Gerry Canavan

the smartest kid on earth

‘The Cattle-Prod Election’

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Now that the primary season has nearly run its course, a different pattern can be seen. Followed day by day, the race for the Democratic nomination has been the most exciting election in living memory. But viewed in retrospect, it is clear that it has been quite predictable. All the twists and turns have been a function of the somewhat random sequencing of different state primaries, which taken individually have invariably conformed to type, with Obama winning where he was always likely to win (caucus states, among college-educated and black voters, in the cities), and Clinton winning where she was likely to win (big states with secret ballots, among less well-educated whites and Hispanics, in rural areas). Even the initial drama of that week in early January – when Obama’s victory in Iowa had seemed to give him a chance of finishing Clinton off, only to be confounded by her victory in New Hampshire, which defied the expectation of the pundits and had them all speculating about what had swung it (was it her welling up in a diner? was it hastily rekindled memories of Bill? was it hints of hubris from Obama?) – turns out to have been an illusion. Iowa was Obama country (younger, smaller, caucus meetings) and New Hampshire wasn’t (older, bigger, voting machines). The salient fact about this campaign is that demography trumps everything: people have been voting in fixed patterns set by age, race, gender, income and educational level, and the winner in the different contests has been determined by the way these different groups are divided up within and between state boundaries. Anyone who knows how to read the census data (and that includes some of the smart, tech-savvy types around Obama) has had a good idea of how this was going to play from the outset. All the rest is noise.

Also in LRB: Clinton supporter David Runciman explains how for all the sound, fury, and breathless reporting surrounding the 2008 Democratic primary, if anything we should be surprised by just how few surprising things happened. Demographics, in the end, was destiny—geography, not momentum, played the determinative role.

As insightful, I think, is this from Joseph Schumpeter in 1942:

It turns out that the best guide to what’s been going on during the ceaseless clamour of this election season comes from one of John Dewey’s contemporaries, the émigré Austrian economist and philosopher Joseph Schumpeter, who also died during Truman’s second term, in 1950. In Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy, written in 1942, Schumpeter pointed out that most people do not think much about politics at all: they simply respond to triggers in ways that require the minimum of mental effort. ‘The typical citizen,’ Schumpeter wrote, ‘drops down to a lower level of mental performance as soon as he enters the political field. He argues and analyses in a way which he would readily recognise as infantile within the sphere of his real interests. He becomes a primitive again. His thinking becomes associative and affective.’ The demographic determinism of this election campaign is evidence of the ease with which the main candidates have been able to exploit the instinctive reflexes of various segments of the population, and the difficulty that their opponents have had in overcoming these reflexes with competing arguments.

Written by gerrycanavan

June 2, 2008 at 5:56 pm

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