From the Gut, Not the Brain

Which part of the human body has the most to do with voting preferences in today’s world? It seems to keep coming as a surprise to many folks that the brain keeps coming in second to the gut. Perhaps that question needs to be given a bit more thought to be better understood and dealt with.

This brings to mind a factoid from 1984 (not Orwell’s book, but that year’s presidential election). Reagan had been elected in 1980, having said about Carter, “There he goes again.” By 1984 Reagan was already slipping and Mondale tried to mount a serious opposition. But, it turned out that two-thirds of America really liked the amiable, affable Reagan, while two thirds of America clearly preferred Mondale’s policies and programs. Go figure.

The answer seems to be that people want someone they like in their “living rooms” for four years, a president who makes them feel good about themselves and their lives.

The analogy from 1984 to today is far from perfect, but it appears, despite some obvious differences, that Romney apparently lacks Reagan’s charm and that Obama still makes a lot of people feel proud to have a minority person as president who is honest, decent and obviously very smart.

Who votes and how they go about it tells something about what is going on.

The Harvard Kennedy School of Government fall bulletin has an article by Andrew Coulter, which lays out some interesting information. To begin with, although about 65 percent of eligible voters register, only about 46 percent actually end up voting. People in the voting population over 45 are well over half the vote and people under 25 are about one fifth of the vote. Why people do not vote is fascinating: 27 percent are too busy or had conflicted schedules; 16 percent were not interested; 11percent were sick or unable to get out; 9 percent were out of town; and 8 percent simply forgot!

How far apart voters were between the two main parties on 48 values questions asked over 25 years of polling has increased from 10 percent to 18 percent. Despite that, only half of all voters think another new party might be useful.

To those of us in the reading, writing and chattering class these facts seem downright astonishing. Voting intelligently seems to us to be not only a duty but one of the few ways we can influence the direction of our country. Sadly, it appears many people either seem to think that their vote does not matter or that all alternatives are equally bad and that really, at the end of the day, will not actually or materially affect their lives.

The result is that a significant part of our population either throws up their hands in confusion, having been bombarded from many sources telling them things they either do not understand or believe, or they simply work from their prior beliefs and assumptions in the context of whichever candidate “connects” with them. And, that is where the gut takes over.

Let’s face it. With very few exceptions, if you think about presidential elections from the perspective of an average 10-year-old, what you must see are two grown-ups, who mainly look much alike, who make long, boring gobbledygook speeches and who lead your parents to argue with each other and their friends. But, you also get into the idea that there is a tug of war going on and perhaps you’d better pick a team to root for. So whom do you choose? Guess what? The handsomest; the one most like your dad or mom; the one who likes your favorite sport.

I am not at all suggesting that the average adult American is stuck at age 10. But, when they filter out all the compelling, but complicated, economic and foreign issues that do not figure prominently in most people’s daily lives, many adult Americans who feel any patriotic duty to vote kind of shrug and think like a kid. They go with the candidate with whom they feel a “connection.”

So, these interminable campaigns we endure have a purpose: they are designed for candidates to make that connection with as many people as possible along any number of lines — special interests, favors, regional interests, religion, sports, prejudices, popular/unpopular ideas, rich vs. poor, educated vs. less educated, etc.

Translating this subject into today’s election, it seems that even though the obvious big questions are the direction of the world and the economy, there has been an amazing amount of noise about many secondary and tertiary issues. Thus perhaps this year’s choice may be surrounded by more than a normal amount of confusion for many prospective voters. Hence, one conclusion that comes to mind is “more confusion tends to lead to more gut reaction.”

Perhaps one modern problem is that our election cycles are too long and too frequent. Maybe it is time to rethink how we prepare our voters to make the critical choices in their lives that they frequently shrug off, ignore or just decide on a whim.

We have another presidential election in 2016. Perhaps one of the reasons the Republicans and Romney are so powerfully keen to win this year is that they know deep down, no matter who wins this year, 2016 will be a tough year for the out party to win because by then the economy is likely to be much better than it is now.

