Maybe ask their phone bank interns

Did you hear about the study which showed that liberal state-level candidates overestimate the conservatism of their districts by a little, and conservative candidates overestimate it by a lot? Of course you did. By now everyone has taken a shot at it. For example, Ezra Klein.

Broockman and Skovron find that legislators consistently believe their constituents are more conservative than they actually are. This includes Republicans and Democrats, liberals and conservatives. But conservative legislators generally overestimate the conservatism of their constituents by 20 points. “This difference is so large that nearly half of conservative politicians appear to believe that they represent a district that is more conservative on these issues than is the most conservative district in the entire country,” Broockman and Skovron write. This finding held up across a range of issues.

Can you think of at least one group who are not surprised even a little by this news? I can.

Look, politicians do not have some psychic link to a Kantian transcendental ideal representation of reality. They know what people think because either (a) they read about it or hear it on the TV, or (b) constituents pick up the phone and yell about it. This your average politician mainlines a mix of (a) newspapers, web blather and FOX or networks trying to be FOX, and (b) enraged idiots tying up phone lines over whatever vision Glenn Beck saw on his taco shell. Yates Yeats was right. The worst are full of passionate intensity and they use the phone. A lot. You guys may not lack all conviction* but you harass your Reps a lot less.

So. Yeah. Do you need me to say it? Of course not.

(*) Don’t feel bad. A moron thinks that everything that matters can fit on Arthur Laffer’s tea napkin. Knowing things makes real conviction hard, and the more you know the less simple it gets. My whole career has centered around taking hard-and-fast rules and saying yeah-but.

40 replies
  1. 1
    Tonal Crow says:

    Also too, don’t tell only *your* representatives what you think. Tell everyone in Congress (and your state legislature, and your city council, and…) who you think is even vaguely persuadable. And tell them again and again.

  2. 2
    Waynski says:

    It’s Yeats, Tim.

  3. 3
    Jim, Foolish Literalist says:

    I’m reminded of Mr Burns’ mother. “She has limited capacities. All she can do is dial. And yell.”

  4. 4
    Bokonon says:

    Doesn’t that point to two things – the effectiveness of the different conservative message-and-advocacy groups on the one hand, and consistent patterns of under-voting and non-voting by liberals on the other?

    Politicians aren’t stupid. How else can you explain a gap like that?

  5. 5
    Villago Delenda Est says:

    Knowing things makes real conviction hard

    Knowing things makes blind certainty hard. The more you know, you realize that there’s even more you don’t know.

    This is why these simpletons are anti-intellectuals. They hate the uncertainty, the doubt. They can’t handle ambiguity. They don’t like the risk that comes when you don’t have perfect information, but they insist that systems that presuppose perfect information work in a world where perfect information is rare. They can’t stand the mitigation that’s built in to deal with a reality they don’t want to acknowledge.

  6. 6
    quannlace says:

    This is why these simpletons are anti-intellectuals. They hate the uncertainty, the doubt.

    They’re completely water-tight. Sealed from anything seeping in and ruining their personal,perfect reality.

  7. 7
    Tim F. says:

    @Waynski: Let’s just agree that was a typo.

  8. 8
    Cervantes says:

    It’s spelled Yeats. Just sayin’.

  9. 9
    Patty K says:

    @Waynski: But pronounced “Yates,” not “Yeets” as some have been known to do.

  10. 10
    Nemo_N says:

    You guys may not lack all conviction but you harass your Reps a lot less.

    But liberals told me it’s much better to be realist/pragmatist and do nothing than looking like an idealistic fool who thinks he change something. What gives?

  11. 11
    Tim F. says:

    @Nemo_N: Yeah, just look at how liberals sat out the whole twentieth century without trying to change a thing. Yeesh.

  12. 12
    Sly says:

    @Tonal Crow:
    A better strategy is to tell your friends and family to call your local representative, assuming you all live within the same district. Representatives generally don’t care about people from outside their district who call in to complain or lobby, and why should they?

