Let’s forget for a moment that I don’t believe Evan Bayh is a real person, that I’m convinced he’s a composite of the views of every Washington insider and member of the pundit class. Let’s forget about that, because Rachel Maddow’s already pointed it out, and because I want to talk about something else. (Double hat tip to my friend Mary, on Facebook.) I’ve been having an argument with Evan Bayh, or with the real people in Washington who agree with him, since at least 2003. And during that time, absolutely nothing has happened to prove either of us wrong.
To explain our disagreement, let’s look at two hypothetical voters in a real election: the 2010 Florida Governor’s race, where this week Republican Rick Scott narrowly defeated Democrat Alex Sink. Scott is a personally flamboyant and conservative former health care executive whose company paid a massive fine for committing fraud. Sink is a centrist banker and Florida’s elected Chief Financial Officer. Our two imaginary voters are swing voters, and, like many real swing voters, they’re currently in economic distress. In 2008, they voted for Barack Obama and perhaps for a Democrat for Congress. In 2010, they voted for Rick Scott.
Voter A is angry with the Democrats in Congress and, above all, with President Obama. He believes the President overreached in passing a massive health care bill, an expensive stimulus package, and a sweeping financial reform package, all but the stimulus along strict party lines. He views these measures as reckless overspending on liberal interest group priorities at a time when the government should be focused on job creation. He expects the Democrats to raise his taxes; indeed, he believes they may have already done so. The government’s deficit spending strikes him as akin to his own financial situation, in which maxing out his credit cards would strip him of his independence and leave him beholden to strangers. He voted for Obama because he found the Bush Administration’s policies financially bloated and hopelessly out of touch, but now Obama seems no better. He wants government to become smaller, more careful, and more moderate. Voter A likes Alex Sink’s financial background and would support her for President, but a vote for her now seems like a vote to bring the policies of the Obama Administration to his own state. He is concerned about Rick Scott’s conservatism and flamboyance, but he likes the Republican’s business background and sees Scott as a useful bulwark against presidential overreaching. He votes for Rick Scott to send Obama a message.
Voter B is also angry with the President and congressional Democrats, but for a completely different reason. Voter B is angry because the problems in this country are all too plain to him, and he wants dramatic action, no matter what kind of action that may be. He voted for Obama because the Illinois Senator said he would bring change, but Obama has not delivered. The President promised to provide a government-run public option for health care to replace Voter B’s mounting insurance premiums, but instead Obama signed a giant giveaway of tax dollars to insurance companies. He promised to use the full power of government to create jobs, but the stimulus package wasn’t nearly big enough and Obama didn’t have the guts to push through a second one. He promised to punish the big banks that created this economic mess, but instead he made a banker Treasury Secretary and passed a financial “reform” bill that the bankers cheered. Voter B wants neither big government nor small government; he wants different government, right now, and it is evident to him that the Democrats either will not or cannot provide it. He is deeply disappointed that his choices for Governor are a banker and a CEO, both members of the group that he blames for the financial crisis. Since he has to choose between them, however, he determines that Alex Sink’s careful centrism represents the epitome of what he dislikes about Obama; a vote for her seems like a vote to bring the Obama Administration to his own state. He knows Rick Scott is a dangerous man, but he likes Scott’s flamboyance, because at least stylistically Scott seems to advocate more radical change than does Sink. He votes for Rick Scott to send Obama a message.
The fundamental question is: which of these voters is more realistic? Are more swing voters like Voter A or Voter B? The answer determines the direction Democrats should pursue going forward. If most swing voters are like Voter A, then we should do what Evan Bayh advocates: scale down Democratic initiatives, move to the center, and pursue smaller, more careful, and more technocratic policies. On the other hand, if most swing voters are like Voter B, then we should do what I’ve advocated since 2003: damn the torpedoes, pursue unabashedly liberal and big-government policies, keep our promises to the letter, and produce a dramatic restructuring of American politics.
Here’s the problem, though: there doesn’t seem to be any way of telling which of us is right. The reason I can’t get Evan Bayh to see things my way is the same reason he can’t get me to see things his way: all the available evidence supports both of our arguments. This is because both Voter A and Voter B behave in almost exactly the same way, even though they want exactly opposite outcomes. For instance, both Voter A and Voter B tell exit pollsters (as did many swing voters this cycle) that they dislike the Republican Party, but like the Tea Party. Voter A dislikes Republicans because he opposes many of their policies, but likes the Tea Party because he agrees with them that smaller government and fewer entitlements are a necessary corrective to the Obama Administration. Voter B dislikes Republicans because they’re the corrupt Washington insiders who are responsible for this mess, but likes the Tea Party because they’re outsiders who promise radical change. Similarly, as we’ve just seen, Voter A and Voter B vote in lockstep with one another (for Bush, then Obama, then Rick Scott) because doing so makes sense for both of them, but for dramatically different reasons.
