Ideological Coherency and Informed Polities

One thing that’s always struck me about Europe is that average Europeans seem to have a very good understanding of what they’re voting for in elections. If you want welfare state expansion, you vote for the Socialists or Social Democrats or whatever they call themselves in your country, and if you want more pro-business policies, you vote for the Conservatives or Christian Democrats or whatever.

This doesn’t hold in America, I think, where lots of the population seems to have more-or-less liberal substantive views when you dig into the details, despite the oft-quoted figure that 40% also self-identify as conservative. Yet that same America voted for George W. Bush twice, bought into the “compassionate conservative” lie, at least to an extent, and didn’t seem to understand the full impact of his policies. It’s almost as if people have no idea what they are really voting for; elections are won and lost on meaningless personal trivia (and whatever the unemployment rate is) rather than a policy track record. This is how a GOP that has moved away from the right and into the gamma quadrant has managed to still stay competitive.

Why are we so much, well, dumber? I think some of it has to do with the quirky history of American politics in the last 150 years, where the parties were ideologically mixed and thus “bipartisanship” was often easy enough to achieve with many pieces of legislation. This made voting in elections from at least 1865 on basically a crapshoot, since it was much more difficult to point to a specific outcome and say “that wouldn’t have happened if I’d only voted for the Republican.” If bad stuff happened, incumbent Congressmen and Senators could always credibly blame things on the president, or on the fact that their favored ad hoc coalitions were outnumbered on whatever issue it was. Everything about the sausage-making was murky, and both parties liked it that way – it made it much easier to maneuver. Whereas in Europe, a parliamentary, winner-take-all legislature and fewer veto points led to accountability – you knew that Margaret Thatcher was going to fight against organized labor if she won, and there would be definite consequences of a vote for the Tories, if not for your own day-to-day life, definitely for people close to you.

Maybe there’s something to the idea that Americans are just not as intelligent as their European counterparts. But maybe we understand less about ideologies because in the past, that kind of knowledge was mostly worthless anyway.


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