Why smart politicians say stupid things to win elections

|The Volokh Conspiracy |


Georgetown political theorist Jason Brennan, author of the excellent book The Ethics of Voting (which I reviewed here), has an insightful post at the Princeton University Press blog, explaining why smart politicians routinely say stupid things:

The Onion jokes: Donald Trump is "an eccentric, megalomaniac billionaire still more relatable to average Americans than anyone willing to dedicate life to politics". Every other day, he says something outrageous or blatantly false, and yet he continues to grow in the polls. He seems to be getting by on empty slogans, with no well thought out policy ideas.
 When you see a politician saying something outrageous or blatantly false, you might be tempted to decry the quality of our politicians….

But there's a reason we have the kind of politicians we do, and it's not because no one better is willing to step up to the plate…. Donald Trump may or may not be an eccentric megalomaniac, and he has indeed said many substantively stupid things. But he's not a stupid man, and saying stupid things to would-be voters is a very smart thing to do.

Politicians are trying to win elections. To win elections, they need to get the most votes. To do that, they need to appeal to as many voters as possible. In an election, what every smart politician is trying to do is behave in ways that he or she hopes will appeal to the typical voter. Politicians are like this because they respond rationally to the incentives democracy creates.

 If voters were well-informed, dispassionate policy-wonks, then political campaigns would resemble peer-reviewed economics journals. But few voters or potential voters are like that… most voters are poorly informed, passionate, biased, overconfident, and tribalistic.

Trump

Like the politicians who seek to appeal to them, ignorant voters are not necessarily stupid. As Jason explains, they too are mostly behaving rationally, given the incentives created by the political system:

Voters are like this because they respond rationally to the incentives democracy creates. The problem is that our individual votes count for very little. Economists and political scientists debate just how to calculate the probability that your vote will make a difference. Still, even on the most optimistic estimate in the literature, your vote (in a presidential election) has a 1 in 10 million chance of making a difference, but only if you live one of handful of swing states….

Voters do not consume much information, nor do they discipline themselves to think rationally about the information they consume, because their votes make little difference. As economists like to say, voters are rationally ignorant. Consider, as an analogy. Suppose a billionaire offers you a million dollars if you can ace the Advance Placement Economics and Political Science exams. You'd probably be willing to learn basic economics and political science for that price. But now suppose the billionaire instead offers you a 1 in 20 million chance of earning that million dollars if you ace the exams. Now it's not worth your time-it doesn't pay to learn economics or political science.

There is indeed extensive evidence that most voters know little about politics and public policy, and do a poor job of evaluating the information they do know. As a result, smart politicians who want to win have strong incentives to manipulate political ignorance to their advantage. Those who value truth above getting power are unlikely to win office or to stay there very long if they do.

In some respects, Trump's campaign is a particularly blatant appeal to public ignorance. For example, he is trying to persuade Republican primary voters that he is a true conservative, despite an extensive record of left-wing stances on various issues. It is probably no accident that the variable most strongly associated with support for Trump in most surveys is not ideology, but low levels of education (which is often strongly correlated with political ignorance).

But Trump's manipulation of ignorance differs from the strategies of mainstream politicians more in degree than kind. Exploitation of ignorance was a standard political tool long before Trump decided to run for president. It was not the boorish Trump, but the far more intellectually sophisticated President Barack Obama who secured passage of his signature health care reform in large part by manipulating what Obamacare architect Jonathan Gruber called "the stupidity of the American voter," blatantly lying to the public when he repeatedly assured them that "if you like your health care plan, you can keep it." A better-informed electorate would not have fallen for that deception, since it should have been obvious to any moderately knowledgeable observer that the whole structure of the ACA relies on forcing many people to buy broader and more expensive insurance plans than they had before.

Of course, most of the conventional Republican politicians seeking to defeat Trump are not above appealing to ignorance themselves when it is politically advantageous to do so. When it comes to political ignorance, neither major party can claim the moral high ground. If they could, they probably would not be a major party in the first place. While partisans like to claim that ignorance is largely confined to the supporters of the opposing party, the truth is that it is widespread among supporters of both parties, and even worse among the swing-voters who often tip the scales of electoral outcomes.

There is no easy solution to the problem of political ignorance. As Jason emphasizes, it is not just a simple matter of getting rid of a few unscrupulous politicians. Real progress requires changing the structure of incentives facing both politicians and voters by making fewer important decisions in a setting where the latter have strong incentives to be ignorant and irrational, and the former have strong incentives to exploit that ignorance for political advantage. If we are to achieve "change we can believe in," we should begin by acknowledging that we have a serious systemic problem of which Donald Trump is just a particularly obnoxious symptom.

UPDATE: I have made a few minor additions to this post.