Why Dodge the Question?
By Bryan Caplan
Politicians are notoriously fond of “dodging questions.” But why would anyone do this? If a wife asks her husband, “Where were you last night?,” dodging the question is practically his worst possible option. After all, if he won’t answer, her common-sense reaction is to assume the worst.
What makes politics different?
The best explanation, once again, centers on Social Desirability Bias. In plain English: When the truth sounds bad, people bend the truth. When all straightforward answers sound bad, similarly, people refuse to answer. And since politics revolves around sounding good rather than doing good, politicians habitually dodge hard questions. Hard questions like:
- “Who do you respect more – veterans or teachers?”
- “What is the maximum number of American deaths we should pay to defeat Saddam Hussein?”
- “How should we respond if a welfare recipient spends their entire check on the first day of the month?”
- “What is the biggest problem we should do nothing to fix?”
- The classic: “If Kitty Dukakis were raped and murdered, would you favor an irrevocable death penalty for the killer?”
What makes these questions so hard? It varies. For #1, the problem is that people love both veterans and teachers, so either way it seems like you’re insulting a beloved profession. For #2, a low answer seems cowardly, and a high answer seems callous – and every number seems ghoulish. For #3, “Tough luck” sounds cruel, and “Give them extra money” seems weak. For #4, almost any answer sounds callous and defeatist. #5 famously forced Michael Dukakis to either sound like a wimp or betray his long-standing opposition to the death penalty.
On reflection, generating no-win questions is child’s play. If you’re a successful politician, journalists and detractors never stop asking them. But never fear. Virtually every successful politician knows a work-around. When the only way to win is not to play, politicians do not play.
All of which illustrates a deeper lesson: Politics is theater – a gigantic effort to please ears and warm hearts. Asking hard questions is rarely a sincere effort to acquire information; pseudo-answers to such questions aren’t a sincere effort to provide information. If you think this is all benign, think again. Reality itself poses many hard questions; they’re called “trade-offs.” And the typical politician would rather dodge them than deal with them.
HT: Inspired during my Oslo interview with