Jason Brennan on Why We’re Dumb at Politics

Jason Brennan‘s recent book The Ethics of Voting challenges the common assumption that everyone who can vote, should vote, arguing instead that uninformed voters are to blame for everything from bad laws, to wars and disastrous economic policies. In an ongoing series of popular posts for Election 101, (check here, and here, and here), Brennan takes the view that it’s no wonder things are in the state they’re in when the average voter heads to the polls armed with more personal biases than real information, and no ability to tell the difference. With so much at stake, why aren’t we all a bit smarter when it comes to politics? Are we indulging our irrational beliefs at the risk of our own futures? Where does the turf war end and real assessment begin, and why is it so hard for any of us to actually get to that point? Read his new post here:

Why We’re Dumb at Politics

Jason Brennan


Smart Doesn’t Pay

            You cross the street only when you think it’s clear. If you’re wrong, you die. So, you have every incentive to form beliefs about whether the street is clear in a rational way.

Now suppose you are about to vote. What happens if you make a mistake? Alas—not much.
Suppose Obama credibly promises me $10 million from the treasury if he is re-elected. If so, then from a selfish standpoint, having Obama win is worth $10 million more to me than having Romney win. However, that doesn’t yet show it’s worth my time to vote for Obama. My vote is just one of many. I have a better chance of winning Powerball than changing the outcome of the election.

People are fairly rational about checking for street traffic—and they’re not perfect about that—because irrationality is punished. They are irrational about politics because rationality does not pay and irrationality goes unpunished.           

When you go to a new restaurant, you probably spend some time looking over the menu. Maybe you ask the waiter which dishes are best. Maybe you deliberate about pasta or pizza. You put in the effort because you get what you choose.

Imagine a restaurant with a hundred million customers. Each customer places an order. However, customers don’t automatically get the meal they order. Instead, everyone gets the same meal—the most popular item on the menu. In this restaurant, if you order pizza, this has almost no chance of helping you get pizza. You are more likely to win Powerball than to place a tie-breaking order for pizza. In a restaurant like that, you might not even bother to look at the menu. You might not even bother place an order. Putting in effort to make a good choice seems pointless.

Now you know why so many citizens are ignorant and irrational about politics. Regardless of whether we care about others or just ourselves, most of us don’t invest in political knowledge because political knowledge doesn’t pay. We are ignorant because we lack the incentive to be well-informed. We are irrational because we lack the incentive to correct our biases.

Dumb Pays

Psychologist Jonathan Haidt says, ”Reasoning was not designed to pursue truth. Reasoning was designed by evolution to help us win arguments.” Robert Wright concurs that the human brain evolved to be “a machine for winning arguments,” that is, for seeking victory, not truth.

Motivated reasoning occurs when the brain tries to arrive at beliefs a person finds pleasing. According to the theory of motivated reasoning, we have preferences over beliefs. We enjoy some beliefs. We tend to believe what we prefer to be true. Motivated reasoning occurs when the brain tries to arrive at beliefs that maximize good feelings and minimize bad feelings. Our beliefs are determined by emotions, not evidence. For example, I might prefer to think I am smart, I might prefer to think Democrats are good and Republicans are selfish, or I might prefer to think God created the earth 6,000 years ago.

Psychologist Drew Westen performed a famous experiment in which he scanned committed Democrats’ and Republicans’ brains as they engaged in motivated reasoning. One scary finding: As the partisans denied and evaded evidence right in front of their faces, pleasure centers in their brains lit up. Our brains reward us for intellectual vice.

In politics, dumb is fun. It’s fun to think my coalition is made up of all the good guys. It’s fun to feel superior to the other side—to imagine they are all ignorant and corrupt. It’s fun to allow our political beliefs to form an essential part of our identities. It’s fun to treat the Democrat-Republican rivalry like the Red Sox-Yankee rivalry.

We can afford to indulge pleasurable but grossly irrational political beliefs. And, so, most of us do.

The News Once Again Indicates I Was Right All Along

When we first begin thinking about politics, we don’t start as agnostics. That is, we don’t start with the attitude, “Oh, I don’t know anything, so I will withhold judgment until I first study a whole bunch.”

Few of us form our original political beliefs after first weighing the evidence. Instead, when we first start thinking about politics, we come to the table with groundless political beliefs. We begin with bents to believe some things and disbelieve others. For no good reason, each of us starts off left or right, libertarian or authoritarian, market-friendly or anti-market, and so on.

Our political beliefs are at least moderately hereditable. You genes dispose us to vote one way rather than another. Early childhood experiences also push you one way rather than another. By sheer accident, you might come to associate the Democrats with compassion or the Republicans with responsibility. For you, for the rest of your life, the word “Democrat” will automatically conjure up positive emotions. For the rest of your life, you’ll have a bent—based on no evidence at all—to vote one way rather than another.

When people first start thinking about politics, they come to the table with (often strongly held) pre-existing beliefs. That’s already a worry. Yet if we were really good at assessing evidence and changing our beliefs in light of evidence, then our non-rational bents would not be so bad. Sure, we’d start with groundless, baseless beliefs, but we’d end up with well-grounded beliefs. Young people would start as hacks, but end up as sages.

Alas, we are bad at assessing evidence. Most of us stay hacks.

In politics—but not only in politics—we exhibit strong confirmation bias. This means we tend to pay strong attention to and accept evidence in favor of beliefs we already hold, and tend to ignore, reject, or be bored by evidence against beliefs we hold. We tend to be impressed by evidence that confirms our pre-existing beliefs. We tend to ignore or be suspicious of evidence that this confirms our pre-existing beliefs. We are bored by evidence that tends to confirm views we reject. We cannot even be bothered to evaluate it. We give every benefit of the doubt to arguments and to people who support our views. We are quick to dismiss arguments and people who reject our views.

