us who we are. But it's a problem in a democracy when each of us can head to the voting booth and express our individual insanity across the ballot. It's a source of great frustration to public-spirited people who want to see rational results from rational individuals.
One of the earliest examples of head-spinning political disconnection I experienced was in 1972 when I door-belled Portland's blue-collar suburbs on behalf of Sen. George McGovern for the Oregon primary. As I went door to door, taking occasional abuse for being a long-haired hippie, I had some interesting conversations with voters. One, an old truck driver, sticks in my mind. As part of the canvas, I asked him if he knew who he was going to vote for in the primary. "Well," he said in that kind of CB-radio-semi-Southern accent truckers used to have, "If Tiddy Kinnidy was runnin', I'd vote for Kinnidy. But since he ain't, I'm voting for George C. Wallace."
Never could I have imagined a Kinnidy-Wallace voter, but there he was. It puts me in mind of my Scottish granny, whose passions included Bonnie Prince Charlie, Rudolph Valentino, Elvis Presley, the Kennedys, and Billy Graham. She also believed in having her fortune read in tea. It all made sense in a magical-thinking, primal kind of way. But rational it was not.
Recent books have tried to nail down the reasons for our irrationality in politics. There's is Bryan Caplan's book, The Myth of the Rational Voter, in which the George Mason University economics professor concludes that Americans are hopelessly irrational and that our nutty election results are due to how delusional we are. As quoted by New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, Caplan writes, “I see neither well-functioning democracies nor democracies hijacked by special interests. Instead, I see democracies that fall short because voters get the foolish policies they ask for.” He says we Americans are particularly irrational about our fears of the free market, our neo-Ludditry, and our abnormal terror of foreigners, the tendency to over-exaggerate threats. One example cited: Invading Iraq was deemed more vital than, say, declaring war on diabetes, a disease that will claim more American lives.
In recent times, some people have become extremely frustrated with the voter-vote disconnect. Liberals could not imagine B-movie actor Ronald Reagan as president nor conceive of George W. Bush winning a second term. Conservatives couldn't believe polls that showed Bill Clinton hanging on to strong popularity ratings through sex scandals and impeachment. One big question in progressive circles has been how come the working class — the so-called "Reagan Democrats" — keep voting against their interests? Thomas Frank laid this out in his book on conservative populism, What's the Matter with Kansas. The central notion was this:
What we are observing, then, is a populist movement that has done irreversible harm to the material interests of the common people it professes to love so tenderly — a form of class animosity that rages against a shadowy “elite” while enthroning a new aristocracy of bankers, brokers, and corporate thieves.
Republicans have been able to trump economic disconnect with culture war issues (abortion, gay marriage, flag pins). But that strategy turned out to be an exploding cigar. Now that real economic crisis has come home to roost, fear is now running in the other direction. Sen. John McCain has been trying to appeal to that older 2004 mindset with his anti-elitism rhetoric and his selection of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as his running mate, but the polls suggest the juice is with change, with swapping one elite construct, Wall Street, with another, neo-New Dealism. Much of the mojo is still irrational. Some swing voters believe change — even bad change — is worse than the current nightmare.
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