Voters hate Republicans but are planning to vote for them anyway: The non-paradox

Matthew Yglesias writes:

If I [Yglesias] were working with Nancy Pelosi on “message,” I’d be hoping to persuade people that (a) Democrats are better-equipped to handle today’s problems, (b) you share Democrats’ core values, (c) no matter how much you may dislike Democrats you dislike Republicans even more, and (d) therefore you should vote for Democrats. But as we see here [from recent polls that find that voters hate Republican politicians even more than they hate Democrats, yet still plan to mostly vote Republican in November], (a), (b), and© aren’t sufficient to drive conclusion (d).

This reminds me of one of my favorite pieces of philosophical writing, What the Tortoise Said to Achilles, by Lewis Carroll. In this story, Achilles gives the Tortoise the following three propositions:

(A) Things that are equal to the same are equal to each other.
(B) The two sides of this Triangle are things that are equal to the same.
(Z) The two sides of this Triangle are equal to each other.

The Tortoise accepts A and B but not Z. Achilles is frustrated and asks the Tortoise if he will accept A, B, and the following intermediate proposition:

(C) If A and B are true, Z must be true.

Achilles accepts A, B, and C . . . but not Z. The Tortoise then supplies the quite-reasonable next step:

(D) If A and B and C are true, Z must be true.

Which, again, Achilles accepts. But he does not accept Z. Etc.

I think of this story a lot when talking with classically-trained statisticians, who, Achilles-like, seem to expect and demand that I accept various implicit concepts (for example, Jeffreys priors, or U-values, or so-called exact tests) without ever making it clear why these concepts are good ideas. I will, like the Tortoise and like all these Republican voters, sit there patiently and let the verbiage wash over me.

P.S. Those 10% or so of voters who plan to vote Republican—even while thinking that the Democrats will do a better job—are not necessarily being so unreasonable. The Democrats control the presidency and both houses of Congress, and so it’s a completely reasonable stance to prefer them to the Republicans yet still think they’ve gone too far and need a check on their power.

11 Responses to Voters hate Republicans but are planning to vote for them anyway: The non-paradox

  1. The Frog September 8, 2010 at 10:30 am #

    I think there is another fable which is more appropriate here. It ends thus:

    “Why do you keep voting Republican and doom us both?” asked the Frog. “Because it is my nature,” answered the Scorpion while they both drowned.

  2. Josh R. September 8, 2010 at 11:00 am #

    P.S. Those 10% or so of voters who plan to vote Republican—even while thinking that the Democrats will do a better job—are not necessarily being so unreasonable. The Democrats control the presidency and both houses of Congress, and so it’s a completely reasonable stance to prefer them to the Republicans yet still think they’ve gone too far and need a check on their power.

    But is that the rationale that is operating? Or is it more tied to retrospective (or I suppose current) evaluations of economic performance? If the latter, is it rational to turn out a party that has done poorly (in terms of unemployment and income growth) for one that did just as bad or even worse (in terms of unemployment and income growth)?

  3. Anita Paul September 8, 2010 at 12:56 pm #

    It is not a reasonable position. Reason is connected to thought and facts not because of stress and anxiety.

  4. Kevin T. Keith September 8, 2010 at 1:58 pm #

    I think of this story a lot when talking with classically-trained statisticians, who, Achilles-like, seem to expect and demand that I accept various implicit concepts . . . without ever making it clear why these concepts are good ideas. I will, like the Tortoise and like all these Republican voters, sit there patiently and let the verbiage wash over me.

    That “verbiage” is simply a description of the logical relationship between certain propositions. That relationsip encapsulates certain facts about the world, namely that some things being true require, as a property of their being true, that other things are also true. What you’re asked to accept is merely that, if you acknowledge those certain things as true, you ought to be able to recognize that the others are true as well, and then, recognizing that, accept them as true. Denying that is “being unreasonable” – it is denying what reason tells you is true. It is not “having different values” or “having different priorities” or “wanting a change” or whatever – it is acknowledging the truths of reason and also refusing to believe them, which is simply unreason, or anti-reason.

