I guess I’m stupid because I think it will be close

I took my older two kids with me to vote this morning. I like to show them that voting is important, and thankfully, there weren’t any lines. We were in and out of the voting booth quickly (though I missed the opportunity to let the kids press the “done” button — as a poll worker pointed out I could have done afterwards. Whoops. Next time). I turned 18 one month too late to vote in the 1996 presidential election, so I’ve been sure not to miss any since.

I’m not entirely sure who will win. Unlike 2008, the race seems somewhat closer, at least in terms of national polls. A lot seems to hinge on swing state turnout, and it tentatively seems like the incumbent has the advantage there. But we shall see. So I was a bit surprised by the headline on Paul Krugman’s recent column (online version, as linked to by Real Clear Politics): You’re stupid if you think it’s close. Really?

Broadly, this idea of calling people stupid on issues that are less settled than, say, whether it’s OK to leave your kids locked in a hot car, bothers me. One of my biggest personal pet peeves, every election season, is the assumption (on both sides!) that no thinking, reasonable, good person could disagree with you. I used to be more on the left side of the political aisle, and I well remember walking into school back in Indiana the morning after the 1994 election when the Republicans took control of Congress for the first time in 40 years. My first period teacher let out a cheer and said something like “how about that election last night?” The rest of the class cheered back. I found it very strange. Had I missed the memo about the assumption that everyone’s sympathies lay to the right? (Even a teacher! How’s that for busting stereotypes?)

My politics have since drifted more to the center/center-right of things, but I’ve spent the last 15 years living in blue states. And so I’ve frequently seen that same assumption from people with politics pointing the opposite direction. A woman who’s just met a group of people announces something about “that horrible George W. Bush” within the first three minutes — I guess assuming that whatever 50 percent of the population that voted for him could not possibly be represented in this nice group of folks she’s having dinner with.

Maybe it came from having my rightward drift coincide with my time at college — where most people were pretty smart — but I certainly don’t think that people who have different political opinions than me are stupid. I don’t even think it’s that they don’t have all the facts. I think we are often looking at similar facts and drawing different conclusions. We assign different weights to results of certain trade-offs.

Another reason the hysterics of election season bother me is that I’ve discovered over the years that the world hasn’t ended or even changed all that much because one party has been in power. I assumed one sure result of an Obama presidency was that my taxes were going to go up. But they haven’t (yet; it seems more likely in a second term, but who knows?). In fact, with the payroll tax cut of the last two years, my tax rate under Obama has been slightly lower than it was under Bush. I was told, back in 2000, that if Bush won, Roe v. Wade would be overturned. Through 8 years of his presidency, that didn’t happen either.

I have high hopes that the tone of political arguments can be changed. But part of the result of polarization — of states drifting bluer or redder — is that we become less exposed to people who think differently, and who we can also see are good, smart, reasonable people. So elections become almost tribal. Which team are you on? For one to win, the other has to lose. There becomes less room for discussion.

That’s too bad, because many problems won’t be cleanly solved by ideology. There are interesting ideas bubbling up on all sides. Many from people who aren’t stupid.

In other news: If you’re reading this (and are in the US) and haven’t voted yet, go do so!

18 thoughts on “I guess I’m stupid because I think it will be close

  1. I’m not sure that the popular idea that we’re “more red/blue” than before holds true. The university I work at has a great online visualization of this (good only through 2008 – hopefully, they’ll update after today) called “Voting America”. Watch the county-level visualization of election results from 1840-2008; it’s amazing what a purple country we are!

  2. So first, you make a valid point that assuming stupidity isn’t productive. And I completely agree that the popular vote will be close (for the record, I’d bet Paul Krugman would agree as well; I know Nate Silver would).

    However, it is fair to say, in this particular case, that you are stupid if you think it’s close *because you have been listening to the horserace style coverage of the media or because you are only focusing on the national poll numbers*. For better or for worse (and I’m not a huge fan of the system), you do not win a presidency by getting a majority of the votes but a majority of the electoral college votes. So looking at the national polls to determine the most likely outcome is simply not wise. It’s like using the numbers for senate races to predict the presidency- it might be correlated with what we care about, but it’s not a very good poll to look at if you can actually look at the specific state polls (see http://reason.com/blog/2012/11/06/obamas-slim-yet-consistent-lead-will-car).
    Of course, if you believe the race will be close because there is a systematic bias in the polls, and Democratics are simply not going to turn out, that could be a perfectly reasonable position and I’d be interested in hearing why you think that.

    Also- in fairness to the woman discussing “that horrible George W. Bush”- Bush’s approval ratings in 2009 hovered around 30%. A good chunk of people who voted for him were not thrilled with how he handled e.g. Hurricane Katrina. Though unless she was speaking in New Orleans, it still isn’t the best bet for making a good impression among new people!

    1. @becca- a fair point in 2009 (or in New Orleans). But the particular incident I was thinking of in this case was 2005. It really stuck with me (more than other, similar incidents later in the presidency) given that he had just won the presidency — both the popular vote and the electoral vote! — in 2004. It was just an incredible little insight into a worldview. The majority who voted for him must have come from another planet.