I’m willing to admit that there is no evidence that shows that I’m right and Evan Bayh is wrong, just as I know of no evidence that proves I’m wrong and Evan Bayh is right. All the test cases available are inconclusive and can be interpreted either way. For instance, I believe the groundswell of support for Howard Dean in 2004 is evidence for my point of view, but Bayh could point out, plausibly, that the fact that Dean lost justifies Bayh’s view instead. I would argue that the fate of two freshmen Democratic Congressmen in similar Virginia districts in 2010 supports my view: Tom Perriello staunchly advocated Democratic policies and lost by four points, while Glenn Nye staked out a moderate, bipartisan position and lost by 10. But Bayh could point out that Perriello still lost, which supports Bayh’s position rather than mine.
Since there is no clear evidence either way, I want to point out two factors that lead me to believe, on a hunch, that I’m right and Bayh is wrong. The first has to do with the thought processes of Voter A and Voter B. Voter A’s reasoning makes rational sense to the pundits, as indeed it does to me. But that’s because Voter A thinks like a pundit instead of a voter. He follows politics so closely that he knows the ins and outs of most bills that come before Congress. He casts his vote to rebuke or reward specific people for specific policies. To gain this sort of knowledge, Voter A must read or watch political news for several hours each day. To me, this all seems a bit fanciful. Certainly, there are people who watch Fox News all day or read liberal blogs for hours, but those aren’t the swing voters who put Rick Scott over the top. We know that swing voters tend to be low information voters who don’t tune in to elections until shortly before they go to vote. It’s also a bit unrealistic to imagine that most voters are quite this rational. Again, there are voters who can tell you in detail why they cast their votes by rattling off a specific set of policies they support, but those aren’t the swing voters who elected Rick Scott.
Voter B seems more realistic to me. He has a good idea of what’s going on in his pocketbook, but a fuzzier sense of what’s going on in Washington. He doesn’t know much about specific policies; instead, he knows he’s not happy with the current system, and he wants change that will alter the fundamentals of his own living situation. He becomes an issue voter only when a given issue touches him personally — when friends die in Iraq, or when a tax cut puts extra money in his pocket. In general, he votes based on instinct, for people he trusts, or (in the case of the election we analyzed) for the person who’s most likely to shake up the system. Most of us could name many voters who fit this profile.
So the first problem with Bayh’s position is that it assumes most swing voters are rational, high-information voters, when we know that’s not true. The second flaw is that Bayh’s view doesn’t adequately explain voter anger. And voters have been angry for a long time — since the days of Archie Bunker, Joe, and the Silent Majority. The last time Americans told pollsters they were happy with the direction of the country was when they lied to convince Osama bin Laden that Americans loved their freedom. The time before that was before I was born. Bayh would have us believe that these voters oppose dramatic change, that they just want everyone in Washington to work together to forge consensus. But what have angry voters ever done to convince politicians they were moderates? Nixon talked about the Silent Majority, but the Silent Majority weren’t moderates, they were reactionary conservatives who saw George Wallace as the best choice for President and Nixon a grudgingly expedient second. I remember in the 1990s pundits used to say that voters who voted for Bill Clinton for President and Republicans for Congress wanted both parties to work together. How could anybody voting for Newt Gingrich in 1996, in the middle of the Whitewater investigation and just after he’d shut down the government, really believe that he and Clinton were going to work together?
An irrational voter might come to such a conclusion, but as I’ve already pointed out, Bayh assumes swing voters are rational. His argument leaves us, then, with rational, moderate voters voting for extremism and chaos. Bayh says voters want centrists like him, but voters tossed out many of the centrist Democrats in this election and replaced them with rabid Tea Party conservatives. I think a better argument is that voters vote for chaos and extremism because they want chaos and extremism — because they want whatever’s most likely to disrupt business as usual and bring dramatic, transformative change to American politics. That’s why they whiplash between heavily Democratic and heavily Republican Congresses, tossing out dozens of members each election. That’s why the Tea Party is more popular than Evan Bayh. And that’s why Evan Bayh’s wrong about the American voter, and I’m right.