Sunday, December 25, 2016

Assessing democracy in the aftermath of Trump's victory, Part VI: How transparent are Trump's lies?

In Part V, we finally got around to the... blindingly (?) obvious point that Trump is a liar.  Or is it blindingly obvious?  That's kind of my point here.  Political science models of elections distinguish between candidates' policy positions along the left-right dimension, and their "valence" characteristics, which are the traits that voters want intrinsically, like competence and honesty, but of course, the point of dishonesty is that if you lie, people aren't supposed to be able to tell.

Can you spot a liar?  Most people probably think they are pretty sophisticated, but it isn't possible for a majority of the population to be above the median, by definition.  There is an old finding in psychology, known as the Dunning-Kruger effect.  Essentially, incompetent people are too incompetent to assess their own incompetence, and hence they think they are competent.

That's an interesting issue in these valence models.  Will voters accurately assess where the candidates are on the valence dimension?  There's a bunch of interesting research done by Walter Stone and various colleagues asking political experts to rate candidates on various traits based on the premise that experts, rather than voters, will give better assessments, but that leaves voters in an interesting position.

Particularly when faced with a liar like Trump.  How obvious was he?  If you are reading this blog, you probably thought he was obvious all along.  Not so for everyone.

Back in Part III, I made reference to a couple of cons: the Nigerian Prince email scam, and an elaborate con from Neil Gaiman's American Gods.  Only a real rube would fall for the former, but a not-too-stupid person could fall for the latter.  Where does Trump University fall?  I'd argue the former.

But let's also remember that only a few people fell for the scam itself.  And, it is easy for me to laugh at the people who did, and then filed their class action lawsuit.  Really, it was an obvious scam.  But, Trump really did commit fraud, and we have laws about that.

And here's where things get electorally relevant.  Trump then took money from the Trump Foundation "charity"-- a fake charity that he shut down yesterday, and used it to bribe Pam Bondi, the Florida State Attorney General, to shut down a criminal investigation, which she did.  He then insisted that he would never settle the civil case (the one with Judge Curiel) because only guilty people settled, asked for it to be postponed until after the election, and settled immediately after the election for $25 million.  He's a fucking fraud, and he bribed the Florida State Attorney General with money from a fake charity to get out of her sights.

Now, did you know about this?  Maybe.  You are reading a political scientist's blog.  Did the electorate?  Most of them?  Nope.  This kind of stuff didn't get a lot of coverage.  The media, whom Trump hated so much, did him a lot of favors by spending so much time on Clinton's bullshit email pseudo-scandal, and so little time on the Trump University actual fraud that most voters just never heard about Pam Bondi.

From the voters' perspective, then, they can't be blamed for not taking it into account!

Then, though, there are claims like the one that Ted Cruz's father was involved in the Kennedy assassination.  How stupid do you have to be to believe that?  Oh, stupid enough to believe in any Kennedy assassination conspiracy theory, or moon landing conspiracy theory, or... I don't know, the virgin birth!  (See what I did there?).  Want a citation?  Goertzle's 1994 article, "Belief In Conspiracy Theories" demonstrates that the vast majority of people believe at least one incredibly stupid conspiracy theory.  Most people are disturbingly credulous.

But, of course, we can't talk about Trump's political lies without talking about the one that got him started.  Birtherism.  This one doesn't come out of nowhere.  It's about race.  Simple demonstration:  From the 2012 American National Election Studies survey, using post-stratification weights.  Among those who "strongly agree" that the past legacy of slavery makes it harder for African-Americans to succeed today, 79% said that Obama was "definitely" born in the US.  Among those who "strongly disagreed," 27.7% said he was "definitely" born in the US.  If anyone wants more details on the numbers, I can go into them, but birtherism is about race.  So, it isn't that people couldn't spot Trump's lies there-- it is that people didn't want to spot Trump's lies.  His lies gave people comfort.

So, voters had three separate problems when it came to spotting Trump's lies.  First, the media actually did a terrible job pointing out just how dishonest he was.  Second, people really are very stupid, and far more likely to believe implausible things than they should.  Finally, people are prone to accept stupid things that give them comfort.

All of that makes it difficult for voters to form an accurate assessment of a candidate's honesty.  Particularly in Trump's case.

And we haven't even gotten to Trump's competence yet!  There's a whole, other valence characteristic!  Stay tuned!

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