Sunday, May 8, 2016

Hillary vs. Trump: The policy vs. valence election

Following from yesterday's post, let's talk about how a rational voter might evaluate Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.  This will come down to whether voters value policy or "valence" more.  What's valence?  A political science buzz-word, of course!  We'll get to that.

Let's start with policy, though.  Donald Trump is a strange candidate, in many ways.  But, his ideological incoherence is actually pretty much in line with most of the public.  The most important piece ever written on public opinion is by Phil Converse called, "The Nature of Belief Systems in Mass Publics."  One of the vital observations in it is that most voters don't have real beliefs on most issues.  They have at most a couple of sincere policy beliefs, and other than that, if you ask them to state an opinion, they will, but that opinion doesn't reflect any real, underlying belief.  A stated opinion that reflects no underlying belief is called a "non-attitude."  Most stated opinions are probably non-attitudes because most voters don't think about politics very much.  I'm a weirdo for writing this blog, and you're a weirdo for reading it.

But doesn't that "non-attitude" thing sound a lot like The Donald?  The reason he can advocate single-payer healthcare in one interview, and oppose it in another is that he doesn't actually care.  He says what he thinks will help him at the time.  Donald Trump's platform consists mainly of non-attitudes.  Could there be anything more representative of the American public?

Then there's Hillary.  She's a lefty.  Not to Sanders' extent or satisfaction, but on any reasonable, objective scale, she's a lefty.  She wants higher taxes, more redistribution, more regulation, etc.  In a contest between a lefty and an ideologically incoherent candidate, it is the latter who is arguably more representative of the American public on policy.

But there's something else lurking in the contest, and that's our buzz-word of the day.  "Valence."  The concept in political science comes from an old article by Donald Stokes, distinguishing between "positional" issues and "valence" issues.  Gay marriage is a positional issue.  Either you think we are better off with it, or better off without it.  The policy is the point.  Valence issues are different.  We all want a strong economy, national security, etc., but disagree on who can provide it.

That concept of valence has been mutated into what we now call "valence characteristics."  Those are candidate characteristics that are just intrinsically good, like competence and honesty.  Here's where Clinton has an inarguable advantage.  Clinton is a liar, but no more than any average politician.  Trump, though, is the most brazen, shameless liar we have ever seen.  He's also kind of a moron.  His wealth was inherited, and if he had put his inheritance in a simple, passively-managed S&P index fund, he would be richer than he is today.  And he is grossly ignorant about politics and policy.  Anyone who thinks Mexico will pay for that wall should be flipping burgers, not running the country.

So there you have it.  We have an ideological lefty whose policy positions are out-of-step with mainstream America, but who has a basic understanding of politics and public policy.  Or, you have a pathological liar who knows less than nothing about politics and is a walking paragon of the Dunning-Kruger effect, but whose ideological flexibility makes him arguably quite representative of the American public's policy positions.

Yay, democracy!

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