Confirmation bias means we don’t act like good scientists when thinking about politics. Instead, it means we act like highly corrupt scientists. We don’t care about the truth. We care about defending our turf.

Confirmation bias explains how we consume news. Thanks to the Internet, information is cheaper and easier to get than ever before. Why isn’t everyone much better informed and much less biased, then? Here’s the problem: People seek out news sources that identify and promote their own points of view. Libertarians read libertarian blogs. Left-liberals read left-liberal newspapers, such as the New York Times. Republicans flock to Fox News. People who consume news want to be informed—they want to be informed that they were right all along.

Jason Brennan is assistant professor of ethics at Georgetown University. He is the coauthor of A Brief History of Liberty.

David Runciman on Crisis Elections

Political theorist at Cambridge and British journalist David Runciman has offered us some of the most thought-provoking takes on the problems that plague modern politics. Author of The Politics of Good Intentions as well as Political Hypocrisy, his  forthcoming book, The Confidence Trap, a history of democracy and crisis, is due out in Fall of next year. Here he discusses the idea of crisis elections: Certainly we faced one in 1932, 1980, and 2008, but are we facing one now? Peggy Noonan thinks so. What has been the historical impact on elected governments during times of crisis, and what makes election 2012 different?  Read Runciman’s post here:


Crisis Elections

David Runciman


Major economic crises make it very difficult for elected governments to hold on to office.  During the first four years of the Great Depression, every democracy around the world, from Australia to Austria, from Brazil to Bulgaria, changed government at least once.  Many of them gave up on democracy altogether and reverted to some form of military rule.  It was a sobering fact, much noted at the time, that when the world’s states gathered in London in June 1933 for the World Economic Conference, only two countries were still being run by the same people who had been in charge when Wall Street crashed in October 1929.  They were Mussolini’s Italy and Stalin’s Russia (and Stalin didn’t even bother to send a delegation to London).  It added to the impression that crises suit dictatorships, not democracies.

The global economic crisis of the mid-1970s also proved a very tough time for democratic leaders.  They found themselves being forced from office just about everywhere, either though defeat at the ballot box or driven out by scandals.  Almost the only one to hold on was Indira Gandhi in India, and she only managed it by using emergency powers to suspend Indian democracy altogether in 1975.  When she relented twenty-one months later and finally allowed elections, the voters kicked her out too.

This crisis has been different.  Plenty of elected leaders who were in charge when Lehman’s went under nearly four years ago are still there now.  Manmohan Singh in India, Angela Merkel in Germany, Stephen Harper in Canada and Recep Erdogan in Turkey have all been in office for well over the duration.  This reflects the widely varying impact of the crisis on different parts of the democratic world.  These four countries have all had relatively benign crises and their economies have proved fairly robust.  The same is true of Australia, which has changed leader from Kevin Rudd to Julia Gillard, but only because of an internal party coup; the same party is still in power.  In fact, of the members of the G20, ten have had the same government since 2008, and only two of these are straightforwardly undemocratic (China and Saudi Arabia).

The result is that no clear pattern for democracy has emerged in this crisis.  In some places, including Southern Europe, democracy has looked very fragile and in Italy and Greece there have been temporary suspensions; elsewhere, democracy has looked strong.  The patterns of earlier crises were much clearer.  The Great Depression was very bad for democracy and nearly destroyed it.  The 1970s, in retrospect, were good for democracy.  Countries that were able to change governments found an outlet for popular discontent.  Authoritarian regimes that lacked a comparable outlet either fell apart (as in Greece and Portugal) or were forced to suppress the symptoms of the crisis (as in Eastern Europe) with disastrous long-term consequences.  The democratic tendency to switch horses in tough times was a weakness in the 1930s.  During the 1970s it was a strength.

The lack of a clear pattern this time round makes it hard to know where to place the US election of 2012.  Is it even a ‘crisis’ election?  The election of 2008, which took place two months after the Lehman’s debacle, definitively was.  That was what helped Obama win.  He inherited the crisis.  In four years he has neither fixed it nor has he allowed it to spin out of control.  He has surfed along with it.  He doesn’t ‘own’ it, for better or for worse.  That means there is still scope for competing narratives to take hold before November.  Is it time for a change or time to stay the course?  Either line might stick, depending on how well the candidates can deliver it.

But there is also still scope for the crisis to take another turn.  This crisis differs from previous ones in being more inconclusive.  It simply drags on, unresolved, unfathomable, and littered with false dawns.  Though Europe has stabilized for now, it is not hard to imagine another lurch later this year, triggered by a Greek default or a political meltdown in Italy or a bank run in Spain, which takes the crisis to another level, and sweeps away another raft of elected governments, including in Germany and perhaps further afield.

Will the next wave hit before November?  Who knows, but at the moment it seems unlikely.  Obama has always struck me as a lucky politician.  In crisis politics, as in comedy, the key to success is timing.


David Runciman teaches political theory at the University of Cambridge and is a fellow of Trinity Hall. He is the author of The Politics of Good Intentions and Political Hypocrisy, and writes regularly about politics for the London Review of Books.



Do-It-Yourself Election Fact-Checking Kit, courtesy of Princeton University Press

To fact-check or not became something of a conversation point at the Republican and Democratic National Conventions this week. Here at PUP, we suggest readers take matters into their own hands and learn, as John Alexander Smith put it, “to detect when a man is talking rot.”

Look for this ad in the New York Review of Books.


FACT: “A feature of the ‘great compromise’ between the North and the slave-holding South was the provision for electing two senators from each state. That arrangement has given those chosen to represent small, sparsely populated states—then Rhode Island and Delaware, now Vermont and Wyoming—equal power with the most populous. In 1790 Virginia had ten times the population of Rhode Island; California now has more than seventy times the population
of Wyoming.”