    Networks used to (still?) have a rule of thumb that said for every one person who took the time to call them or write a letter and voice a complaint, twenty five were just as pissed but didn’t bother to call and a thousand probably just shrugged and changed the channel. Representatives operate under the same principle.

  13. 13
    shortstop says:

    @Tim F.: I did hear Sid Yates say it once at a constituent breakfast, so there’s that.

  14. 14
    Tim F. says:

    @Tonal Crow: As Sly said, don’t do that. Call your own Reps. Calling anyone else just wastes your time and theirs.

  15. 15
    FlipYrWhig says:

    @Nemo_N: what are you talking about? Sometimes _politicians_ need to act like pragmatists to get shit done in a world of bad to worse alternatives. But I don’t know anyone who has a strong belief that individual private citizens are supposed to be docile about expressing political views. Of course those two things can intersect, when a politician decides to act pragmatically and the individual private citizen is frustrated with that, but when that individual gets criticized it’s usually for expecting too much of the politician, not for wanting the wrong things himself.

  16. 16
    Jim, Foolish Literalist says:

    @Tim F.: What you don’t understand is that anything less than everything is nothing: health care reform is nothing because public option; the Stimulus was nothing because Krugman; the end of DADT is nothing because it took too long; winding down two wars is nothing because drones; two more women on the Supreme Court, including one who (ETA: pretty much) told Antonin Scalia to fuck off in open court, is nothing because…. I’m not sure.

  17. 17
    Tonal Crow says:


    @Tonal Crow:
    A better strategy is to tell your friends and family to call your local representative, assuming you all live within the same district. Representatives generally don’t care about people from outside their district who call in to complain or lobby, and why should they?

    It’s a good strategy to encourage your friends to call their reps, but, if the issue is that reps hear too many wingnuts and too few liberals, I don’t see why changing the ratios — even in part via out-of-district contacts — doesn’t help.

  18. 18
    El Cid says:

    People who aren’t “conservatives” aren’t their constituents, merely malingering parasites who happen to inhabit their districts.

  19. 19
    Hoodie says:

    Could one speculate that this is the special genius of Roger Ailes? He knows the conservative audience is susceptible to conspiracy theories, the more outrageous the better, and usually do not stop for even a moment to consider whether they’re true. He also knows that congresspeople are too lazy or stupid to realize the garbage they’re getting if they’re listening mostly to constituent initiated input.

    I have a friend who’s an editor at the local rag and he tells me it’s almost always the same agitated nitwits sending letters and calling the paper. You can see it in the comment sections of the online edition, a group of trolls hangs out there and talks to one another. If you didn’t know better, you’d think the entire subscriber population was a chapter of the John Birch Society. They’re probably a bunch of angry white male retirees who have nothing else to do.

    You can call their congressperson, but do really think that does much good if they are unable to discriminate regarding the source of the input they get? Who has the time or energy to compete with a bunch of cranks who seem to have infinite time? How about instead doing more of what this story talks about, i.e., take and publish polls and make sure they get to members of congress – including Republicans. After 2012, they might have some sense that polls can really tell them something. Even if they don’t trust liberal-sponsored polls, they might do their own just to play it safe and not be surprised in the next election.

  20. 20
    Tonal Crow says:

    @Tim F.:

    @Tonal Crow: As Sly said, don’t do that. Call your own Reps. Calling anyone else just wastes your time and theirs.

    We disagree on this point. If the idea of calling reps is to change their perception of public views on a topic, out-of-district calls will have some positive effect, although not as large an effect as in-district calls. Also, if more liberals call a given rep’s office — even from out-of-district — the nutters will have to stay on hold longer, which will cause some nutters to give up, thus reducing the overall number of nutters’ calls received. That sounds like a good thing to me.

  21. 21
    eemom says:

    Might the fact that right wing fuckwits, whatever else you might say about them, DO reliably get their fool asses to the polls every time, including in off year state elections, have something to do with this perception?

