Big Sort

What Change Means: It’s Not Policy; It’s Process

“Palin and Biden Stake Their Claims on Change,” rang the lead headline in the Times after the vice-presidential debate. Who could blame them? With several wars, Great Depression II, a blistering civil conflict in Pakistan, and European economic collapse, change would be welcome.

But there’s something else going on with this “change” business, the reason why “change” is such an appealing message to Americans. It’s not that an overwhelming number of voters want a change in particular policy. What Americans want universally is a change in the way government works.

Political writers say voters don’t give a rip about governmental process. But these two campaigns are mostly about process, about how government works rather than what government does. Maybe that’s because we care more about process than results, more about the way government operates rather than the policies government enacts.

That’s the argument of two political scientists from the University of Nebraska, John Hibbing and Elizabeth Theiss-Morse. Policy doesn’t drive people’s vote, according to Hibbing and Theiss-Morse. People want good schools, peace, and a strong economy, certainly. But they don’t have overwhelming concern about how these ends are achieved.

“What do people care about if they don’t care about policy?” the two ask, and then answer. “We argue that people care deeply about process.” (Hibbing and Theiss-Morse lay out their argument in their 2002 book, Stealth Democracy: Americans’ Beliefs about How Government Should Work .)

People “despise pointless political conflict and they believe pointless political conflict is rampant in American politics today.” And they overwhelmingly see a “political system in which decision makers—for no reason other than the fact that they are in a position to make decisions—accrue benefits at the expense of non-decision makers. Just as children are often less concerned with acquiring a privilege than with preventing their siblings from acquiring a privilege, citizens are usually less concerned with obtaining a policy outcome than with preventing others from using the process to feather their own nests.”

OK, I’m like many of you. This sounds wrong, belittling. (The “children” reference is over the top.) Hibbing and Theiss-Morse aren’t exactly thrilled about what they’ve found as they’ve polled and focus-grouped voters. But the Nebraska professors’ thesis does explain why outsiders (governors from Georgia, California, Arkansas, and Texas) have won the presidency based largely on their outsiderness, that they didn’t live “inside the Beltway.”

Now we have the “maverick” (plus his Alaskan sidekick) and the guy who will deliver the “change we need/can believe in.” Both candidates have promoted themselves as outsiders who promise to sweep out a government rotten with partisanship and corruption.

Hibbing and Theiss-Morse don’t think people want to get rid of “insiders” so “the people” can take more direct control of government. They argue Americans have little interest in most policy proposals and even less interest in the day-to-day work of government. (Largely that’s because people shy away from conflict, Hibbing and Theiss-Morse write, and politics is all about conflict.) What they want is for government to be open, accountable, and representative. Their perception is that government is none of those things, and so dissatisfaction with government  “usually stems from perceptions of how government goes about its business, not what the government does.”

Therefore, people’s “main political goal is often limited to nothing more than achieving a process that will prevent decision makers from benefiting themselves.”

The Nebraskans contend that the great power vested in government inevitably leads to this sense that politicians are “overpaid lackeys of special interests.”

“[P]eople are amazingly sensitive to being played for suckers,” they write. “Politicans are often in a position to do this, and as a result the people love to hate them.” We are psychologically wired this way. It’s not the policy positions politicians take that lead to our distrust, Hibbing and Theiss-Morse write; it is the power they hold.

Most people don’t care about politics or policy. They just don’t want to be ripped off. And so they vote, time and again, for the outsider, the maverick, the man from Hope, the peanut farmer, the Perot phenomenon in ‘92, the uniter not a divider, the guy who will deliver change from the bottom up.

This isn’t the way I like to think about politics. And given the remarkable failures of the last eight years, it’s hard to believe policy isn’t a primary concern right now. But eight out of the last nine elections (including this one) have been shaped by the sense among voters that Washington is corrupt, politicians are crooks, and it will take a newcomer to get rid of the corruption and the partisanship.

I can’t think of a single policy proposal that has had a similar impact.

(Top) Photo by SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images; (Bottom) Photo by Peter Tompson/Getty Images