Reading Obama:
Dreams, Hope, and the American Political Tradition

by James T. Kloppenberg
With a new preface by the author

Derided by the Right as dangerous and by the Left as spineless, Barack Obama puzzles observers. In Reading Obama, James T. Kloppenberg reveals the sources of Obama’s ideas and explains why his principled aversion to absolutes does not fit contemporary partisan categories. Obama’s commitments to deliberation and experimentation derive from sustained engagement with American democratic thought. In a new preface, Kloppenberg explains why Obama has stuck with his commitment to compromise in the first three years of his presidency, despite the criticism it has provoked.

Reading Obama traces the origins of his ideas and establishes him as the most penetrating political thinker elected to the presidency in the past century. Kloppenberg demonstrates the influences that have shaped Obama’s distinctive worldview, including Nietzsche and Niebuhr, Ellison and Rawls, and recent theorists engaged in debates about feminism, critical race theory, and cultural norms. Examining Obama’s views on the Constitution, slavery and the Civil War, the New Deal, and the civil rights movement, Kloppenberg shows Obama’s sophisticated understanding of American history. Obama’s interest in compromise, reasoned public debate, and the patient nurturing of civility is a sign of strength, not weakness, Kloppenberg argues. He locates its roots in Madison, Lincoln, and especially in the philosophical pragmatism of William James and John Dewey, which nourished generations of American progressives, black and white, female and male, through much of the twentieth century, albeit with mixed results.

Reading Obama reveals the sources of Obama’s commitment to democratic deliberation: the books he has read, the visionaries who have inspired him, the social movements and personal struggles that have shaped his thinking. Kloppenberg shows that Obama’s positions on social justice, religion, race, family, and America’s role in the world do not stem from a desire to please everyone but from deeply rooted—although currently unfashionable—convictions about how a democracy must deal with difference and conflict.

“James Kloppenberg, one of America’s foremost intellectual historians, persuasively argues that [there is] a broader shift in American philosophy away from appeal to general principles, valid at all times and in all places, toward a reliance on local, historically particular values and ideals. Kloppenberg’s own endeavor, in surveying the work in political and legal theory that seems to have shaped President Obama’s thinking, is to argue for the coherence, the Americanness, and the plausibility of Obama’s approach to politics and to the Constitution.”—Kwame Anthony Appiah, New York Review of Books

We invite you to read the Introduction here: http://press.princeton.edu/chapters/i9277.pdf

Be sure to check in every Tuesday for a new tidbit from our great selection of politically-minded books.

The Conventions and the Media–Who’s Watching and Does it Matter?

A precipitous drop since the 1950s in how much we trust our media outlets has major implications for the political sphere. The more we distrust the mainstream press’s information about policy outcomes, the more voters turn toward alternative partisan media outlets. And in the absence of a neutral, trustworthy news source, public beliefs and voting behavior are now increasingly shaped by partisan predispositions. Jonathan Ladd, author of Why Americans Hate the Media and How it Matters takes a look at the effects of conventions on public opinion. Are they opportunities to disseminate information, or simply preach to the choir? Who is really tuning in? Will there be bumps in polls? Read his post here.

Do the Conventions Matter?

Jonathan Ladd


Last week (in spite of a  disruption from Hurricane Isaac), Republicans  held their presidential nominating convention in Tampa Bay, FL. It will be followed one week later by the Democratic nominating convention in Denver, CO. Historically, conventions have produced “bumps” in the trial heat polls. On his blog, Tom Holbrook of the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, produces a chart showing the bounces generated by major party conventions since 1964.


Some of these are quite large, including a 14.1 percentage point bounce for Nixon in 1968, a 13.6 point bounce for Clinton in 1992, and a 12.9 point bounce for Goldwater in 1964. Holbrook uses a regression model to predict that this year Romney will receive a 3.6 point bounce and Obama a 1.1 point bounce.


What are the important considerations that we should keep in mind when thinking about the importance (or lack thereof) of the conventions for the presidential race?


In general, political scientists find that the biggest effect of major campaign events is to activate partisan predispositions. The campaign as a whole has this result, but the effect may be even more dominant for conventions and debates that require one to self-select to be a viewer. This activation effect is driven by that fact that those most interested in politics are also the most likely to have strong existing views (see here and here). A very large portion of those who tune in are political junkies/activists who made up their minds long ago or those who are at least partisan enough that watching these events reminds them what they like about their party and dislike about the other one.


Of course, this does not preclude large post-convention bounces. But the biggest bounces tend occur when a candidate has a divisive nomination fight or for some other reason has failed to previously consolidate his own coalition behind him. This partisan reinforcement (or activation) can produce a surge in the polls without converting many swing voters. Voters who are truly up for grabs have the least interest in, and knowledge about, politics. They are simply unlikely to pay attention to conventions.


This was all true when the parties were less polarized and there were far fewer media choices. Yet it is possible that polarization and the proliferation of media options have made conventions even more primarily about rallying the base. Ben Lauderdale pointed out on twitter yesterday that convention bumps appear to be getting smaller over time. This makes sense if the bumps seen in past decades largely resulted from the partisan activation of candidates’ own coalitions. In today’s polarized environment, almost everyone exposed to convention messages comes in with their partisanship already activated.


How will people watch the conventions? To get a sense, I assembled available data from the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism, as compiled in their annual “State of the Media” reports. All figures below are from that source.


