Host Marty Moss-Coane talks with an historian and science writer about the outcomes of the mid-term elections. Historian Julian Zelizer (Princeton University) has been reflecting on the events of the recent past which might explain the rise of the Tea Party activism that played a crucial role in the election. And writer Shankar Vedantam (Washington Post) has been thinking about the struggle between our conscious and unconscious brain when it comes to our political opinions and decision-making. Callers to the show joined the discussion.
Marty Moss-Coane: What can history and psychology tell us about what the voters were saying? Shankar Vedantam is the author of "The Hidden Brain: How Our Unconscious Minds Elect Presidents, Control Markets, Wage Wars and Save our Lives." He's a reporter for the Washington Post, a columnist for Slate. He used to work at the Philadelphia Inquirer. We also welcome to Radio Times Julian Zelizer. He's a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. His most recent book is "Jimmy Carter," published by Times Books. He writes for CNN.com. Julian, let me begin with you. Did we witness something revolutionary on November 4? Or a predictable pattern?
Julian Zelizer: It's a little more than a predictable pattern but it's short of a revolution! Midterms are usually bad for the president during their first term in office. But 60 seats and maybe more is a significant loss. This is one of the bigger losses that the incumbent party has faced. It changes the legislative playing field at least for the next two years. So I don't think this can be dismissed as a normal midterm election.
MMC: How does it compare to, let's say, Bush in '06 or Clinton in the '90's or Reagan in the '80's?
JZ: Well, Reagan suffered in 1982. Not this bad. But Democrats increased their numbers in the House. Bush2 was able to overcome the midterm blues until 2006. But the 2006 midterms where Democrats regained control of Congress was a huge blow to President Bush and I think it basically halted him in the last part of his presidency and set up the 2008 election. If this has a similar effect, it wouldn't be good news for the Democrats.
MMC: Shankar, obviously voters make individual choices but collectively make a statement about politics. How do you read the midterm elections?
Shankar Vendantam: Well, Marty, there's a paradox in the midterm elections. The paradox is that even though the Republicans won this giant victory in the House, in polls before the election significant numbers of voters said they distrusted Republicans more than they distrusted Democrats. And second, even though the voters said the economy was their top priority in the election, almost 3/4 of voters blamed the Bush administration for the current economic mess the country is in. Less than half blamed President Obama and the Obama administration. So we have a puzzle here which is that voters generally seem to blame the GOP for the economic mess we're in, distrust the GOP more than they distrusted the Democrats, and yet handed the GOP a huge victory. So, in my book, that sounds like psychological bias at work.
MMC: What do you mean by "psychological bias"?
SV: One of the things that probably was at work in this election was that when things are very bad, when things are going bad for us whether we're stuck in a traffic jam or in a bad marriage or in a war that's going bad, we all have a tendency to flail. We have a tendency to say, "Let's try something else!" Because what we're doing right now isn't working. Psychologists call this the "action bias" -- when we're stuck in bad times, when the stock market starts to fall, for example, we try and get out because we're afraid it's going to keep falling and we're going to do even worse if we stay with what we're doing right now. So even though many voters distrusted the Republicans and held them responsible for the economic mess, Republicans benefited because they were not the party in power! Switching to the Republicans involved making a change and it was the desire for change more than a desire for different policies that caused the giant shift we're seeing right now.
MMC: Julian Zelizer, as an historian do you understand this "action bias" Shankar Vedantam just described for us?
JZ: Well, there is something to it. Voters vote against whoever has power even if they don't blame them. So voters might not think Obama is responsible for the economy, they might not particularly trust Republicans, but there are moments when you still vote against whoever controls the system -- whoever controls the policies. Some of the exit polls, though, did show that there is unhappiness with Obama and Congress -- both parties. They're unhappy with both parties. But I think the exit polls indicate that there is something in the air and some displeasure with what the president's doing. I wouldn't want to say it's just this kind of bias that's at work.
