Monday, September 18, 2023

The Real Reason Voters Have Soured on Biden

According to numerous recent polls, Americans believe the economy is in bad shape and don’t trust President Biden to manage it.

In response, the president’s supporters have been arguing strenuously that the gloom is mistaken because in fact the economy is doing well—“extremely well,” according to New York Times columnist Paul Krugman; “astoundingly” well and “better than any other peer country in the world…Joe Biden’s America is on the right path to pull off one of the greatest macroeconomic policy tricks of all time,” according to MSNBC personality Chris Hayes.

Of course, multi-millionaires telling hurting Americans that they’re feeling only phantom pain is inherently cringe-worthy, but I’m not going to argue about whether the economy is in fact doing well or doing poorly. In fact, I’m going to assume for the sake of argument that Biden’s supporters are correct and that the economy is in great shape. What really interests me here is the fundamental error continually made by these highly educated, heavily credentialed people whose sole ostensible job is to accurately and usefully explain to the rest of us what’s really going on.

The error in question? Assuming self-reported reasons for political preferences are typically reliable.

In my experience, humans tend to form conclusions based on emotional elements we understand only vaguely, if at all. But for whatever reason, we’re uncomfortable acknowledging that there’s no sound logical or empirical foundation undergirding those conclusions, and so we reverse engineer logical or empirical foundations that seem to provide a degree of solid support.


Weirdly, this universal human tendency is so underappreciated that when polls show something like “Seventy percent of voters say they disapprove of a politician because of X,” pundits take the purported explanation at face value. The pundits then energetically try to convince people that they’re wrong—in this case by lecturing them that in fact the economy is doing surreally and astoundingly well and that they should therefore be more appreciative of President Biden.


As a trivial but funny example of the phenomenon, a few years ago someone, I think in the Kindle Store, unfavorably reviewed my book The Killer Collective. The gist of the review was, “I didn’t like this book because nothing ever goes wrong for the protagonists and they never face any danger.” Immediately I thought, “That’s not true! What about that helicopter attack, where Rain kept missing with the .50 cal and they all almost died as a result? And I actually killed off a major series character, how much more danger could you ask for?”


And then I laughed at myself, thinking, “What would happen if you could convince this guy that he’s mistaken, that things do go wrong and the characters do face danger? Would he suddenly say, ‘Gee, Barry, you’re right, I actually did like the book?’”


Of course not. The guy genuinely didn’t like the book, which is of course fine (though highly unusual!). There could be dozens of reasons for his dislike, or none at all—he just didn’t like it. But, being human, “I just didn’t like it” feels flimsy, so this guy did what humans do: he reverse engineered a sturdier-seeming foundation. And because the foundation was reverse engineered, undermining it would do nothing to change the conclusion it was placed under, a conclusion that was independent of the foundation and in fact preceded it.


This is just how we’re wired as a species. And yet, when humans report, “I don’t like Biden because the economy is weak,” even (or maybe especially) the most academically credentialed and elite thinkers in the country instinctively respond by trying to undermine the stated reason for the dislike, rather than trying to divine what is really going on.


Krugman in particular does a lot of this in a recent discussion with CNN personality Christiane Amanpour, where paradoxically he comes across as both befuddled and incurious: “We don’t really understand why this [economic gloom in the face of a strong economy] is happening,” he says. “And I could come up with multiple stories, but it’s important to point out that there’s a real and profound and peculiar disconnect going on.” Whoever this “we” is—Nobel Prize-winning economists? New York Times pundits? Cognoscenti generally?—wouldn’t their proposed “stories” (presumably, explanations) for what’s causing the profound and peculiar disconnect Krugman describes be more useful than simply noting the phenomenon itself? And though Krugman, Hayes, and others do periodically point to partisanship, propaganda, and media failures as the underlying causes of voters’ incorrect belief that the economy is doing poorly, even if true such Duckspeak explanations still rely on the erroneous notion that self-reported reasons are inherently reliable.