    Pardon me, but fuck calling reps. GOTV is what matters, it is ALL that really matters, and we suck at it 3 out of every 4 years.

  22. 22
    Xecky Gilchrist says:

    They know what people think because either (a) they read about it or hear it on the TV, or (b) constituents pick up the phone and yell about it.

    or, much more commonly, (c) they arrive at it through ignorance and prejudice and ignore (a) and (b) except where it confirms their biases. eemom is right, GOTV is it.

    although I do call my rep fairly often to let hm know what I think because you never know, the pig might learn to sing. My senator is Orrin Hatch, so I don’t bother there – that pig is too damn stupid.

  23. 23
    Bill Arnold says:

    You’re assuming that reps are rational. They are not; they irrationally believe that their districts are more conservative than they really are, and then rationally vote accordingly.
    GOTV is much more important for several months a year, agreed.

  24. 24
    Seanly says:

    This is a whole bunch of issues mangled together. People prefer liberal/progressive policies, but “liberal” and now even “progressive” are bad words. There’s the echo chamber where all the media seems to only present one side of an issue and then might show a less rabid version as the other side.

    The media has also conditioned us to hate the moochers & takers. Most people are very willing to help others on their own, but if it’s a government program it must be bad and the people using it must be bad and ripping the rest of us off.

    And then there are people who have no understanding of how the government works – like the “Get the government out of my medicare” crowd.

  25. 25
    Chris says:

    @El Cid:

    People who aren’t “conservatives” aren’t their constituents, merely malingering parasites who happen to inhabit their districts.


    The reason a bunch of True Believers have gotten so enraged with Chris Christie lately is that he’s actually been governing as if his job were to represent the people of New Jersey rather than the Republican Party. They expect every last person to be loyal to The Movement, regardless of their position or who their oaths of office were to.

  26. 26
    tmf (formerly tesslibrarian) says:

    @El Cid: That’s certainly the attitude one receives when placing a call to Paul Broun’s office. At least Chambliss’s office would thank you for calling, then send a condescending letter later to tell you why you were wrong.

  27. 27
    Bruce S says:

    “Knowing things makes real conviction hard, and the more you know the less simple it gets.”

    Not to rag on Paul Krugman, because I think he did a decent job on Charlie Rose last night – such as that’s a category – but I kept wondering why he didn’t just say to Scarborough, “Look, if you really want to do something concrete, that provably could work to cut the long-term deficit problem, how about supporting a transformation of our health care system to work like the one in France. Because that would do it, it’s an empirical fact that it works and nobody gets hurt. As for Social Security, let’s just get the amount of national income captured by the tax back up to the levels (90%) supported by Saint Reagan, and then we can see what other tweaks the system might need over the SEVENTY-FIVE YEAR WINDOW. Do you want to fix the long-term deficit or not?”

    That’s not terribly difficult to understand for the average person, it’s based in empirical reality and it puts the ball back in the court of yammering, hypocritical and disingenuous “deficit hawks.” He also should have asked Scarborough to do a joint op-ed with him encouraging immediate investments in infrastructure! (Since MoJo claimed to support such, force his hand with something concrete other than posturing and harking back to Eisenhower, who totally rejected the kind of reactionary crap that constitutes the contemporary GOP, including phonies like Scarborough. )

    Somehow the more professorial approach didn’t seem to have a lot of punch and gave a phony like Scarborough a huge amount of wiggle room and the ability to hector, raise straw men and dissemble (“I meant it as a compliment when I said it was ‘Paul Krugman against the world!'” – bullshit, it was a patently false attack.)

    We need to simplify some of our arguments and frame them with examples from the real world. That said, I pretty much know everything I do about contemporary macroeconomics from following Krugman, who is one of a handful of public intellectuals who actually make a bit of a difference.

