Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Local vs. National Politics

This comes from a fascinating conversation between Tyler Cowen and Jonathan Haidt. Haidt suggested that the Trump phenomenon shows that over time the values of the Republican leadership had gotten out of alignment with the values of Republican voters:
COWEN: Here’s what I worry about with that explanation. If I look at local government — state legislators, governors, Congress for that matter — the Republicans seem pretty much in tune with people’s intuitions, because they control all those branches, sometimes pretty solidly, especially at the state and local level. And then at the national level there’s this huge disconnect. So if all the Republicans were losing, it would be easier to see.

HAIDT: National politics is different from local. National politics, I believe, is much more like religion than local politics is. If you take it all the way down to the very local level — who the dogcatcher is, who the treasurer is of the town — that’s all very practical stuff. People are very worried about their property values and things like that. It’s not very ideological. National politics is much more like a religion. The president is the high priest of the American civil religion — I think that’s what Robert Bellah called it. At the national level it’s often unrelated to what happens at the local level. This is something that Ronald Reagan really understood much better than his challengers. He was able to appeal to the moral intuitions of people about America, making America great. It’s very different from what happens at the state level.
I, too, have been struck by the difference between national and local politics. I have sometimes thought that this has to do with greater levels of abstraction. That is, people know what they want from the local government in a concrete way, but at the national level the problems become too vague to be neatly solved, and the proposed "solutions" become ever more abstract. Paving streets is one thing, but making the national economy work for ordinary people is a problem of an altogether different order.

On the other hand I have also noted here the difference between how people evaluate their own lives and how they evaluate the state of the nation. There is, I sometimes think, something downright mystical about the way some people evaluate the state of the nation. After a victorious war, everyone feels better about the nation; after a defeat, everyone feels worse. People feel worse when the President is from the other political party, better when he is from their own. If he is from another race, some people seem to feel even worse.

How much politics can do to bridge these gaps is a huge question, and a hard one to answer.

UPDATE: Here's another interesting piece of the same interview.
COWEN: Here’s a question from a reader at Marginal Revolution: As you Jonathan have delved into morality more deeply, are there any examples of something you considered harmless before, that now you think may actually be harmful once second, third, etc., social effects are taken into account.

HAIDT: Oh, yes, yes. When I was younger I remember thinking, “Oh, you know, marriage isn’t so important, all that matters is that you — of course you need to take care of the kids, but people should be free to do what they want.” I’ve come to see — so I started off on the left. In fact I got into political psychology in 2004 precisely to help the Democrats because I thought they were getting their rear‑ends kicked by the Republicans who knew how to talk about morality.

Whereas Gore and Kerry just didn’t have a clue. Since I started researching conservatism and then libertarianism, I’ve just found that they make a lot of points that as a social scientist I have to agree, “Oh, that’s a good point.”

The overriding importance of family stability, if you’re raising kids with incredible family stability, they just come out better. In fact they’re much more likely to rise economically than if they’re raised with any sort of family instability. So I think I’m more conservative about family arrangements, precisely because of these second- and third-level effects.


Unknown said...

I would add another factor: many people simply don't pay attention to local politics. Many of those who do are activists who support party platforms. Many of those who don't are apt to be those who think in somewhat vague or mystical terms, as you describe, and certainly apt to be those who don't care much about long-term party ideology. They're also apt to be those who are most embittered against the system.

I myself don't pay much attention to local politics: I have no idea how Massachusetts counties are run, for example, and not a lot of curiosity about it either. And when I go into the voting booth, I find myself confronted with all sorts of state offices I'm at a loss to describe. I confess I'm pretty complacent about this.

G. Verloren said...

Everyone knows who the president is.

Almost no one knows who their local Water Resources Commissioner is.