MMC: Let me go back to you, Shankar. People and their brains can be confusing and actions sometimes don't make sense at least on the face of it. Going back to what you described -- and I think it would be fair to say that if you go back to the Bush administration, the increase in debt under the Bush administration, deregulation which can be blamed in many ways for the problems on Wall Street -- that was not so long ago. Yet, as you say, many people voted for Republicans. So help us understand what feels like a disconnect.
SV: The first thing to point out is that the actual shift in voting was probably not huge. I don't know of any good data that compares how many voters voted for the Democrats in 2008 and switched their vote to Republicans in 2010. What we do know is that the electorate that voted last Tuesday looked very different from the electorate that voted in 2008. It was older, it was whiter, it tended to be more conservative. So many people who voted for the Democrats in 2006 and 2008 didn't so much switch their votes but simply not show up to vote at all. So the number of people who actually switched their votes and probably produced the swing that we see was relatively small. So I'm certainly not arguing that the "action bias" explains the decisions of most voters. In fact, I think partisanship and party loyalty explains the votes of most voters. When you're explaining the swing, why would the people who voted for the Democrats in 2008, who blamed President Bush and blamed the Republicans for the economic mess we're in, go back to putting the Republicans in power? There is something irrational about that. What I argue in my book, "The Hidden Brain," is really that when we are stuck in bad times we have all these unconscious biases that affect us. We sometimes act in ways that are not rational or that something don't even serve our best personal interests.
MMC: How much do you think anger is a motivator?
SV: Anger is a huge motivator. But anger stems from the fact that we're stuck in a bad place. With unemployment as high as it is people can't find work even if they want work. People are extremely anxious about the situation and that expresses itself as anger. But anger is a product of the situation we're in. People feel we're in desperate times and desperate times, as the saying goes, call for desperate measures. You can argue that going back to the party many people blame for the mess we're in is an example of a desperate measure.
MMC: Julian, one of the critiques of the Obama administration is that they didn't "sell" -- and I guess we should include the Democrats as well -- their accomplishments. It was a "messaging" question. I'd be curious as to what you think about that?
JZ: I think messaging is part of the problem. I do think in the last two years Republicans -- from tea party activists to John Boehner -- in general have been better in the media wars in terms of shaping President Obama as a very left wing, quasi-socialist, president, there is often a disconnect between the arguments and the policies. But they've been good at it. The administration often seems to stumble in terms of how to respond. There are specific issues: there was a tax cut that was never explained or told to Americans that they were receiving this for economic reasons. That undercuts part of what they wanted to do. So I do think there was a messaging and communications problem that the administration still faces. I wouldn't say it was all that, though. Unemployment is a hard fact that has nothing to do with the messaging. It's still at 9.5 and people are not happy. Finally, Obama did send a very controversial bill to Congress -- health care. Historically you know that if you're going to send that you're going to trigger a lot of opposition. So, with the battle over health care and with employment at 9.5% at the end of the game -- at the end of the battle -- this is a bit predictable. It's not just messaging; it's a debate about policy.
MMC: Well, Shankar, I'm curious. In the unsettled times we live in if the president or the Democratic party could have better explained their policies to the American people, do you think that would have changed the elections?
SV: It could. I mean, this was a counterfactual question, of course. So we don't quite know what the effect would have been if he had tried something different. It may have had no effect whatsoever. I think one of the very interesting things about the way voters think about these issues is that there are differences when you ask voters questions about philosophical direction and when you ask voters questions about specifics. So when you ask the at a philosophical level, "Do you want government to be smaller?", large majorities of Americans say "yes, we want government to be smaller." But when you go down into the specifics and say, "Do you want this program cut? Do you want Medicare cut? Do you want Social Security cut? Do you want to raise the retirement age?," significant numbers of Americans now say "no." When you think about it -- again, this is a paradox because the only way you can get smaller government and to reduce the size of government is to cut entitlement spending. And most Americans don't want that. So really what we're seeing is a situation where, like people all over the world, we want to have our cake and eat it too! So we want smaller government but we want all the things government gives us. So is that a messaging problem? Or is that a problem that's really about the voters?
