Watch the Platforms, Not the Winner
By Bryan Caplan
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: The well-educated have relatively reasonably beliefs about policy.
Puzzle: If you look at voting behavior, education does little to make people more Democratic or more Republican. So what difference does it make if people acquire more sensible views about policy, if it doesn’t change their vote?
Rick Moran of the Wide Awakes raises a similar question. He maintains that the majority has made the right choice in virtually every post-war election:
And so far, the American electorate has done pretty well. In the nuclear age, when the choice of President could literally have meant life and death, the people have chosen like, well…college professors with advanced degrees out of the wazoo. A Truman as opposed to an isolationist Dewey. An Eisenhower twice as opposed to a cerebral and statist Stevenson. A Kennedy as opposed to a Nixon. (Picture Nixon during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Would a young Nixon have backed down so expertly?) Perhaps the Johnson-Goldwater race was more about a martyred President so chalk that one up to irrationality. But Nixon – putting aside his dark proclivities – in ‘68 was the answer to lawlessness in the streets and the Viet Nam quagmire while Humphrey promised more of the same – disaster.
Carter/Ford was a toss up – the people lost. Carter/Reagan was a no brainer. Ditto Reagan/Mondale. Ditto Dukakis/Bush. I would even say that Clinton circa 1992 was a better choice than a fatally damaged Bush who broke his promise not to raise taxes. And were the American people really going to elect Bob Dole President?
Though I’m less sanguine, perhaps Moran is right that the U.S. public almost always chooses the lesser of two evils. What I question is that we should be very interested in the differences between presidential candidates in the first place. In our competitive democracy, the candidates wind up being pretty similar in any case. The real problem of democracy is bipartisan agreement on foolish policies.
So how can more reasonable beliefs about policy sway political outcomes? The answer is surprisingly simple. When public opinion gets more reasonable, both parties adjust their positions to avoid giving the competition an edge. For example, the U.S. public is markedly less protectionist than it was in the ’70’s, leading both parties to become markedly less protectionist than they used to be. The identity of the winning party might make a marginal difference; but this difference is muted by the fact that politicians want to get behind whatever happens to be popular.
In short, if there were a major shock to economic literacy, it would have little effect on the name of the ruling party. The effect, instead, would be that incumbent and challenger alike would suddenly see the light.