      1. I don’t really get this particular example. I certainly agree that it isn’t nice, or tactful, or respectful to call a sitting President “horrible” in front of a group of strangers. I think this woman’s behavior was rude.

        But why do you think it logically follows that if a person thinks a politician is horrible, and says so aloud, they think that other people who don’t think he is horrible are stupid or from another planet? I thought GWB was horrible for all 8 years of his Presidency. My opinion of him did not change in 2004 just because he won that election. I knew my opinion was a minority among voters at that time, but that didn’t change it. I also think McDonald’s cheeseburgers are horrible, and I think the TV show, “Animal Practice,” (now cancelled after a handful of episodes) was horrible. All of this is just my opinion, and if I express it openly, people are free to challenge me and present differing opinions, and they do. As people were free to challenge this woman. Why didn’t they?

        I have a Tea Party FB “friend” who went into a rant against me when I simply wrote to him, “I am a registered Democrat.” He told me I was “un-American” and “doing the opposite of what was good for our country” by being a registered member of one of the country’s two major political parties. It was an annoying enough exchange, but I don’t see it as evidence that he thinks I’m stupid. Rather, I think it reflects more on him than it does on me.

        Is there something that I’m missing here? Why this over-interpretation of people’s rude and thoughtless comments when the comments happen to be about politicians? Isn’t the freedom to be able to make rude and disagreeable and even wrong-headed political statements an important part of our democracy?

      2. Well, the fact that Bush did not win the presidency through the popular vote OR the electoral college, but instead through the supreme court may have possibly contributed to this woman’s view (that is: it was a very polarizing election simply as the *process* went. Coming down to Bush’s 529 votes in Florida… now that was close! Makes Obama’s ~2.5 million popular votes and 126 electoral college vote leads look like a landslide, huh? So you weren’t stupid, but you were quite wrong. I was also wrong, although less so. Sorry, I will try not be insufferably gloaty about it. Much).

  3. “I’ve discovered over the years that the world hasn’t ended or even changed all that much because one party has been in power.”

    Yup, sure is nice being upper middle class, isn’t it? I also enjoy being insulated from the effects of politics. I love being able to buy my way into a nice neighborhood, into private schools, and so on. I love having a job that offers health insurance, not having to worry about consumer protection laws because a single overdraft would never put me in a tailspin of debt, having plenty of money to cover a temporary job loss, and so on. It is absolutely great not being on the margin and not having to see the effects of government programs other than a bit in the tax bill each year, which is totally handle-able. If only DH didn’t have all those poor relatives who actually are affected whenever SCHIP or Pell Grant or other rules change, then I wouldn’t have to care at all! And thank goodness if I ever need an abortion I can buy a plane ticket to Japan to get one, though I shouldn’t need to because if I did it would be “life or health of the mother” which is historically easier to prove when you’re well off and I can afford any extra mouths to feed.

    Also, if only I hadn’t had to live around people who were directly affected by Reagan cutting widows and orphans benefits growing up. Too bad I couldn’t have started out upper-middle class rather than having to benefit from the Clinton years to get there.

    As someone who does program evaluation for a living, I can say with confidence that public programs absolutely have real and statistically significant effects on the health and well-being of people. Generally just, you know, poor people, but some of us think that’s important. And, according to political economy, politics generally has an effect on programs. It is disingenuous to say that your vote does not matter or that the president doesn’t matter.

    Again, Scalzi has a nice post on the topic. http://whatever.scalzi.com/2012/11/04/what-if-romney-wins/

    1. @NicoleandMaggie – the sarcasm of that response is a good example of the tone that permeates much election talk these days, so thank you for providing that. Yes, people who note that the major messaging both parties have used in recent elections (e.g. Barack Obama is a socialist who wants to spread the wealth or if Bush is elected Roe will definitely be overturned) did not come to pass must be heartless, clueless or both. I actually had a similar debate (coming from the other side!) with Bill O’Reilly on his radio program many years ago. He tried to convince me that it really mattered that Bush was elected president because he’d lower taxes. I pointed out that I earned so little at the time it didn’t really change much for me. I wonder if I can find that transcript.

      Actually, I think the objective of reducing poverty is one of those areas that could use a lot less ideology and more focus on practical matters. If rapid economic growth reduces poverty by generating enough jobs to keep us close to the natural rate of unemployment, then how does one go about setting the conditions for such rapid growth? If better schools — defined as being able to take children from all backgrounds and prepare them for college and careers — would reduce poverty, then how can communities create better schools? I’m not sure that all economists and program evaluators are 100% in agreement on these answers. There are probably good ideas all over the place.

      1. I am not really sure why the question of whether I personally am better off, or not, in the short term under a particular party is relevant at all. My immediate family is significantly better off economically than we were 4 years ago. But I know that’s not true for most people country wide. It was a stroke of good luck that doesn’t generalize and is not likely to repeat.