JZ: If I could just jump in. It's funny that the poll showing Americans are philosophically conservative (meaning pro- or anti-government, they're anti-government) but operationally liberal (meaning on most programs they support them) -- this is an old issue. I just read a poll in 1966 that the Johnson administration took with exactly the same results. Everyone was telling the president you need to explain what Medicare is going to do, what the poverty program is doing. Otherwise the Republicans are going to do damage to you!
MMC: Does that mean that Americans, Julian, don't understand government? I mean, government is complicated. We know our own little intersection with government but we don't understand how government works.
JZ: I think voters are not consistent. None of us are. So there's inconsistency in the electorate that politicians have to grapple with. I think at some level they understand the benefits they get. But people often tend to think their benefits are different from the rest of what government does.
MMC: Shankar, there's a phrase that we hear now: "low-information voters." It's a way of saying people who don't know very much. How do you factor low-information voters into the discussion, or can we?
SV: Well, I don't know how you factor it in. And how also do you define what low information is? Because if you're talking about the difference between philosophical positions and practical, specific positions, elections in general tend to be argued -- and maybe Julian can set me right on this if I'm not accurate -- but it seems to me elections are more about philosophical issues. At least this election certainly was. During the campaign Democrats repeated told Republicans, "Fine! You're saying you want to cut government. Tell us what you want to cut." And the Republicans (very smartly, of course!) declined to take up that gambit and basically said, "All we want is smaller government," and they didn't get into the specifics. Because they full well knew that once they get into the specifics, they're going to get into rough water. So does that mean voters are ill-informed? Or does it mean that we just have this disconnect between what we want philosophically and what we want at a practical level. I'm not sure that's really an information-deprivation challenge as much as it is just that we have two ways of thinking about the problem. In an election campaign, the general direction might be a more successful way to campaign and may have helped the Republicans.
MMC: ...Shankar, I want listeners to understand about this conscious and unconscious brain that you write about and how we toggle back and forth between these parts of our brain.
SV: I think in everyday life, most of us think that our behavior is conscious and deliberate and rational. It certainly feels that way. But in the last ten or twnety years there has been an enormous body of literature from psychology, sociology, and number of other disciplines including neuroscience suggesting that in everyday life we are powerfully influenced by factors that lie outside our awareness. Many of these are biases that are actually helpful in our daily lives. They automate and give us shortcuts in order not to spend time thinking about things that we have done many times before. But they also affect us in very important decisions we make: how to choose a mate, how to choose a president, who do we vote for, what kind of policies we support. And it's at this level that the hidden brain becomes insidious. We feel we are making decisions carefully and deliberately and intentionally, when in fact we're being biased in all kinds of subtle ways.
MMC: Is it bias that drives that hidden brain?
SV: I think bias is a product of the hidden brain. So what the hidden brain really does is to give us an internal nudge. It's making one thing look better than the other. So in this election, for example, the fact that people are struggling and feeling really bad about the unemployment rate, the hidden brain has a simple algorithm for what we should do when we are in bad times -- and that is to change course. So the hidden brain prompts people to change course. What that means at a conscious level is that people are going back to something that they blame for creating the problem in the first place! As I said, the hidden brain is not in the rationality business! It's in the business of these very quick, automatic algorithms that in general are very helpful to us but quite regularly get us into trouble.
MMC: But is it going back to the thing that's familiar and that we know?
SV: Part of it is familiarity. But part of it is that we have these simple rules of thumb. And you know one of the rules of thumb is that when everything is going well, stick to what you're doing. That's true even if we have a cliff 100 yards in front of us! We have a powerful urge not to change course if things seem to be going really well. On the other hand when things are going badly we have a powerful urge to flail. In our evolutionary past there probably were very good times when these automatic algorithms helped us. But when it comes to things like politics, for example, where we want people to be making decisions deliberately -- intentionally -- factors such as the action bias or factors such as the role of race and gender in politics, these are things that at an ostensible level people say should not be admissable in politics. But at a practical, real level they turn out to have very powerful effects on the way people think and vote.