Total Households (in millions) Watching Conventions on Cable or Network TV

Source: “State of the Media, 2009”


The first thing to mention is that it is hard to predict how many total people will tune in to the conventions this year. While the networks have shrunk the amount of prime-time coverage over the years, many people still do watch the network coverage and it is relatively easy to switch over to complete coverage on cable. The total number of households watching the conventions actually shows little clear trend over time. There was a decline after 1992, but that was reversed with a big increase in viewership four years ago. It will be interesting to see if we return to the post-1992 norm or see viewership more like 2008.


Percentage of Households with TVs Turned to the 3 Network Evening New Programs Based on Nielson Data

Source: “State of the Media, 2012”


The three major broadcast networks audience has been steadily shrinking for decades. The most popular source for television news in the U.S. remains local news broadcasts, but these contain very little national political information. For this, you need to use network or cable news or some other source. On a normal evening, even the diminished network news audience is much larger than the cable prime time audience, but that is not necessarily the case for special events like party conventions, where people are more likely to seek out cable news channels.


Political Convention Viewership in 2008

Source: “State of the Media, 2009”


In 2008, the number of people watching the conventions on cable was not that much less than the number watching on the networks. This was especially true for the Republican Convention, likely driven Republicans’ affection for Fox News and distrust of the networks. People were just about equally likely to watch the Republican Convention on cable as on a network.


We can see a bit more about what this means by looking at the breakdown across cable channels. The Project for Excellence in Journalism doesn’t appear to have this data available for 2008, but I could find it for the 2004 conventions.


Democratic Convention Viewership on Cable News (in thousands)


Source: “State of the Media, 2005”


Republican Convention Viewership on Cable News (thousands)

Source: “State of the Media, 2005”


While cable viewers of the Democratic Convention were roughly evenly divided between the three major cable new networks, a majority of cable viewing of the Republican Convention was done through Fox News. The biggest difference between 2004 and 2012 will likely be MSNBC being used by a higher percentage of Democratic Convention viewers and a smaller percentage of Republican Convention viewers.


Does this tell us anything more about the effects of the conventions on public opinion? To the extent that Republicans are likely to watch their party’s convention on Fox, the network’s style will likely enhance the partisan activation effect. And to the extent that Democrats watch their convention on MSNBC, it will likely have a similar effect. To reiterate, this is the main effect that conventions have always had, only now more so.

Jonathan M. Ladd is assistant professor of government and public policy at Georgetown University. He received his PhD in politics from Princeton University.

The Five Elements of Effective Electing–a guide from Edward Burger

If you’ve ever wondered if the way you’re thinking about things is holding you back, The Five Elements of Effective Thinking  is a must-read. Written by the acclaimed teacher and mathematician Edward Burger—a man whose electrifying teaching style has won him countless awards—the book teaches strategic goals for using our minds to realize goals effectively, creatively, and more successfully. Today Burger takes a specific look at how we’re thinking about voting, offering an alternative to heading to the polls armed with sound bites, our preconceptions, and little else (or, as Jason Brennan would call it, being a bad voter.) Check out Burger’s post here:


The Five Elements of Effective Electing

Edward Burger


This fall, the US will once again decide its fate by selecting its next batch of national, state, and local government leaders.  In 2008, the previous presidential election year, voter turnout was a whopping 57% of the voting-age population. Using modern political math, that works out to nearly 8 out of every 10 man, woman, and child. If you happen to be one of those patriotic citizens who plans on doing his or her civic duty on November 6 by pulling a lever, “X”-ing a box, or punching a chad, then the 64,000-dollar question (or with the help of today’s Super PACs, the 3.2 billion-dollar question) is: For whom will you vote?

Very recently I co-authored, with Michael Starbird, a tiny but practical guide to better thinking entitled, The 5 Elements of Effective Thinking. It offers everyone—students, teachers, parents, professionals, and life-long learners—the opportunity to “make up” their own minds and better tap their creativity and imagination through stories and examples as well as concrete action-items that can be directly applied to any circumstance and that can become useful habits to provoke thought. Here I briefly apply some of the lessons we developed to offer a straightforward way of determining your ideal candidate.

Identify and understand the issues that matter. The cost of a candidate’s haircut or a particularly fetching outfit’s designer might not be on the top of your list of issues that truly matter. Despite the topics on which the media or even the candidates themselves decide to focus, you need to determine which issues are important to you—whether they be social, national security, or financial issues, or issues that directly impact your community or family. Don’t let the media dictate what’s important to you. Work hard to deeply understand those issues you identified as well as why you’ve embraced the views you have. Invest the time to prioritize those issues so you know what matters most to you. Focus on the essentials.

Observe how well the candidates fail. Anyone who strives to be imaginative, creative, or bold will eventually make a misstep.  If your candidate has never failed, ask yourself, what—if anything—has that person been doing? If your candidate has failed, determine what lessons that person has learned from that experience. Study how the candidates evolved and moved, and decide if you agree with those corrected paths. Failing—unintentionally or deliberately—presents one with a great gift: the opportunity to learn, grow, and innovate. Discover exactly what the candidates have done in the past when they’ve stumbled upon or purposely solicited such a “gift.” If failing did not provoke a new insight or change in thinking, then you might want to keep shopping for candidates. Failure is a fantastic tool for moving forward.

Ask the right questions. Many questions will be hurled at the candidates and it’s often entertaining to watch politicians uncomfortably squirm or use the Teflon-approach and dodge those speeding queries faster than the man of steal. But by watching that drama unfold on-line or on TV, you are merely a passive listener. Instead, become an active listener: Create your own questions as you listen to the candidates or as you read their platforms and proposals. Even if you’re not one of the lucky few who actually get to directly question those politicians, you should still deliberately raise those questions in your mind.  Then discover who addresses those issues and assess their stands. By doing so, you are custom-tailoring the campaigns to your interests, concerns, and values. Become an active listener: Hear what is said, and often more importantly, take note of what is missing.