  28. 28
    Eric U. says:

    I’m not sure what to yell at my reliably wingnutty republican congresscritter about the sequester. I guess, “just restore the damn budget to full levels” probably would work

  29. 29
    Anna in PDX says:

    I certainly think left or liberal advocacy is important, I donate during elections, I read Kos, I sign things to my reps, sometimes I even visit their local offices, yadda yadda yadda.

    But, this dichotomy is I think less about the RW noise machine (though it certainly contributes) than that which is actually the RWNM’s own cause – money and interest. Their donors (and the media owners/influencers) lean more conservative than their voters, and those are the people they talk to the most. It’s kind of basic to me. This does not mean we should sit back and whine that there is nothing we can do – on the contrary it means we need to work harder – but it is more about money than anything else.

  30. 30
    FlipYrWhig says:

    @Bruce S: The problem, such as it is, in forums like that is that liberals by nature want to listen, then refute, rather than coming with a list of talking points and firing them off at random.

  31. 31
    Jay S says:

    Ok, you forced me to read the article and download the working paper (pdf) it is based on. I couldn’t find a clear definition of the sampling methodology that the constituent opinions were based on. I think they are alluding to not yet published work, but I did a rapid skim, so that may not be right. They do define constituents as residents of a voting district, not voters or people who vote for a particular candidate. That might account for some of the variance (in that some of the politicians may have a different internal definition of constituent.)
    It would be interesting to see what variance there is between constituents that vote versus those that don’t and those that voted for conservative candidates as opposed to their opponent to see if there is a rational basis for these results.

  32. 32
    Bruce S says:


    “And then there are people who have no understanding of how the government works – like the ‘Get the government out of my medicare’ crowd.”

    I’m not sure they don’t understand – so much as they feel entitled and don’t want “the government” – i.e. in this case, some black guy – to do anything other than privilege their interests, because that’s what they’ve been used to and it “works” (for them.) In other words, I don’t think it’s about any complicated “political science” so much as “cultural” (or to be less polite, “racial”) and generational resentments.

  33. 33
    Bruce S says:


    I wouldn’t necessarily “fire them off at random” but I do think it would help if liberals – including exceedingly well-informed intellectuals like Krugman – polished some talking points, and made sure they were concrete enough that a reasonably intelligent “average viewer” might connect with what’s being laid out. They should also be “framed” to box in the opposition from the get-go as much as possible. One of our biggest problems is that we always end up arguing on their terms, due in large part to lazy media that privileges “both sides” as having equal validity, whether or not one side is pulling pure ideology – if not blatant falsification – out of their butts.

  34. 34
    Chris says:

    @Bruce S:

    Yeah. I think the universalist ethic is so deeply ingrained in liberals that we have real trouble understanding the extent to which conservatives think in strictly tribal terms. (Even though I know it on an intellectual level, I still frequently manage to be surprised at how far down the tribalism hole they are). So we try to understand them in terms of some general theory of governance – “states’ rights,” “limited government,” “libertarianism” – when the real belief system is so much simpler and less philosophical than that: “Government should do all that it can to help me and the people I like while fucking the people I don’t like.”

  35. 35
    Mnemosyne says:


    But liberals told me it’s much better to be realist/pragmatist and do nothing than looking like an idealistic fool who thinks he change something.

    No, we told you to call your representatives and senators rather than aimlessly bitching on a blog. Jesus, no wonder you guys can’t get anything done — you can’t be bothered to call the people who actually vote on the legislation you keep dreaming about being passed.

  36. 36
    FlipYrWhig says:

    @Bruce S: it’s just very hard to overcome the habit of wanting to hear the other guy say something, then show him where he’s wrong on his terms, rather than launching a direct affirmative case of your/my/our own. Krugman as a professor would have that habit deeply ingrained into him from years’ worth of (frustrating) practice on students and colleagues.

  37. 37
    Waynski says:

    @Tim F.: Probably too late, but agreed. Seems many are abusing you about the typo. Didn’t mean to start a thing. The leaves are all aflutter.

