Monday, May 29, 2017

Some fascinating results surveying political scientists on democracy in America

After the 2016 election, I spent a bunch of posts pontificating about the state of democracy in America (and even making references to American Gods, which is now a tv series), but John Carey, Gretchen Helmke, Brendan Nyhan and Susan Stokes have actually been doing surveys of political scientists over time to see what we think, and measure change over time, including the effects of the 2016 election.  Truth in advertising: I was actually a participant in that survey, so whatever you read in this post and in any write-up of their results, factor in that observation.  I'm not sure how much that matters, but there it is.

Anyway, there is a write-up of the latest wave over at The Upshot at The New York Times.  It is largely what you would expect.  Political discourse is getting worse, as is accountability.  I really suggest that you head over to the main project page, though, at Bright Line Watch, and read the full results of Wave 2.  Lots of interesting stuff there.

As I said, I was a participant in the survey.  How did my responses match modal responses?  Relatively well.  The biggest deviation in my answers was on the campaign contribution question.  Respondents overall thought that campaign contributions have a big influence on policy decisions.  I, as you might guess, said they don't.  Most respondents probably aren't as steeped in this academic literature as I am, so they were going based on common perception rather than scholarly literature.  The scholarly literature here just doesn't show a big effect for campaign contributions on policy decisions.  Sorry, folks.  So, that was my yuge deviation.  Respondents were correct, though, about the fact that there is a bias in districts.  It isn't because of intentional "gerrymandering," though.  It comes from two things:  1) states and 2) where people choose to live.  The Senate is a mathematical disaster.  Two Senators per state is just fucked up, in strict, technical, mathematical terms, and it creates a bias.  There's no way around that.  The issue with House district lines is that Democrats live in cities, which means they are inefficiently clustered in their districts.  That creates a natural, mathematical advantage for Republicans, and the only way to cut into that is to carve up cities in weird, unnatural ways that destroy what we call "communities of interest," in redistricting jargon.  So, the respondents on that issue gave the right answer, but for the wrong reason.  But, the survey didn't make them show their work, so they get credit.

Anyway, where things get more interesting in the Wave 2 write-up is in the change-over-time stuff.  Towards the end of the write-up at Bright Line Watch, they give you estimates, on a 100-point scale, of democracy in America over the long-haul.  When I answered those questions, I thought I was totally pulling numbers out of my ass.  Then, there was an open-ended question where we explained ourselves.  What floored me was how close my numbers were to the means as I thought through how to rank the US pre-Civil War, pre-suffrage, pre-Voting Rights Act, the 1980's, 1990's, the 2000's and today.  This is kind of an interesting thing, when we look at ridiculous scales like this.  If you are reading this, there is a decent chance that you have heard me bash 100-point scales before because they have what I call "illusory precision," meaning that they have more possible scores than we can really wrap our brains around.  And yet, with over 1000 political scientists,* apparently my scores were pretty close to the means.  Maybe I'm not as unmutual as I thought.  As a more general point, though, there is something about how we, as trained monkeys, I mean, trained political scientists make assessments that means we think through these processes similarly.  Presuming we know the literature, of course (recall my different answers on the campaign contribution thing).  Still, I am fascinated that my answers on the overall assessment were that close to the means, historically.

And yes, that means that things only got a little worse when Trump won.  Why, after all of that virtual ink I spilled in December and January, would I say that democracy only declined by about 10 points or so in the last couple of years?  Because we still don't know the fallout.  That's the real question.  The 2016 election was a disaster.  An immeasurably corrupt and incompetent, psychopathic idiot, whom the vast majority of the country knew was unfit for office won the election basically because the other party won two elections in a row.  As far as I'm concerned, that calls into question the very premise of electoral politics.  It is the political equivalent of a country trying to win a Darwin Award.  However, Trump's very incompetence may limit the damage he does.  So far, he hasn't accomplished much, and during the campaign, I repeatedly reminded everyone of the story of Jimmy Carter-- the outsider who won his party's nomination against the wishes of his party's insiders.  Trump's only real criticism of Hitler is that he lost, which is why he has had so many problems with statements about the Holocaust.  But, Trump is also dumber than my cats, which is why he admitted, on national TV, to exactly what forced Nixon from office within a couple of months of his inauguration.  Trump is stupid beyond the comprehension of any sentient being.  I am reminded of this:

Of course, Dark Helmet is undone by his own actual stupidity.  Will Trump be undone by his stupidity?  Will democracy be saved by Trump's incompetence?  We'll see, but that's why I only scored a 10-point decline in democracy when I filled out that survey.

Anyway, interesting results.

*As a final aside, I do want to say that the response rate on this survey was 12%.  To the 88% of political scientists who didn't respond:  FUCK YOU PEOPLE!

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