MMC: Julian, you're someone who has looked at various movements and elections. How do you see the "tea party movement," as we call it?
JZ: Well, I think it's been effective. On the one hand, they probably cost the Republicans the Senate. They put up enough wild-card candidates like Christine O'Donnell who were just not viable to keep control of the chamber in Democratic hands. But I also think that over the last two years they've been very effective at reenergizing Republicans. They've been very good in the media -- getting their ideas and their messages out there. I think many establishment Republicans feel serious pressure to at least incorporate them under their umbrella. They don't feel like they can exclude them at this point. So, as a movement, I think it's had an effect. We talk about the different kinds of ways voters think. On the one hand, in broad philosophy, they might be conservative, yet on the specifics they often support government. Part of what movements and parties do in elections is focus voters on one thing or another. Tea party activists have been very effective at focusing the debate over these broad philosophical questions.
MMC: It'll be interesting to see how that activism meets the established GOP.
JZ: It's a huge challenge! I don't think almost anything they're calling for is going to work. Certainly in terms of the old-school libertarian argument -- the idea of huge cuts in government -- it's going to be difficult not just because voters like a lot of programs but they don't actually control Congress, the Republicans. They only control half of it and we have a Democratic White House. So they're going to put a lot of pressure -- like 1995 and 1996 as Republicans did with Newt Gingrich -- on John Boehner to follow through on this. The leadership is going to have to control these demands or it will be a problem for the GOP.
MMC: Shankar, looking back on the ad campaigns over the past couple of months -- I think something like $3 billion spent on TV ads on-stop in some parts of the country -- largely negative, largely attack ads. How do you think that played with voters? What do you think the effect of that is if we're talking about the brain or the mind -- both the conscious and the unconscious mind?
SV: I think two things. One is I think that if you have such a large amount of negative advertising, what it does is it turns voters off. I think the untold story of the 2010 election is the number of voters who voted in 2008 who did not come to vote in 2010. The drop-off in the electorate -- especially on the Democratic side -- really explains much of what we are seeing. I think right before the election the Pew Research Center took a poll where a third of the country was almost as large as the size of the people who voted in the election. A third of the country said it made no difference to them who controlled Congress. I think one of the things negative advertising does is separate from its effects on individual races. It turns people off from politics altogether. They say, "Well, I guess I believe this and I believe that, too, and both these candidates must be terrible people. Why bother voting, because I'm only going to put one bad person or another into Congress?" At another level I think the reason we have so much negative political advertising is that, even though we consciously say we'd like to have clean election campaigns and clear advertising, it turns out that our hidden brains are extremely susceptible to the negative advertising. So even though we say we want clean advertising, why is it that the political campaigns don't respond? Why don't they give us clean campaigns where they're only discussing the issues? If that's what voters consistently say they want? The reason, of course, is that voters are saying that at a conscious level, but at an unconscious level they are deeply influenced by negative advertising, especially about candidates who seem somewhat different from them. This is where the issues of race and partisanship get into play as well, and they play on voters' fears and amplify them. It makes it very difficult to have a logical conversation about the issues where you're effectively accusing each other of crimes against humanity!
JZ: In midterms, traditionally, people don't vote at very high rates. So it's even worse that during our general elections in which more than half the country doesn't vote -- in presidential elections. So this is not that surprising. And I think negative ads have an effect. I'm not sure that's the whole story. There's also a broader story of diminishing participation in politics throughout the 20th and now the 21st century. Second, I think we have to remember that Obama put together an unusual coalition in 2008 including people like young voters who don't tend to vote -- who don't tend to participate. So it was a very fragile coalition that got him over Hillary Clinton and then helped him win the White House. One of the questions from the start of 2009 was whether he could sustain this coalition. Would they come back? Would they come out to vote even in a period like a midterm? I think this time the answer was "no." You saw a return to a very different voting base. If that happens again in 2012 -- the same problem -- I think we'll have a Republican president.