Determine where we’ve been and where you think we should go. One of the quotes that inevitably surfaces during a presidential campaign is: “This is the most important election in this country’s history.” Unless our voting district is Lake Woebegone, every presidential election cannot be the most important ever.  A more accurate and less melodramatic statement might be, “This is an extremely important election in this country’s future.” It is not wise to view an event or issue as sitting alone in a vacuum of a single moment in history (even if it’s touted as, “the most important”). You need to examine everything within context: From where we are emerging, to where we are today and where we need to go.  With presidential politics, it’s essential to look back (both long-term and short-term) and articulate the gains we’ve made as well as the losses we’ve incurred. Then you can thoughtfully assess our current state, define local and global directions in which to move forward, and find the candidate that shares that similar vision. Always focus on the flow—what’s past, what’s the here and now, and what’s next.

Decide how you want to change. By following the four previous modes of thinking, you will be transformed—you will realize new insights, identify other points of view, uncover unintended consequences, and even generate original thoughts. Through this process, you will not only quietly and clearly discover to your ideal candidate, but you will also discover your ideal self.

Focusing solely on sound bites, political pundits, and commercials is tantamount to flipping a coin in the voting booth or even worse, mindlessly handing your vote over to the loudest voice. Instead, cast your vote effectively and intelligently. As Mike Starbird and I wrote in the last chapter of our book:

When the American Founding Fathers imagined a democracy that would reflect the will of the people, the people they envisioned were thoughtful, independent-thinking citizens who would understand the issues of their day and would turn their own clear wisdom to making sound decisions for the benefit of society. Surely more than ever, the world needs thoughtful voices—voices that can ignore the bombast and heat of shallow excitement and focus instead on thinking calmly and sensibly about long-term goals and consequences. These elements of effective thinking will help you to become a quintessential citizen of the world—contributing personally and professionally, locally and globally.

Edward Burger can be reached at  eburger@williams.edu and followed (on Twitter) @ebb663. For more information about The 5 Elements of Effective Thinking, visit www.elementsofthinking.com or follow @5thinking. Burger is the Francis Christopher Oakley Third Century Professor of Mathematics at Williams College, an educational and business consultant, and most recently served as Vice Provost for Strategic Educational Initiatives at Baylor University. He is the author of over 60 research articles, books, and video series (starring in over 3,000 on-line videos). Among his many awards and honors, the Huffington Post named him one of their 2010 Game Changers; “HuffPost’s Game Changers salutes 100 innovators, visionaries, mavericks, and leaders who are reshaping their fields and changing the world.” In 2012, Microsoft Worldwide Education selected him as one of their “Heroes in Education”.



FACT: “Both sides in the presidential contest of 1800 used religion for political advantage. While many of Jefferson’s opponents deemed him unfit for high national office because he was an infidel or atheist, at the same time Jeffersonian Republicans made the cynical and inaccurate charge that John Adams was intent on the establishment of a national church in order to bring religious dissenters over to his side. Alexander Hamilton charged Jefferson and his supporters with hyperbolic opposition to the ‘honest enthusiasm of Religious Opinion,’ while engaging in their own ‘Phrenzy of Political fanaticism.’”

Religion in American Politics: A Short History
by Frank Lambert

The delegates to the 1787 Constitutional Convention blocked the establishment of Christianity as a national religion. But they could not keep religion out of American politics. From the election of 1800, when Federalist clergymen charged that deist Thomas Jefferson was unfit to lead a “Christian nation,” to today, when some Democrats want to embrace the so-called Religious Left in order to compete with the Republicans and the Religious Right, religion has always been part of American politics. In Religion in American Politics, Frank Lambert tells the fascinating story of the uneasy relations between religion and politics from the founding to the twenty-first century.

Lambert examines how antebellum Protestant unity was challenged by sectionalism as both North and South invoked religious justification; how Andrew Carnegie’s “Gospel of Wealth” competed with the anticapitalist “Social Gospel” during postwar industrialization; how the civil rights movement was perhaps the most effective religious intervention in politics in American history; and how the alliance between the Republican Party and the Religious Right has, in many ways, realized the founders’ fears of religious-political electoral coalitions. In these and other cases, Lambert shows that religion became sectarian and partisan whenever it entered the political fray, and that religious agendas have always mixed with nonreligious ones.

Religion in American Politics brings rare historical perspective and insight to a subject that was just as important—and controversial—in 1776 as it is today.

We invite you to read the Introduction here: http://press.princeton.edu/chapters/i8616.pdf

Be sure to check in every Tuesday for a new tidbit from our great selection of politically-minded books.

Exclusive excerpt from The Democracy Index demonstrates how lack of election data impacts policies to combat voter fraud

Download an exclusive excerpt from this book,

A New-style Reformer Encounters
an Old Problem

Now that the candidates are selected and the campaigns are well underway, it seems as though politicos are turning an eye to the actual process of voting, and more specifically to ways to combat voter fraud. Pennsylvania is the latest state to require photo identification at the polls, a move that some view as disenfranchising voters in a key state with lots of electoral votes in the mix. In this exclusive excerpt from The Democracy Index: Why Our Election System Is Failing and How to Fix It, Heather Gerken describes an earlier battle over voter ID laws (the Carter-Baker Commission) to illustrate what happens when you don’t have good data on which to base public policy.

Chuck Myers, Group Publishers of the Social Sciences, provides some additional context:

According to the polls we are facing a very close presidential election in which a few votes in a couple of swing states could determine who our next president will be. And yet our system of voting and counting our votes is a patchwork of local jurisdictions employing various technologies often of dubious quality that manages to lose or miscount thousands of votes in each election.

