People Care More About Politicians Than Policies

A blog about business and economics.
Oct. 22 2012 3:41 PM

People Care More About Politicians Than Policies

From a longer David Roberts post on the fatal ambiguities of public opinion on climate change, a great illustration of the partisan mind in action:

The pollsters did get at that a bit. They asked about “federal regulations” to reduce greenhouse gases and got 42 percent approval from Republicans; when they rephrased the same thing as “the Obama Administration’s current policy to use the Clean Air Act,” Republican support fell to 28 percent. When Dems heard Obama’s name next to the policy, their support became more intense. Obama’s name, in an of itself, serves as a heuristic.
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This is a good illustration of how impossible it is to sit in your armchair and figure out what kind of ideas might be broadly popular and attract bipartisan support. It looks here like if Democratic and Republicans leaders came together around a plan for tough regulation of greenhouse gases, that it'd be broadly popular in a way that reinforced bipartisan support for it. But in the absence of such a meeting of the minds among elites, the polarization will reproduce itself at a grassroots level. And that's true not just of environmental regulations but more broadly for all kinds of issues.

The basic point is sometimes framed as if it's paradoxical, but when you think about it, it makes perfect sense. Barack Obama is a famous celebrity who almost every American has read about. Everyone's had conversations with their friends and family about Obama, heard radio and TV stories about him, and formed some kind of opinion about him. The Clean Air Act, by contrast, is something very few people have ever sat down and formed a detailed opinion about.

Matthew Yglesias is the executive editor of Vox and author of The Rent Is Too Damn High.