MMC: But Julian, do you think the barrage of negative and accusatory ads feeds the public's mistrust and dislike of government? and politics and politicians?
JZ: It's part of it. We have to remember that distrust of politicians and politics is as American as apple pie. It dates back to the Revolution. We've had this as a strain in American politics before television or radio were even invented. But obviously it does amplify those sentiments to see both parties slam the other and raise these kinds of character issues, run against Washington, and talk about the corruption of the system. But I wouldn't want to blame everything on the ads just because these trends date back so long.
MMC: In fact, I was looking at some ads between Jefferson and John Adams and they were jaw-dropping, Julian!
JZ: Right! Politics has always been nasty in this country. Part of the reason politicians use those ads is that people like 'em! They enjoy them! Part of the blame has to be with the voters.
MMC: ...We have a caller from Philadelphia Center City.
Chuck: I've been giving a lot of thought lately and connecting these dots in terms of history. There's something that keeps resonating and that's something that Ronald Reagan said that seems to have stuck. "Government is the problem." For me, what started out as campaign rhetoric and successful campaign rhetoric has actually become not only the mantra but the belief of many on the right and even some on the left -- certainly a large part of the population. The reality is that government didn't shrink or get smaller under Reagan. Taxes went up. The budget went up. The deficit went up. But it was such a winning slogan. I just keep wondering whether it has actually coopted... or really taken over. Now we actually have people who really do believe that government is not there to solve our problems. I just wonder. My boyfriend from Europe says in Germany the parties fight for your vote because they each feel they can do a better job. He said here you have one party that's telling you government can't work and the other is sort of trying to fix it. ... I'm trying to make sense of it
MMC: It's a great question. Shankar?
SV: I think in some ways -- as Julian points out -- this is exactly the problem that we've been having for a long time. At a philosophical level, Americans say they want smaller government. The slogan, "Government is not the solution, government is the problem," works extremely well. But if you look at what Reagan actually did when he was in office, he didn't actually follow through on the specifics of cutting government because that would have been extremely unpopular. So really what we get is a situation where politicians and voters are essentially lying to one another. Politicians are lying, but really with the connivance of voters, to be perfectly honest. Voters want to hear a politician who says, "Let's bash Washington and make government really small!" But when push comes to shove, they say, "Please don't cut any of the programs that I use. Cut the programs that other people use." At a logical level I don't think there's a contradiction. I think at an ethical level there certainly is a contradiction. Because people's philosophical positions about smaller government are completely at odds with their general positions about what smaller government would look like in the specifics.
JZ: For conservatives and the Republican party, this has always been an issue, and I think Reagan is a perfect place to start. One of Reagan's earliest initiatives in 1981 was to cut Social Security benefits. Democrats in the House turned this right against him. Tip O'Neill, the Speaker, launched a major campaign and it backfired. Elderly voters were warning Reagan to back off and he would never touch the issue again. In 1995 and 1996 another example. The way Clinton really started to come back was that Republicans had taken over Congress. They proposed a big budget where there would be cuts in Medicare. Clinton started to focus on the specifics. "This proposal is going to cut your Medicare benefits." When Republicans shut down government it became very visible to Americans what government did. There were pictures of people going to the National Zoo and waiting outside because it was closed. Or trying to get their visas and not being able to do it to go on their honeymoon. So I think it has been a very big problem for conservatives and I think it will remain so after this election.
MMC: Let's get Mildred from northeast Philadelphia to join us.
Mildred: ...Civics is what is no longer being taught in school. Kids are not being taught to debate and discuss. Until that is brought back into schools.... Nobody discusses these things at home.
MMC: That's a broad, sweeping generalization and an interesting one.
JZ: I don't disagree with that! That's what I've committed my career to. I do believe that if young people are taught to at least think about politics and learn about the history of the country and the different political issues, it would certainly improve civic participation. It's not the solution -- it's not a magic cure to what's going on. But certainly the more we've diminished this from the curriculum, the worse we've become as a country.