        As far as the really big issues that are largely outside the President’s control–such as the recession of 2008 and the 9/11 attacks–I agree that the differences between the parties would have been incremental rather than hugely significant. But nonetheless, I think that other things would have been very different (and, in my opinion, much better) if Gore had won the Electoral vote, not just the popular vote, in 2000. In particular, I’ve been distressed by the extent to which both parties have been ignoring global climate change and left it off the national agenda. But it was (and still is) Gore’s signature issue, and I think the issue transcends the current left-right divide. And while Roe vs. Wade wasn’t overturned, the Bush-appointed Supreme Court justices did give us the “Citizens United” decision, which I think is even worse in terms of being divisive and bad for democracy.

        1. @Karen- it is fascinating how certain issues either come up or don’t come up in elections. One of the first elections I actually got to vote in was 1997 gubernatorial in New Jersey. Auto insurance wound up dominating the airwaves on that one. Go figure. Both major parties, on the national level, seem to have decided that gun control is not a winning issue. There wasn’t much on that. There was basically nothing on incarceration rates and the criminal justice system. And the biggie — almost nothing on climate change. Maybe it’s such that the scope of the problem is so huge (can we really reduce carbon emissions by the 90% it might take to make a difference? And would China ever do the same?) that everyone figured they didn’t want to touch it. Hard to know.

          1. @Laura, I agree. Campaign finance reform is another one that perennially hovers on the edges and rarely gets discussed since it’s not in the candidates’ best interest to do anything about it. It still bothers me, though, that so much money was spent on these campaign ads through the superPACs. Sheldon Adelson funds important and cutting-edge biomedical research through his own private foundations. He deserves a lot of credit for that. It seems like a tragic waste of resources that so much money went to those super PACs rather than to research that could have saved lives and created jobs.

    2. Wow, NicoleandMaggie…you are so insightful! That’s exactly what Laura was saying – that we shouldn’t care at all about the less fortunate. Rich people rule!!!
      Don’t worry, though, because if things keep going the way they are in America, one day you too may have a chance to be disadvantaged again. (See: Greece, Italy, Spain and most of western Europe).

  4. As the child of immigrants who became naturalized citizens, it’s been ingrained in me that it is VERY important to vote. So hubby and I sit down at each election and go through the materials together. Which is kind of a nice bonding/discussion time too.

    But the “game” of politics? I am SO not into it. I don’t engage on Facebook, and don’t read about polls or pay attention to the campaigning. Getting rid of our home phone line means we don’t get robocalls and I recycle all the campaign junk mail as soon as it arrives. I’d love to not have to deal with any of that. It especially irks me that incumbent candidates spend so much time campaigning when they’re supposed to be doing the job we elected them for in the first place.

  5. I have deliberately become involved in some political discussions on Facebook this year, and I have deliberately kept up my ties with FB friends from a wide spectrum of political views.

    This has taken some effort, given how Facebook is skewing our news feeds recently. I think our country is stronger when we do have discussions from different points of view, plus I have to assume I am not the only person in the country who is somewhere in the middle of the political spectrum, and I like to see people actually discuss issues with each other.

    This election season has been upsetting at times, and I especially dislike name-calling and derogatory comments about people who view issues differently. Yet, I do feel confident that no matter the results tonight (we hope), there will be a smooth transition, and not a military coup, and for that, I am extremely grateful.

    1. @Linda- very true. Someone posted on Facebook that after the last election she got a letter from a child she sponsors in a developing country congratulating her on the “peaceful” election. That about sums up how good we have it here!

  6. My husband and I are on opposite ends of the political spectrum. Our kids hate it when we argue politics, but every once in a while we really get fired up. Even so, I respect his ideas. I see where he is coming from. I think we both have the same goals in mind, just different ways of getting there. I also hate the stereotypes and polarizing comments on both ends of the spectrum. It’s counterproductive. But it makes for good entertainment and, boy, do we love to be entertained.

  7. A couple of weeks ago you linked to a blog that was titled, “You are stupid if you do your own laundry.”

    I think it was just an attention-getting headline and most readers of that blog seemed to be able to get past that and consider the underlying points.

    I read and commented on that blog, I still do my own laundry, and I still know that I’m not stupid. When the topic is politics, why not take such silly headlines in the same spirit?

  8. I’m coming late to the commenting party, but I really appreciated this post and most of the thoughtful comments. My family and friends (of varying political leanings) have been having off-and-on discussions all week, mostly in a respectful spirit. I can’t believe that one political party is all wrong and the other is all right, and wish people would be a little more circumspect when throwing around words like “stupid,” especially when with unfamiliar company. I would be unlikely to confront someone making a statement like that that I disagreed with, because I know I won’t change their minds, and they are unlikely to change mine. I dislike the fear and hate that were stirred up this election cycle, and choose to be optimistic that maybe, just maybe, things will get incrementally better, despite our politicians. I voted, which was all I could do, and now if I want to see change/improvement, I should see what small thing I can do that might bring that about.

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