Americans distrust the GOP. So why are they voting for it?

How your unconscious mind shapes you.
Oct. 20 2010 1:31 PM

Throw the Bums In

Americans distrust the GOP. So why are they voting for it?

Illustration by Robert Neubecker. Click image to expand.

Consider, in the Socratic tradition, this syllogism.

A. Recent polls have found that the economy is uppermost in the minds of voters ahead of the midterm elections. They have also found that many more Americans attribute the dismal economy to the former Bush administration than to the Obama administration. Gallup tells us that 71 percent of all Americans blame Republican policies for the bad economy, while only 48 percent blame the Obama administration.

B. Americans dislike congressional Republicans more than congressional Democrats. A recent Washington Post-ABC poll shows that while disapproval of congressional Democrats stands at 61 percent, disapproval of congressional Republicans stands at 67 percent.

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C. Republicans are heavily tipped to wrest control of one or both houses of Congress from the Democrats in the upcoming midterms.

If that gave you whiplash, think how Nancy Pelosi, Harry Reid, and Barack Obama must be feeling. (Also, wrong Greek, my bad. It turns out we were not talking syllogism, but paradox.)

One explanation for our paradox is that Americans want divided government. If we have gridlock with one party in charge, perhaps we would have more legislative movement if power in Congress were divided?

This might make sense as a national storyline, but it doesn't make sense in the real world, because wanting divided government doesn't tell an individual how to vote. If you are a voter in, say Pennsylvania's 8th District, would you vote against Democratic incumbent Patrick Murphy in order to get divided government if you weren't sure how people in all the other congressional Districts were going to vote? If you liked Murphy, would you say you are going to vote against him just to get divided government? For one thing, if people in other districts voted against Democrats, you could get divided government even if you voted for Murphy. Wouldn't it make more sense to stop worrying about how everyone else votes and simply pick the candidate you like?

The more likely explanation for our paradox, of course, is that people are voting out the Democrats because the economy is not going well and the Democrats are in charge, even if voting them out means handing power back to the party that most Americans blame for getting us into the mess in the first place.

That may not make sense, but the hidden brain is not in the rationality business. When we are stuck in a bad place, whether that bad place is a marriage, a traffic jam, or a weak economy, it is very tempting to try something new. Psychologists call this the action bias—and it turns out to have surprisingly broad ramifications.

When a company starts losing money, or a whole industry starts losing ground because of a new technology, most of us follow leaders who call for revolutionary change—even if no one really knows what change is needed. Leaders who advocate the status quo look like dinosaurs.

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