MMC: Shankar, I'm thinking about this conscious-unconscious brain and Stephen Colbert does this so well -- the idea of feelings vs. facts. Do facts work in trying to change people's minds?
SV: I think facts have a fairly spotty record in changing people's minds, to be perfectly honest! This is part of the reason we have so much negative campaigning in politics. It's very hard, once an accusation has been thrown out in politics, for it to be denied or refuted. Facts don't have a significant role to play even though they have some role. If you look at the whole controversy over Barack Obama's birth certificate, for example, and whether he was born in the US and is eligible to be president, hundreds of websites over the last couple or three years have tried to put out refutations against accusations that he was not a natural American citizen, that he wasn't born in the US. The refutations have had fairly little effect, I think, on the people who want to believe that Barack Obama was not eligible to run for president. And so I'm all for teaching civics. I'm all for a more engaged electorate. But I think we also have to look beyond that. It's not just communicating facts that gets people involved in politics. The third of the country that doesn't really care who gets elected and who doesn't get elected -- I don't know what they look like. I don't know why it is that they're completely disconnected. But I'm not sure that putting them down and making them take a civics class is going to get them engaged.
MMC: So what would, do you think?
SV: I don't know. The reason that I think that people who vote are engaged is often the role of partisanship. Though we often decry partisanship and we decry party loyalty, to a great extent the people who do come out and vote is that they're voting out of party loyalty -- because they hate the other party. In some ways it's the people who are not voting who are doing the thing we say everyone should be doing. They're not being partisan! But it's possible that partisanship is one way to bring people into the political conversation. I don't know if there's a political history to this that Julian might be able to shed some light on. But I wonder whether at times of greater partisanship -- or more widespread partisanship -- we have greater political participation. Times when partisanship shrinks, we actually have less.
JZ: Historians of 19th century America make that very argument. That was a period when parties were very strong not just in terms of partisanship in Washington but parties were very powerful institutions in America. People went out to watch candidates at barbecues. Parties provided jobs in the cities through patronage. This is one of the reasons voting participation was so much higher in the 19th century. There was something that connected voters to the political system and that was the party. Parties have weakened dramatically since the 20th century. Some scholars make that very argument.
MMC: Shankar, it seems that parties feed into our tribal natures.
SV: I think so. If you think about partisanship as really being about loyalty -- and I think Julian is right, it's probably more than that -- but if you think about it being about primal loyalty so you have books like "What's The Matter with Kansas?" asking why people vote against their economic self-interest and you have similar books written by people on the right, what I think it suggests is that we all have loyalties that are not necessarily rational. You have Silicon Valley billionaires who are supporting the Democrats when their economic interests really lie with the Republicans. So why don't they support the Republicans? Because they have an intense loyalty to liberal ideas or to the Democrats. The role of the "hidden brain" here may be that we need in someways these primal urges and loyalties to bring us into the political sphere. Once we're in we can have conversations about issues, whether we should cut social security or how we should adjust Medicare -- all of the different issues that we have -- but at some level we need to be in the game. Perhaps we need the "hidden brain" to pull people into the game. So they say, "This is something I want to be a part of. I care about this issue. I care about it emotionally and that allows me to engage with it intellectually."
MMC: Do you think that's because we are at base social creatures, that we want to belong to something?
SV: I think there's no doubt about it whatsoever! The interesting thing, of course, is that people have loyalties to all kinds of groups. People have very intense loyalties to sports teams. It makes no sense to have loyalty to a sports team because all they're doing is wearing jerseys of a similar color. The next year half the players who are wearing jerseys of this color will be wearing jerseys of another color! At a rational level it makes no sense to care passionately about our sports teams but it gets us engaged in sports. Then it gets us thinking about sports and arguing about sports and different techniques and coaches and so on. Perhaps the same is true of politics. We need the sort of emotional, visceral urge that pulls us into the game. Then you can have the conversation about civics and teach them about what the issues are, what the pros and cons are of various policies. But if you don't get people in the game in the first place all of the rest of the conversation falls by the wayside.