In addition, allegedly because of fear of possible voter fraud, many states are actually making it harder for citizens to cast their ballots, depriving more voters of their franchise. When an election is a lopsided contest, a few thousand votes one way or the other might not make any difference; however as we saw in Florida in 2000, in a close election miscounted votes–or voters who don’t even have a chance to vote because of their failure to meet purely technical requirements like having an official photo ID– have a real impact.

In The Democracy Index: Why Our Election System Is Failing and How to Fix It, Heather Gerken explores the problems created by our mismanaged electoral system and offers a solution to the problem, a solution driven by creating competition among jurisdictions for creating systems of voting that make it easier to vote and more certain that the votes will be accurately counted. She calls for an investment in collecting extensive data on the scope of the problem as well as the issue of voter fraud and then sets up a democracy index that will rank jurisdictions according to how well they perform in allowing Americans to perform a basic rite of citizenship.


Click here to download the PDF, A TALE OF TWO REFORMERS: A New-style Reformer Encounters an Old Problem.


From A TALE OF TWO REFORMERS: A New-style Reformer Encounters an Old Problem:

Spencer Overton’s problem is that he is fighting for change in a world without data. Indeed, he found himself in the middle of one of the biggest election reform battles we’ve seen in recent years—one that made it all the way to the Supreme Court—and lost in large part because he didn’t have the data he needed to make his case.

The fight was over voter identification—the requirement that voters show a government-issued photo ID when they cast a ballot at the polls. Voter ID has been a significant source of contention in election circles. Conservative commentators insist that an ID requirement deters fraud. Liberal commentators counter that the requirement is a disguised effort to suppress (largely Democratic) votes.* The rhetoric on both sides of the issue has been quite heated, with one side talking about stolen elections and the other side equating ID requirements with vote suppression.

Overton became embroiled in the issue when it was taken up by the Commission on Federal Election Reform, chaired by former Democratic president Jimmy Carter and former Republican secretary of state James Baker. Though most of the members of the bipartisan commission had strong political ties, it included a handful of academics, including Overton.

The Carter-Baker Commission eventually staked out a position on voter ID that looked an awful lot like a political deal. It roughly tracked the compromise that would emerge if a prominent Democrat and a prominent Republican sat down to work out something both sides could live with. The commission blessed the ID requirement (something Republicans usually want) while demanding that the state take affirmative steps to distribute IDs (something that Democrats would want if forced to accept an ID requirement).

Deal or no deal, the main problem with the commission’s position was that it was utterly unsupported by empirical evidence. A pure political compromise can be produced without coming to grips with the empirics; a sound decision cannot. Although the commission did an excellent job of amassing data on how our election system is run in many areas, this was not one where it managed to find much. As the commission itself stated, there is “no extensive evidence of fraud in the United States.” To the extent there is any evidence of fraud, it is almost entirely due to absentee voting scams or ballot-box stuffing, not the type of fraudulent in-person voting that photo ID is supposed to deter. The only other justification that the commission offered for its decision was that a photo ID requirement would enhance public trust in the system. That claim, too, was unsupported by empirical evidence (and may have been misplaced).

Overton did his best to persuade the other members of the commission not to endorse an ID requirement. Most advocates contesting voter ID have simply invoked civil-rights rhetoric. Overton called upon that tradition, but he mainly focused on the kind of cold-blooded cost-benefit arguments that conservatives stereotypically use. Working with the Brennan Center, he tried to amass data on the effects, good and bad, of photo ID. When he failed to change the majority’s mind, he published a forcefully worded dissent. I saw Overton a day after the fight went public. I’ve never seen anyone more exhausted.

The reason Overton faced such an uphill slog is that the data were haphazard and inconsistent. As he discovered, “No systematic, empirical study of the magnitude of voter fraud has been conducted at either the national level or in any state to date.” Nor were there any good studies on an ID requirement’s effect on voter behavior.

*That’s because many people from traditionally Democratic constituencies—poor people, racial
minorities—lack a driver’s license and would find it cumbersome to get an ID.

Check out the new animated cover for The Gamble by John Sides and Lynn Vavreck

As noted in an earlier post, we are trying something completely new by publishing e-chapters from The Gamble: Choice and Chance in the 2012 Presidential Election well ahead of book publication, so why not try something new with the jacket as well? Here you have the perfect image for a book about the close presidential election, the teetering White House alternately dipping to the red and blue.

To delve into the debates over animated book jackets, try these links:

Has Kindle Killed the Book Cover?, The Atlantic: http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2012/04/has-kindle-killed-the-book-cover/255935/

Is the Book Cover Dead?, Technology Review: http://www.technologyreview.com/view/427686/is-the-book-cover-dead/

Gorgeous re-imagined Picador jackets: http://www.picador.com/blogs/2012/2/Picador-40th-Animated-Book-Covers

Designers on Book Covers of the Future: http://publishingperspectives.com/2012/02/designers-on-book-covers-of-the-future/

Another animated jacket for a YA novel, http://yabookreads.com/blog/2011/10/28/my-soul-to-steal-animated-book-jacket/

I couldn’t find too many other animated book jackets — do you know of others? Leave a link in the comments below to other animated book jackets.


Lynn Vavreck and John Sides explain why and how they wrote The Gamble

Read up on the unique publishing story of The Gamble here: http://blog.press.princeton.edu/2012/08/24/free-e-chapters-available-from-the-gamble-by-john-sides-and-lynn-vavreck/.


Download THE GAMBLE: “The Hand You’re Dealt” here:

Download THE GAMBLE: “Random, or Romney?” here:


Thank you to UCLA for creating this wonderful interview.

Free E-chapters available from The Gamble by John Sides and Lynn Vavreck

Princeton University Press has never shied away from trying new things when it comes to academic publishing and our latest venture, The Gamble: Choice and Chance in the 2012 Presidential Election by Lynn Vavreck and John Sides is no exception. That Princeton University Press would publish a book of analysis by two top notch political scientists isn’t news, but the way we’re doing it certainly is.