All the more reason to get brains back in the process.

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A Fork in the Road: Prosperity or Depression

The presidential election of 2012 looks to be the most important since 1932. While there are some differences between then and now, the choice is just as crucial.

After the boom years in the 1920s, driven in large part by the advent of automobiles, the crash of 1929, which occurred under Herbert Hoover, led to government policies which, as it clearly turned out, were perverse and unleashed what we now call the Great Depression. Those sadly wrongheaded policies included Smoot-Hawley protectionism, cutting government expenditures and clinging to the gold standard.

The 1932 election was between the incumbent Herbert Hoover, who had become a proven executive/administrator with exceptional character and temperament, and Franklin Roosevelt, who was in many ways Hoover’s polar opposite. Hoover’s view of the world around him was less political than technocratic. He apparently believed he could simply “manage” the country out of the crisis. Does that sound familiar today? (Imagine “W” causing the crash and then saying “I know how to fix it.”)

FDR, by contrast, had been struck by polio and his whole life perspective changed. His love of people expanded and he came to feel and appreciate the pain of everyone in the country as if it were his very own. His political instincts were grounded in his experiences as the Assistant Secretary of the Navy during WWI, as the VP candidate in 1920 and as a doted-upon nephew of his brilliant Uncle, President Teddy Roosevelt. FDR seemed to know instinctively that the old ways could not work and he organized his famous brain trust to come up with new approaches to solving the nation’s rampant ills.

  1. So what on earth does that history tells us now? More than most people might realize, even though the situation is reversed and there are a number of other differences.

The incumbent today did not preside over the crash. He followed it and immediately took the crucial first steps to stem the consequences and start a recovery. And, he is still the person who evidently appears to most Americans to understand and feel their pain. And he seemed to know from the outset that he had to try to change Washington’s way of gridlocking everything solely for political advantage.

The challenger today is the technocrat who believes he can simply be counted on to bring his manifest management skills to solve today’s problems.

The incumbent, despite his cool aloofness and apparent disdain for personal politics, has shown interesting skill as a strategic politician.

The challenger, with similar coolness and aloofness, appears to be both doctrinaire about simplistic and polemic conservative economic policies as well as strangely ungrounded, with “excessive flexibility” that troubles even his ardent supporters.

The economic and political outlook today demands that the American people look deeply into these two men and ask which one has the “right stuff” to pull wisdom, together with politics, out of the hat. The answers do not lie in where they were born; what taxes they personally pay; what religion they practice and believe; or, importantly, what they say from time to time in the heat of battle.

The answer, instead, lies in their willingness to listen with an open mind to all the experience that can be brought to bear on the issues that need to be addressed; in their deep appreciation of the full and broad effect of their policies on all Americans; in their ability to take principled stands on the basic policy directions essential to economic recovery and at the same time negotiate with opposing views with a practical yet open mind.

Therein lie the elements of a wise decision-making model, which hopefully all centrist, undecided voters will utilize in making their choice in November.

The reason this choice is so critical is because the economy today, quite like the economy in 1932, is teetering on the brink of a cliff. On January 1, 2013 there are several tax and fiscal laws that require serious attention. If the attention is wise, such as a reasonable version of the Simpson-Bowles plans, which are now in nearly final legislative form, there is an excellent chance that the country can embark on a wonderful new period of expansion and prosperity.

If the solutions are simple-minded, draconian and doctrinaire, and attempt to put the bulk of the burden of budget cuts on the back of the American people too severely and too quickly, the result could be much more than a double dip recession; most likely it would become a full-blown depression again like the 1930s.

Romney’s choice of Ryan as VP strongly signals his approach to the cliff problem in 2013. Ryan was on the Simpson-Bowles Commission and he voted against the plan, which led to its being shelved at that time. Obama has long favored the Simpson-Bowles approach and can surely be counted on using a reelection mandate to ensure that it becomes the basic framework for a solution to the cliff problem.

