Friday, October 29, 2010

Elections and the Gravity of the Cocktail Party Middle

Elections tend to swing on the whims of independents, that is, voters not affiliated with any party. The overall percentage of independents has grown dramatically over the last couple of decades, so politicians ignore them at their peril.

But who are these folks? It seems to matter, because the media gives us breathless reports on them almost hourly. The message I get is that they are the thoughtful voters, the ones who carefully weigh every candidate on the issues, and then come down from the mount close to election time, brows furrowed with the weight of all that cogitation, to deliver their verdict.

What a load of hooey. 

Before I get into exactly why, I will say that there are smart independents out there. Many of them have grown weary of one party or the other and have thrown in the towel, and I am somewhat sympathetic of this decision. But on the whole, I don’t think they are the enlightened bunch they are made out to be. I am on to them.

Here’s why. Have you ever noticed that when two people sit opposite each other, they tend to copy each other's postures? One leans back, the other leans back. One crosses their legs, so does the other, without conscious thought. This is a well documented phenomenon known among psychologists as postural mirroring.

The same precise effect happens with preference sets. People tend to gauge the viewpoints and behavior of others around them and modify their own positions accordingly. Over time, certain viewpoints or behaviors will become acceptable that weren't previously. Blogger Glenn Reynolds once pointed out, by way of example, the sudden appearance of American flags across our landscape (particularly on cars) post-9/11. Were people suddenly more patriotic? Probably not, but opinions and behavior are highly contagious. Once a few opinion leaders started waving the flag, others took this as an "all clear" signal that they could overtly display their patriotism, and they did. This is sometimes called a "preference cascade."

A year later, the flags were gone as the process reversed itself. Investment bubbles  and fashion trends come and go in much the same way.

Nowhere is this phenomenon more acute than in the realm of politics and political issues. The explanation is rooted in the fact that most people don't pay much attention, but they don't want other people to catch on to this fact. No one wants to appear uninformed.

This is where the cocktail party theory comes in. I know this doesn't describe anyone reading this, but let's pretend for a moment that you are that uninformed person, and you find yourself at a party. Suddenly, much to your horror, the conversation turns to politics. You very much don't want to look like an idiot. What to do?
The answer, assuming you are forced into the conversation, is to take a position as close as possible to those around you - the cocktail party center. No one will challenge you if you're agreeing with them. Disagree about anything and you might be forced to back up your opinion with facts or logical argument. That would be risky.
This ends up being self-reinforcing: the more you observe and mimic others, particularly from your own social milieu, the more you end up truly embracing their opinions, and the more you, in turn, tend to then influence others.

In my own hometown, this phenomenon was rampant in the last election cycle. Probably around 2005, it became unfashionable to voice support for George Bush. Not our kind, dear. Can’t even pronounce “nuclear.”  I watched as the independents and more than a few Republicans quickly modified their views to reflect those of progressive opinion leaders, who were pumping up the volume at the same time that conservatives turned mute.

When Obama came along, the table was set. Supporting him was "enlightened" and "sophisticated." Nod your head and watch your social stock rise.

Now, the process has completely reversed. Progressives are dispirited and conservatives are making the most noise. The prevailing view is that Obama has been a disappointment. "I voted for him, but he hasn't lived up to my expectations," is now the precise cocktail party center. The preference cascade has flipped over, maybe in record time.

I don't begrudge the uninformed. Well, maybe a little. And maybe occasionally a lot. People want to live their lives and not spend hours figuring out the pros and cons of every issue and candidate. That's their prerogative. But hey, let's not pretend they're Stephen Hawking.


  1. Man, your hometown sounds scary!

  2. Very good election commentary, where I'll clarify that at least some of us (perhaps a small minority) have been driven to "independent" status by the failures of both parties and not wanting to feed the tendency of folks blindly assuming attitudes based on party affiliation. While I agree with your observation of cocktail party drones, I like to assume that I'm the opposite of being inherently suspicious of such chameleon [non]thought.

    I've got the Rangel hearing on in the background now, where I wish someone would call one of these idiots on the incredibly self-serving BS about dedicating their life to public service and the Country. Whether directly or indirectly, they've been compensated quite well, thank you. I'd argue that the vast majority of government employees wouldn't have been able to approach their standard of living if they abandoned their high and mighty public service for private industry.

    What do you think of getting a movement going to pass legislation requiring that every government body, whether it be a department or agency, publish comprehensive annual disclosures of its top 5 earners, comparable to what's required of public corporations - including all fringe benefits, clear accumulation, and some formality to assure it gets annual attention? I'd think the Tea Party would embrace something like this, but I haven't heard anyone suggest it.