A new US essay summarises the things political scientists know that are at odds with conventional wisdom.
1. It’s the fundamentals, stupid.
Voter behaviour can be explained to a large extent by changes in real disposable income.
2. The will of the people is incredibly hard to put your finger on.
In the author’s words, you know a political commentator is making stuff up if “they pretend to know what ‘the American people’ want, think, will do, or anything else”. Most people are not very ideological, not politically engaged, and inclined to take their cues from party and political leaders.
3. The will of the people may not even exist.
It is difficult, and perhaps impossible, to aggregate the opinions of millions of people on a complex issue and divine a coherent ‘will’.
4. There is no such thing as a mandate.
This is my personal favourite. The authors say: “Take items #1, #2, and #3 together, and it is hard to interpret elections the way that politicians and pundits want us to. Economic fundamentals guide voters whomight not have well-defined attitudes to vote in a system that cannot satisfy all thedemands of democratic decision-making. This is not a formula for sending a clearmessage to anyone”.
5. Duverger: it’s the law.
Duverger’s law is that “the simple-majority single-ballot system favours the two-party system”.
6. Party on
Party differences are meaningful and unavoidable, and we shouldn’t wish to smooth them over. Parties are essential for mass democracy.
7. Most independents are closet partisans.
The true independent (or swinging voter) is largely mythical.
8. Special Interests Are A Political Fiction
“Special interests are labor and business. They are environmentalists and developers. They are pro-life and pro-choice activists. They are gays and they are fundamentalist Christians. They are you. They are me. It is hard to think of any political outcome that does not satisfy some interests and oppose others”.
9. The Grass Does Not Grow By Itself
The distinction between ‘real’ movements and ‘astroturf’ is largely illusory. The authors suggest: “If a movement is astroturf if some outside force is organizing it, then all movements are astroturf. People do not spontaneously wake up and go to rallies. Someone hosts the rally and invites them to come”.
10. We Do Not Know What You Think You Know
The paper concludes with a list of accepted wisdom about politics that is unsupported or only weakly supported by the political science literature. The unsupported nuggets of conventional wisdom include the notion that money buys votes, that democracy leads to economic growth, and that voters choose the candidate that is closer to their own preferences.