Winston Churchill declared that “Democracy is the worst form of government except for all other forms which have been tried from time to time.” But how bad is that? Looking at public opinion now, it’s hard to escape the impression that it’s actually pretty bad.
In principle, voters should judge politicians by their actions; They should support politicians whose policies help them, and oppose politicians whose policies harm them. To do this, however, voters must have a reasonably good idea of what politics is doing.
Unfortunately, when it comes to economic policy – which should be the easiest type of policy to assess, since its effects are visible in everyone’s daily life – there is little reason to be optimistic about the relationship between politics and public opinion.
In a reasonable world, voters would have a reasonably accurate picture of what is happening in the economy and a basic understanding of which aspects of the economy are under the control of politicians. In the world we live in, none of these things are true.
Start with the state of the economy. You might be tempted to assume that in a world where spending and spending occupy a large part of everyone’s life, people will have a good idea of how the economy is doing, even if they are not familiar with national income accounting. But in reality, economic perceptions are shaped largely by media coverage – and increasingly by partisanship.
In fact, the role of partisan bias has become so significant recently that the Michigan Survey of Consumers, perhaps the most influential measure of economic perceptions, highlighted it in its most recent data; You might say the Michigan survey warned us not to trust the Michigan survey. Here’s how consumer sentiment has changed among Democrats and self-identified Republicans since 2019:
So when the White House changed hands, Democrats began to give a somewhat more positive assessment of the economy, while Republicans became more negative. In fact, Republicans now have a more negative assessment of economic conditions than they once did March 2009, the depths of the financial crisis, with the unemployment rate reaching 8.7 percent and the economy losing 800,000 jobs a month.
You might be tempted to say that this difference partly reflects differences in the type of people who vote for both parties: small business owners, who are fiercely Republican, are underemployed, while low-wage workers, who tend to vote Democrats, experience above-average earnings. in wages.
But other data shows a huge divergence between what people say about the state of the economy, which is quite negative on average, and what they say about their personal finances, which is somewhat positive. Here are survey results from Langer Research Associates:
This difference suggests that people’s views of the economy reflect what they often see in partisan news media and what their policies say should happen, rather than what they themselves face.
Many voters seem to have skewed perceptions of economic reality. Moreover, as much as they see real problems, they may not be clear about which problems politicians can and which they cannot solve.
Take, for example, the price of gasoline, which has risen about $1.50 a gallon from pandemic lows:
High gas prices are a real pain for many Americans – and voters historically seem to blame the president when gas prices are high. However, the influence of the chiefs on prices at the pump is minimal.
In the current episode, what is driving gas prices higher is the global price of crude oil. Here is the price of Brent crude, that is, the price in European markets (which generally moves in tandem with prices everywhere, because oil is a globalized commodity):
Crude oil is up more than $60 a barrel. And with 42 gallons per barrel, this means that the price of crude oil used to produce a gallon of gasoline has gone up $1.50—essentially all of the price hike for consumers. That is, developments outside the control of any president lead to higher prices, which is certainly one of the factors in President Biden’s acceptance rates.
So we live in a nation with many voters who seem to have a distorted view of the state of the economy and false beliefs about the aspects of the economy that politicians can influence. How is democracy supposed to function well under these circumstances?
Just to be clear, I don’t condemn voters for not being economists. People have children to raise, jobs to do, lives to live. It is unreasonable to expect them to be sophisticated political analysts.
But the fact remains that public perceptions have become very disconnected from reality – economics is just one example. It’s a real dilemma. And if you’ve been waiting for me to suggest solutions, well, not today.
People are angry about inflation.
Jams and whip effect.
Back sleeping, flat, stretched.
The issue of patience with inflation.
After a bleak newsletter, there is some joy.