Anyone who follows politics and particularly Election 2012 knows that political pundits are everywhere. But you probably also know that their analysis is often either based on anecdotes and personal experience or seems biased toward one political party’s views. This is all the more reason we need objective, scholarly analysis by accomplished political scientists. However, a typical political science book from an academic press about the 2012 election might appear two to three years from now, well after interest in the election has faded.


“Political scientists have much to offer all of us in understanding how voters make choices, what impact campaigns have on elections, the role of big money, and the role of political parties and interest groups in elections, among other issues. And yet nearly all the work is published years after the elections take place,” notes Chuck Myers, Executive Editor and Group Publisher of the Social Sciences at Princeton University Press


So, we are pushing the limits of academic publishing by releasing several free e-chapters from the book as they are completed. The result is peer-reviewed scientific analysis in real-time and a chance to inject a dose of reality into a discourse too often dominated by speculation and folklore.


Download THE GAMBLE: “The Hand You’re Dealt” here:

Download THE GAMBLE: “Random, or Romney?” here:


THE GAMBLE gives political science a voice in the ongoing conversation about this campaign,” says Sides. “It brings hard data to bear and casts doubt on a lot of commentary and conventional wisdom.”


“If you want to understand what’s happening in this election, you have to understand the data,” explains Vavreck. “We have great partners in YouGov and General Sentiment providing us with mountains of data that we can analyze to help readers understand what really mattered and what did not.”


The first two e-chapters of THE GAMBLE“The Hand You’re Dealt” and “Random or Romney”—begin to tell the story of the 2012 presidential election.


“The Hand You’re Dealt” describes the lay of the land at the end of 2011, as we enter into the election year. Sides and Vavreck explain why President Obama may be better positioned than a weak economy would typically predict.


“Sixty years of economic and election data tell us this should be a close election for President Obama, but his general likability and the public’s inclination to blame his predecessor for the economic downturn are making him more popular than we might expect given the slowly growing economy,” explains Vavreck. “People just generally like President Obama, and in a close election, that could make all the difference.”


“Random or Romney” challenges the “anyone but Romney” myth. It demonstrates that, despite the surges of candidates like Rick Perry, Herman Cain, and Newt Gingrich during the fall of 2011, by the eve of the Iowa caucus Mitt Romney was well-positioned to win. And in contrast to commentators who emphasized Romney’s problems with conservatives, Sides and Vavreck show that conservative Republicans had more favorable views of Romney than did moderate Republicans—suggesting that he would ultimately be able to unite the party, as in fact he has.


“What most people don’t understand is that Romney went into the primaries popular and stayed popular. He was already a familiar candidate to the media, so they tended to pay more attention to the other candidates whenever they did something noteworthy. The news coverage helped the other candidates surge in the polls, but their temporary surges didn’t mean Romney was disliked within the party,” says Sides. “Another myth is that Romney needed help in mobilizing the base. The data tell us that this is not really true.”


“The Hand You’re Dealt” and “Random or Romney” are now available at Princeton University Press’s website and through online retailers. Additional chapters that discuss the rest of the GOP primary, the summer campaign, the selection of Paul Ryan as Romney’s running mate, and the conventions will be available closer to the election. In total, four chapters from THE GAMBLE will be released prior to the publication of the physical book in September 2013, and Sides and Vavreck hope that this early material starts a dialogue with readers.


Myers expands on this novel publishing program, saying, “We hope that the finished book will benefit from the comments of our readers, taking advantage of ‘the cloud’ to improve the analysis and the presentation of the story of the 2012 presidential election.”


The book’s web site: http://thegamble2012.com/


About the Authors:


Lynn Vavreck and John Sides are authoritative voices on voting behavior and campaign effects in political science. Vavreck (lvavreck@ucla.edu, @vavreck) is Associate Professor of Political Science and Communication Studies at UCLA and is author of The Message Matters and co-author of Campaign Reform: Insights and Evidence, & The Logic of American Politics. In 2003, she helped start an online survey research company that became YouGov/America, and in 2010 she co-founded Model Politics, a political blog dedicated to bringing data to bear on contemporary questions. She has been interviewed in the media on campaigns, elections, and media research.


Sides (jsides@gwu.edu, @monkeycageblog), an Associate Professor of Political Science at George Washington University, is a leading authority on public opinion and voting behavior in the United States and abroad. He is co-author of Campaigns and Elections: Rules, Reality, Strategy, Choice and is co-founder of and contributor to The Monkey Cage, an award-winning blog about politics and political science. He is also an occasional contributor to the 538 Blog at the New York Times and Wonkblog at the Washington Post. His writing has appeared at the Los Angeles Times, the Boston Review, Salon, the New York Daily News, Al Jazeera, the Washington Monthly, the American Prospect, and Bloomberg View and he has been interviewed in the media numerous times in recent years.

Of Ballots and Battles–Voting’s Coordination Problem

Who would you sincerely like to see as the next president? Did you approve of Obama’s support of gay marriage, but chafe at his bailout of the auto industry? Are you keen on Romney’s plans to cut taxes but worried about his stance on women’s healthcare? Maybe you’d like to pick someone else entirely? Voting presents a classic coordination problem. If you follow your purest impulse and write in the name of the person you think is going to run the country as you would like, as opposed to someone you could merely ‘accept’ as president (but who stands a realistic chance of attracting other votes), you fail to act strategically. Strategy, of course, requires cooperation. But how do the interactions between one another and the institutional structures we have created make cooperation possible? Lee Cronk and Beth Leech are the authors of Meeting at Grand Central: Understanding the Social and Evolutionary Roots of Cooperation, a study of how every facet of our lives is impacted by cooperative interactions. Read their post here on how the electoral process has evolved to address the seemingly simple but very complex problem that arises when the preferences and desires of individuals  overlap, but not quite.


