The 'crazy pills' election

How democracy expresses its irrationality, from McCain and Palin to Dinocrats to Obama's audacity of hope.
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How democracy expresses its irrationality, from McCain and Palin to Dinocrats to Obama's audacity of hope.

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, 'ꀜI 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.'ꀝ 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 'ꀜelite'ꀝ 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.

A dramatic example is expressed in this recent post by Ben Smith on the Politico Web site. He writes about an e-mail he received from a Republican consultant who had been focus-grouping Reagan Democrats and independent voters in the upper Midwest. The GOP operative tried showing them a nasty TV ad attacking Barrack Obama, and voters found the ad utterly convincing. However, says the consultant:

Yes, the spot worked. Yes, they believed the charges against Obama. Yes, they actually think he's too liberal, consorts with bad people and WON'T BE A GOOD PRESIDENT ... but they STILL don't give a f***. They said right out, "He won't do anything better than McCain" but they're STILL voting for Obama.

The two most unreal moments of my professional life of watching focus groups:

54 year-old white male, voted Kerry '04, Bush '00, Dole '96, hunter, NASCAR fan ... hard for Obama said: "I'm gonna hate him the minute I vote for him. He's gonna be a bad president. But I won't ever vote for another god-damn Republican. I want the government to take over all of Wall Street and bankers and the car companies and Wal-Mart run this county like we used to when Reagan was President."

The next was a woman, late 50s, Democrat but strongly pro-life. Loved B. and H. Clinton, loved Bush in 2000. "Well, I don't know much about this terrorist group Barack used to be in with that Weather guy but I'm sick of paying for health insurance at work and that's why I'm supporting Barack." I felt like I was taking crazy pills. I sat on the other side of the glass and realized ... this really is the Apocalypse. The Seventh Seal is broken and its time for eight years of pure, delicious crazy. ...

The Apocalypse? Perhaps an appropriate wipeout for a party that has been scanning the skies for signs of righteous validation.

Of course, a lot of what is on any election ballot is at root irrational and emotional. Some issues and candidate choices cannot be reduced to numbers that would please a "rational" economist. (And how rational are they? One said the other day that all the money we lost in our 401Ks and IRAs was "imaginary." Now they tell us.)

Initiative 1000 in Washington state, for example, is variously described as being about "the right to die," "death with dignity," and "doctor-assisted suicide," but at its root it is about very personal, emotional decisions that involve imagining possible death scenarios for ourselves or loved ones. Religious belief, personal experience, notions of life, death, and their meanings are critical factors in how we come down on the issue. It's hard to argue that there is a purely rational answer.

Also, some decisions that seem irrational can still be the result of reasoned decision-making. The conundrum in Washington is the poll phenomenon suggesting there might be a fair number of Barack Obama-Dino Rossi voters, just as there were John Kerry-Rossi voters in 2004, the so-called Dinocrats. Places like Issaquah are often the ground-zero for ticket splitters who feel comfortable voting red and blue. National and gubernatorial voters can parse votes very differently. A soccer mom in the suburbs might conclude that Obama is best on national security and that Rossi will hold down local taxes and spending. The two decisions can be separate and practical — they don't necessarily suggest schizophrenia. But liberals will see that as crazy-making, especially if Rossi wins in what "should" be a big Democratic year nationally. It will be taken as a further sign of suburban madness.

We've long known that rationality isn't the strong suit of popular opinion. Fear just makes it more obvious. Take the growing rage folks are feeling as they watch their life savings or retirement slip away with the Wall Street meltdown. At a McCain or Palin rally, you holler about the pestilence of Socialism. At a union rally, the villain is corporate globalization. In 2000, I traveled across the country to protest Bush's inauguration after the stolen the election. I vented my spleen loudly. Such rage holds dangers--it can encourage violence--but it can also be cathartic, like yelling and booing at a baseball game. Of course, no one gets assassinated at baseball games, not even the umpires. Politics stirs passions more than it elevates minds. Just watch the campaign commercials: Nasty, brutish and often effective.

We're also irrational about what we like as well as what we hate. Obama's campaign is about the "audacity of hope," a plain appeal to the heart, to the world not as it is but as it should be. If populism feeds on fears, idealism can inspire us, at least before it leads to disappointment. What former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan called "irrational exuberance" has a cost: Bubbles pop, as we are painfully learning yet again.

The boom and bust of enthusiasms has been repeated throughout history in all areas of human endeavor. If you have not read it, Charles Mackay's 19th century classic, Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, should be on your night stand or next to the toilet. From tulipomania to the South Sea Bubble, from witchhunts to the craziness of the Crusades, Mackay's compendium documents irrational exuberance in all its forms throughout history. MacKay, writing in 1841, called them "moral epidemics." We are all susceptible.

One of the saving graces of democracy is that our individual craziness, even when it gathers momentum with like-minded people, is not the final word. There is always another election, another ballot measure or initiative, another fresh face telling us the lies we want to hear, another chance to express our inner Sybil and her multiple personalities at the polls. That which proves we're irrational is also what keeps the possibility of sanity alive.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.