  38. 38
    jefft452 says:

    I disagree that this is mostly a squeaky wheel problem somewhat less than the following would make it seem, consider this about half my opinion and half devils advocate

    Churchill is often quoted “If you are not Liberal when you are young, you have no hart, if you are not Conservative when you are older, you have no head”

    Of course what is left out is that this was not a pearl of wisdom, but an attempt to defend against the charge that he was a trimmer. When the Liberal party collapsed in the 20’s, they didn’t have as many jobs to hand out, certainly not for a former cabinet level official who had to resign after a blunder. So he left the Liberal party and joined the Tories

    The reality is that leopards don’t change their spots – the opinions people have at 25 are pretty much the opinions they have when they are 75

    Take hypothetical Dem John Johnson
    His first political experience was losing with McGovern as the head of the ticket, he runs again and gets elected in the backlash after Watergate, watches his peers get picked off in the Reagan era, and nods sagely that the Sister Souljah speech was Clinton’s path to victory, only to go into the minority when Gingrich became speaker

    John learned in his 20’s and 30’s that you lose if you are too liberal, and it is impossible to be too conservative

    Now that he is 60, he can not unlearn that. It is nearly impossible for him to see that the electorate has shifted, so he shoehorns any election result into his preconceived view of the political landscape

  39. 39

    I realize that there is a massive gap in the number of phone calls our Congresscritters get from our side versus theirs, and that this really IS a problem. But I guess I don’t understand how calling up my representative about some random issue is going to be more than a drop in the bucket. (And trust me, my issues are going to be more random than most.)

    If my rep gets one call supporting, say, a financial transactions tax, with all due respect guys, so fucking what??

    What makes it work on the right is that Rush or Glenn Beck or the clowns on Fox get a whole bunch of guys calling in about the same thing at once, and that makes an impact.

    When I know I’m not going to be the only one, I’ll call in. I called in about gun control in December and January. I called in about the American Jobs Act in late 2011. And I called in a bunch of times about Pass The Damn Bill back in early 2010, because I knew the rest of you folks were calling in too, and together maybe we could make a difference. And we did.

    But I’m not gonna just fire off random calls and emails to my Congresscritter, about the stuff that’s probably on nobody else’s mind but mine at the time. I’m going to do it as part of a team effort.

    The problem is, on our side, nobody’s calling the signals. Or maybe someone is, but I’m just not on their mailing list anymore. DailyKos seemed to lose its way sometime between Obama’s election and the 2010 midterm disaster, I apparently dropped off MoveOn’s email list an eon ago and I couldn’t tell you if they still exist.

    If there’s anyone out there with any cred on the left that’s saying “this week, let’s call our Congresscritters about X” and more than a few dozen people actually do so, I’ll be happy to join in. But if there’s any such entity, I’m honestly not aware of it.

  40. 40

    Well, damn. I was hoping to get some response, even angry responses, to that last comment.

    Because while I’m spouting off, I’m not just spouting off. I agree that when our Congresscritters hear a whole bunch from the wingnuts, and not much from us, it shifts the balance a bit. How much, I don’t know, but it would be absurd to expect it to have no effect at all. And I expect its effect is nontrivial.

    So it’s important to figure out what to DO about it. I’m not saying, “just making random calls to our Congresscritters when some issue gets under our skin won’t have much if any effect, so we shouldn’t do anything at all,” I was saying “it won’t have any effect, so we need to organize so that our calls do get reinforced by other calls from lefties about the same issues.”

    If such semi-effective organizations as we had back during the Bush years is still alive and kicking butt, it would be good to know about it. If so, I’m happy to sign up to be a soldier in that army. But if they have lost their effectiveness, random calling isn’t a good substitute for something new, and how do we go about coming up with something new?

    Hell, maybe the front-pagers here could put their heads together over the weekend, and each Sunday night, one of them could say, “here’s the issue that we’d like you guys to call your Congresscritters about this week.” That would be way better than nothing, if nobody else is doing anything like this.

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