But if I’m right in suggesting that humans aren’t typically good at self-identifying the real causes of their dislikes, then the entire notion of whether the economy is weak or strong is a distraction. I think something else is going on, not just in America, but in the whole western world. I think ordinary people have become increasingly aware that, as George Carlin put it in 2005’s Life is Worth Losing, our rulers “don’t care about you. At all. At all. At all.”

Martin Gurri describes this phenomenon in his excellent book The Revolt of the Public and the Crisis of Authority in the New Millennium. Popular disgust with the ever-worsening “Let them eat cake” ethos of the ruling class has expressed itself in a variety of ways: Trump in America. Bolsonaro in Brazil. Brexit in the UK. Populist upsets all over Europe. The gilets jaunes movement in France. The Canadian trucker convoy. Day traders rising up against Wall Street titans just for the joy of making them bleed. And perhaps most tellingly in QAnon, which reifies the metaphorical parasitism of the ruling class into a belief in literal establishment cannibalism and child abuse.

So Biden’s problem isn’t so much that voters don’t trust him on the economy, but rather that they just don’t trust him. And why don’t they trust him? Because whatever else you think of him, Biden is as much of an establishment insider as anyone could possibly be. He’s been a politician for virtually the entirety of his adult life, having been elected to a Delaware county council in 1970 at age 27 and to the US Senate two years later, where he remained for 36 years until becoming vice president for another eight. In fact, he’s so much an insider that despite his poor showing in the first three 2020 primaries, the Democratic establishment, fearing Bernie Sanders, united to install him as the general election candidate in 2020. The only politician who might rival Biden in establishment credentials would be Hillary Clinton, who the Democratic establishment also selected after sidelining Sanders in 2016 and who went on to lose to Donald Trump.

To put it another way: I doubt most voters distrust Biden specifically. My sense instead is that voters distrust him for what he represents. And while Democratic Trump horror and Covid proved just enough for the 78-year-old former senator and vice president to eke out a victory in 2020, in a world where the public is increasingly not just distrustful of but nauseated by its rulers, an establishment background presents an ineradicable taint.

But this would be a lot to articulate in a survey, and so most humans will attribute their dislike and distrust to something that feels discrete and defensible, such as “He’s not managing the economy well.” And then pundits like Krugman, his conservative colleague Ross Douthat, and Hayes will engage that stated reason, believing it to be the actual cause for discontent. In fairness, you can’t really blame the Krugmans and Douthats and Hayes’s of the world; after all, they’re all part of the establishment voters increasingly detest. For them to acknowledge how loathed their class is would involve a lot of difficult self-reflection, and in this sense they’re like West World’s Bernard, who couldn’t see the door positioned right in front of him because he’d been programed to be blind to it.

Two things seem axiomatic to me: the public wants meaningful change, and neither wing of America’s political duopoly is willing to offer it. Maximum disgust will therefore be directed at an establishment incumbent like Biden, against whom almost any challenger will have some claim to relative outsider status.

The thing is, Trump isn’t just any challenger. Everyone understands that Trump is hated by the establishment, and after four years of Russiagate, two impeachments, and four (and counting) indictments, Trump is well positioned to blame any of his failures as president on the establishment—what Trump calls “the swamp.” By comparison, a candidate like Biden is the swamp.

The only way either wing of the duopoly might meaningfully mitigate the downside of running an insider would be to allow in an outsider. The Democratic wing has prevented such a thing twice in a row, while the Republican wing tried but failed, accommodating themselves to Trump as their leader after having done all they could to stop him. But regardless of the risks or the outcomes, I don’t expect either wing to become more open to outsiders. As the Iron Law of Institutions posits, the people who control institutions care more about their power within the institution than they do about the power of the institution.

If I’m right about the public’s general outlook, voter pessimism about Biden’s accomplishments isn’t really what’s pulling him down. And in arguing that in fact those accomplishments are surreal or historical or otherwise stunning—even if true—is as likely to boost his numbers as my flapping my arms is likely to get me to fly.