Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Independents Are Not What You Think They Are

Most independents have no idea what's going on. Okay, that's a controversial thing to say, but bear with me for a couple of minutes. It has something to do with cocktail parties.

Conventional wisdom is that independents control the tipping point of every election. 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 hear 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 pant load. 

Before I get into exactly why, let me say there are some smart, informed 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 behavioral 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 my cocktail party theory comes in. I know this doesn't describe anyone reading The Naked Dollar, 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, short of staying silent, 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, however, and you might be forced to back up your opinion with facts or logical argument. That would be risky, especially since you don't know any. So, you gravitate to the views of those around you, and pretty soon you own them.
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 presidential 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 already set. Supporting him was "enlightened" and "sophisticated." Nod your head and watch your social stock rise.

Now, especially in the last few weeks, the process has completely reversed. Progressives (aka "liberals") 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, and Mitt Romney is the beneficiary. With two weeks to go before the election, I doubt it can flip again.

So, with regards to independents, I don't begrudge the uninformed. Okay, maybe a little. Okay, actually a lot. Some 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 stop pretending they're Stephen Hawking.

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