"Throw the bums out!" That's one of the most familiar campaign cries in our history. It's even more effective than Herbert Hoover's slogan of "a chicken in every pot and a car in every garage" and stirs the blood like "Tippecanoe and Tyler, too" never could. Sometimes a little bum-throwing makes sense. Sometimes it doesn't.
In just over three weeks we'll elect a president who, whether it turns out that he's John McCain or Barack Obama, has crossed his heart and hoped to die if he doesn't make good on his promise to throw out the policies of an embattled president, if not that president himself. "President Obama," if there is one, might even chase George and Laura down Pennsylvania Ave., throwing sticks, stones and harsh words at the moving van.
A lot of the rhetoric of any campaign is designed to encourage foolishness, like expecting voters to believe everything they hear from the platform. Voters often relish being unpredictable and make unlikely choices. The political scientists and other academics who demand a rational explanation of things for which there may be no rational explanation often rail at "public ignorance" as the cause of not seeing things as they think the public should. These wise men think all that's important is "policy" and a candidate's ability to define undefined presidential "doctrine," or to play a version of Trivial Pursuit, such as identifying the middle initial of an assistant associate undersecretary of state.
Larry Bartels, a professor of politics at Princeton, suggests in a fascinating article in the Wilson Quarterly that the proper response to such thinking is a mocking, "So what?" Voters usually get to the place they want to go, and they choose how they get there.
"The political consequences of 'public ignorance' must be demonstrated, not assumed," argues Prof. Bartels. "And that requires focusing not just on what voters don't know, but on how what they don't know actually affects how they vote. Do they manage to make sensible choices despite being hazy about the details of politics and government? If they do, that's not stupid -- it's efficient." These political scientists might make the common academic assumption that voters are always rational, "but a half-century of [scientific analysis] provides plenty of grounds for pessimism about voters' rationality."