People who are, or become, aware of the historical context, the dangers of the economic/fiscal cliff and the core values of the two men who are seeking the presidency this year (whatever other reservations they may have about both candidates) should cast their vote for what all Americans truly yearn for: prosperity versus depression.

Don’t Count Your Chickens

“Don’t count your chickens” is an old fashioned, fun way of saying “don’t assume because it can make an ass out of you and me (ass-u-me)” or “there’s no point to counting prematurely.” Actually, the full saying really is, “don’t count your chickens until they are hatched.” Of course, the wisdom in the saying is absolutely correct, since, as a practical matter, unhatched chickens pretty much all look like eggs so chickens cannot be reliably counted until they are hatched or roost in some fashion – which is the equivalent of an election day.

That said, I am not going to take my own advice, and I am going to stick my neck out on the 2012 Presidential election. I expect to be excoriated, embarrassed, criticized from all sides, but I also think a little dose of tea leaf reading might help calm down some of the heat being generated out there.

There are several interesting telltale signals out there that are worth pointing out:

  1. Various polls that are asking people what they feel about certain questions – not including who they plan to vote for – are revealing interesting insights:
  • Who do you think will win the election? – 2/1 say Obama
  • Which party do you most closely identify with on policy issues? – 2/1 say Democratic
  • Which candidate do you like best and understands you best? – 60/40 say Obama
  1. A number of studies and polls indicate that the number of undecided voters has shrunk to 3-5% of the total expected voting population. Approximately half of those people are notin States that are believed to be in play. That suggests that only about 3% (or about three million people) may hold the key to the election outcome. Other polling suggests quite clearly that those three million people are about 2/3 nominally Democrats and also that virtually all those people have one main criterion for their vote, which is to have Washington stop gridlocking and start solving problems. At the same time, Obama has pretty much held a steady +/- 3% margin over Romney since he clinched the nomination.
  1. The main pitch for Romney coming out of the convention has been “vote for me because Obama has failed you and not delivered.” Obviously not said by the Republicans is that they deliberately and consistently blocked his proposals, even of things they had long supported, from 2008 to the present in order to charge him with such a failure. The public appears to be well aware that Bush, not Obama, is responsible for creating the problems Obama inherited. And, moreover, the public is increasingly aware that the alleged inactions by Obama were at least as much caused by Republican intransigence as any Obama failures.
  2. Another issue is the selection of Ryan as candidate for VP. While Ryan appears to be an appealing guy, which may compensate a bit for Romney’s personality burdens, Ryan’s Tea Party popularity also appears to be a big negative, particularly among independent voters who do not like and even fear the extremisms of the Tea Party.
  3. Then there are the money issues. (Not Romney’s wealth, which is not helpful to him because it does set him apart from ordinary folks) but the vast, uncontrolled, largely unidentified sources of sums coming from a very few individuals and corporations in order to try to influence and buy the election for Romney. That topic has become well and widely known and it scares a lot of ordinary Americans, who are not doctrinaire conservatives. Those fears are not much polled or even expressed but there is a lot of anecdotal evidence to support the belief that the more money Romney spends the more he may hurt his cause.
  4. Finally, after the Republican convention one poll evidently showed that Romney trailed the empty chair that had been used as a metaphor for a missing Obama. If that says anything at all, it suggests that Romney is already pressing the outer limits of his appeal and may explain why his pitch was more towards existing Obama supporters than independents.

Yes, there are 100 million or more chickens/eggs/voters scrambling around out there. They all do have to roost by Election Day on November 6. For all of the reasons spelled out above, this observer believes that, unless there is some significant and unexpected exogenous event between now and the election, Obama will win by a respectable margin, of both popular votes and electoral votes, which even might exceed his margins in 2008.

And, if that proves to be the case, we are very likely to see a version of Simpson-Bowles between the election and Christmas. And, if that happens, the years 2013 – 2018 could very well be a time of growth, prosperity and improved democracy.