    You assert a competing goal for these GOP-preferring voters: they think the Democrats “need a check on their power”. What that implies is merely that there are considerations in assigning one’s vote to a party beyond their being equipped to handle problems, sharing their core values, or disliking their opponents. It’s perfectly reasonable to act (reasonably) on such a broader set of values. But asserting that – as you do, correctly – is not a refutation of the expectation that voters should act reasonably in the first place.

    Simply pointing out that there are other things to consider is fine, but claiming that it is unreasonable to expect reasonable behavior is not just wrong-headed but harmful. Whether or not citizens are voting for bad politicians out of a considered preference for balanced party dynamics, the last thing we need is more stupid emotionalism in politics – least of all from Democrats. If they have a reason for what they’re doing, that’s one thing, but please don’t say that actually expecting a reason, or questioning it, is empty verbiage.

    As for this particular issue, like Yglesias I find it hard to believe that these voters really do have procedural preferences that override their interests in competence and good values, or their actual stated preference between the parties as such. It doesn’t seem unreasonable to assume that liking the Democrats more than the Republicans, seeing them as more competent, and seeing them as having better values, would imply preferring them to win elections; asserting some hidden competing preference that would override all those to result in a considered decision to vote for a party you dislike and regard as incompetent and immoral seems like grasping at a rather implausible straw. Given the pervasive irrationality of much of politics, especially on the part of Republicans, irrationality seems like a probable explanation for the decision to vote Republican in the face of explicit preferences for the Democrats. But, again, whether that decision is or is not rational, it should not be defended in defiance of the expectation that it should be rational.

  5. Robert Bell September 8, 2010 at 3:13 pm #

    Is the “(Z)” here a typo?

    “(A) Things that are equal to the same are equal to each other.
    (B) The two sides of this Triangle are things that are equal to the same.
    (Z) The two sides of this Triangle are equal to each other.

    The Tortoise accepts A and B but not C. “

  6. Manoel Galdino September 8, 2010 at 3:43 pm #

    Maybe I’m being too literal here, but:
    1. You say that “[they] seem to expect and demand that I accept various implicit concepts”.

    This is not the same as the tortoise, since it accepted the assumptions, but you didn’t.

    2. Actually, I didn’t know this story by Carrol and I must admit that I don’t understand it at all! Maybe it’s the english (I am a Brazilian), but it was a bit difficult to follow the logic of Carrol. On the other hand, I didn’t read the text so carefully and maybe I should try harder.
    Anyone can help me here?

  7. Dan L September 8, 2010 at 4:06 pm #

    Your PS has the same fallacy that you pointed out in the previous reasoning. Both your assertion (that 10% of the public distrusts Republicans but will vote for them out of the reasonable yearning for two parties with power), and Matt’s assertion (that 10% of the public distrusts Republicans but will vote for them anyway in an irrational temper tantrum) seem plausible.

    I fail to see a reason to believe these people fit your rational model as more likely. Do you find it more likely, or are you just throwing it out there as a possibility?

  8. Andrew September 8, 2010 at 10:44 pm #

    Josh, Anita, Kevin: I’m not saying that these 10% of voters are (or are not) deriving their preferences logically. I’m just saying that these preferences could be rational.

    Robert: Thanks for pointing out the typo. I fixed it.

    Manoel: I like the Carroll piece but I agree that it’s in an old-fashioned style.

    Dan: In general, I think that political attitudes can be explained in many ways. It’s not rational or emotional, it’s rational and emotional. The rational and emotional views are different explanations of the same phenomenon. I think that “economic” and “psychological” explanations of political behavior should be reinforcing, not competitive. Edlin, Kaplan, and I make this point in our paper on rational voting that appeared a few years ago in Rationality and Society.

  9. Nameless September 9, 2010 at 12:47 am #

    @Frog do you think that Chakotay would vote Republican?

  10. Erik September 9, 2010 at 7:04 pm #

    Your PS might make sense if the Democrats actually ever used their “power”. They spent a lot of time trying to work with the minority party even when they had the super-majority before finally realizing the Republicans weren’t interested in working with them, just getting power back.

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