Of Ballots and Battles

Lee Cronk and Beth L. Leech


The upcoming major party conventions and the primaries that preceded them are all about one thing: Whose names will appear on the ballot in November. But why do we need a ballot at all? After all, ballots constrain our choices. People are often angry and may even decide not to vote when their preferred candidate fails to appear on the ballot. Why, then, don’t we simply write down the names of the people that we would prefer in a particular office? Wouldn’t that be the purest expression of voters’ desires?

Of course, if everyone walked into the voting booth with nothing but a pen and a blank piece of paper, they would have 150 million people to chose from (that’s about how many currently meet the requirements set out in the Constitution as native-born Americans 35 or older who have lived in the United States for at least fourteen years.) Some people would indeed vote for their heart’s true desire – the one person out of all who are eligible for a particular office that they would most like to see in that position. But some savvy voters would realize that even though they think their Uncle Ned would make a great president, so few others are likely to agree – or even to know who Ned is – that those voters would instead vote for someone they could accept as president but who also has a chance of attracting enough other votes to actually get elected. In technical terms, those voters would vote “strategically” rather than in accordance with their “sincere preferences.” If any one candidate could convince a plurality of the electorate to vote for him or her strategically, even if no voters at all preferred him or her over all other possibilities, then he or she would win the election.

The voter’s dilemma in such circumstances poses a coordination problem. Coordination problems occur when people have identical or at least overlapping preferences regarding some outcome, but they lack the common knowledge necessary to achieve those preferences. Solutions to the coordination problems usually come from shared knowledge. One very simple coordination problem is addressed in the title of our forthcoming  book, Meeting at Grand Central: Understanding the Social and Evolutionary Roots of Cooperation. About fifty years ago, Yale economist Thomas Schelling (now at the University of Maryland) asked people in New Haven, Connecticut a simple question: If you were in New York City and you knew that you were to meet a friend there, but you and your friend had not previously agreed upon a time and place, where would you go, and when would you go there? Schelling’s respondents mostly said Grand Central Terminal at noon. Because commuter trains from New Haven arrive at Grand Central, it served as a prominent, salient solution to the coordination problem for Schelling’s respondents.

As UCLA political scientist Michael Chwe has pointed out in his book Rational Ritual: Culture, Coordination, and Common Knowledge (Princeton University Press, 2003), solving coordination problems requires not only common knowledge about how they can be solved, but also common knowledge that there is common knowledge – in Chwe’s terminology, “common metaknowledge.” Imagine, for example, the coordination problem facing people in a crowded theater when a fire alarm goes off. Even if everyone in the theater knows that the best course of action is for everyone to move in an orderly fashion toward the exits, if they do not also know that everyone else also knows that this is the best way to behave, then they have no reason to act on their knowledge. The result of a lack of common metaknowledge is thus the same as a lack of common knowledge: a lack of coordination and a rush toward the exits.

From the voter’s point of view, elections present a coordination problem. Everyone has his or her own preferences regarding who holds elected office. Those preferences do not overlap perfectly, and for some people they may overlap not at all, but they do overlap enough that coordination is possible, at least in principle. This sort of coordination problem with a large dollop of conflict is similar to a famous game theoretical scenario called The Battle of the Sexes. Imagine a husband and a wife faced with the decision of whether to spend the evening at a boxing match or opera. The husband prefers the boxing match and the wife the opera, but both prefer spending the evening together rather than apart. Thus, their preferences overlap, but only partly. Similarly, you and your neighbor might prefer different candidates in your heart of hearts, but you have enough in common that you can agree that some third candidate is acceptable and perhaps also that some fourth candidate is not. In that case, you and your neighbor might set aside your hearts’ desires and instead vote for the candidate that you both find acceptable, instead.

However, doing this requires that you know that your neighbor is also likely to vote strategically, and vice versa: common knowledge and common metaknowledge. Ballots – and the primaries and conventions that create them – help solve this coordination problem. By reducing the range of choices down to just those few individuals who actually have a chance of winning, ballots help voters coordinate their efforts. Although very few will end up with the outcome that they most prefer, a plurality of people will end up with an outcome that they can accept. In the 1950s, this logic was developed by French sociologist Maurice Duverger and is now enshrined in what is commonly known as “Duverger’s Law”: in a place with single member district plurality voting, the efforts of voters to avoid wasting their votes will lead, in most instances, to a ballot with just two viable candidates. Stanford political scientist Gary Cox has since generalized Duverger’s Law to multi-member districts, showing that the tendency in a district with M members will be for the ballot to converge on M + 1 candidates.

We hope that we have convinced you of the value of ballots as solutions to coordination problems. However, if you still chafe at the way that they constrain your electoral choices, take heart: People who live in constituencies in which the outcome of an election is not in doubt can feel free to vote as their consciences dictate, whether that means voting for a candidate from the two major parties, voting for a third party candidate, or writing in someone’s name. In that situation, following one’s heart is not risky – and strategic voting is not tempting – because the winner is already known. Does it then follow that those of us who live in “battleground” states where the outcome is uncertain should set aside good old Uncle Ned and focus instead on those few individuals whose names actually do appear on the ballot? Perhaps! This is a question we will revisit in our next post on this blog, in which we will explore some of the reasons why people vote in the first place.


Lee Cronk is professor of anthropology at Rutgers University. He is the author of That Complex Whole: Culture and the Evolution of Human Behavior. Beth L. Leech is associate professor of political science at Rutgers University. She is the coauthor of Basic Interests: The Importance of Groups in Politics and in Political Science (Princeton).