MMC: Julian, I'm curious about looking ahead to the next congressional session. Do you think there will be compromise? Do you anticipate that there will be some meeting of the minds between the White House and the two parties in Congress?
JZ: Maybe on a few issues, but I'm not very optimistic about it. In some ways, Republicans had more incentives to compromise in 2009 than today because of the state of the party and Obama's standing. And yet they didn't. They were very disciplined and on almost no legislation did they work with the White House. On the other hand, I think there will be less interest on the Democratic side. The House caucus is now more liberal. All the Blue Dogs -- all the members from conservative districts -- lost. So they won't be wanting to compromise either. There might be a few issues -- maybe some spending cuts or maybe something on education -- but I think we have a recipe for gridlock in the next few years.
MMC: Kevin joins us from Germantown.
Kevin: Back when Brown v Board of Education was presented to desegregate the schools, one of the supporting pieces of documentation was a study about a black doll and a white doll being present to some kids, both black and white. They asked which one is prettier, smarter, and the like, and both black and white would say it's the white doll that's smarter and prettier. They replicated this study in the last five years or less at Rutgers and the results were pretty much the same. Given that, could the psychologist unpack how the "hidden brain" views race in America. Black and white. I'm not talking about institutional bigotry. It might be an undercurrent with anxiety over President Obama being the face of the government.
MMC: It's a good question, Kevin. Shankar?
SV: I think there really is a very rich literature on this question. In fact, in "The Hidden Brain," I have two entire chapters, one devoted to the racial biases of small children -- how they develop, how they form -- and it certainly does show that growing up today (not just in the US but across the world) children develop racial biases at a very young age. As young as 3 and 4. They manifest that in all kinds of ways, not just making judgments about other children being intelligent or pretty or ugly or dirty and so on, but about a whole range of different issues. Those biases stay with us as we grow. When it comes to politics, I think it's very interesting. There probably is an element of conscious prejudice that is still in the US and that probably does explain some of the resistence to President Obama. But I'm not sure necessarily how much. I think the bigger question is unconscious bias. There is very strong evidence that shows there are systematic patterns correlating unconscious racial bias in the US with political orientation. Areas of the country that tend to be more conservative tend to demonstrate higher levels of unconscious racial prejudice. Areas of the country that are more liberal tend to demonstrate less racial prejudice. I should say very quickly that this does not mean everyone who votes against President Obama is a racist. That would be completely absurd. Nor does it mean that race and race bias alone can explain the broad shift in political allegiances across the country. But there is a correlation. I'm not quite sure whether it's a causative link -- that conservatism causes racial bias or whether racial bias causes conservatism or whether a third factor causes both of them. But there does seem to be a strong correlation across the country between some forms of unconscious racial bias and political allegiance.
MMC: Julian, I'd be curious as to your response. I'm also thinking about a phrase that we heard over the last year or so that "I want my country back." It tends to be people who are critical of the Obama administration and feel some kind of alliance with the tea party movement, for instance.
JZ: This, too, is an old debate going back to the conservative movement emerging in the '60's and '70's -- how much of it was a racial backlash to the Civil Rights Act of '64 and how much of it was about other issues. My guess is that race is there for some people and it clearly can be part of the rhetoric even, somewhat subtly. But I'm not sure that's really what happened in the last few weeks. I'm not sure that was the driving force. We have an economy that's in bad shape and we have a stimulus program that, in the minds of many Americans, didn't work. I still think in the end that was what played the biggest role in this election.
MMC: Just picking up what you said earlier, Shankar, is that we are more a racially, ethnically, probably religiously diverse country. We're going to end up -- most of us -- interacting with people who are different from ourselves. I'm assuming this is the world that we live in but it also affects, I guess, how we think about ourselves and how we interact with others and how we view the country that we live in.
SV: I think what makes it really complicated, Marty, is that research is showing that effects of racial bias are not just limited to questions about race. The old model that we had from the Civil Rights era where we thought about racism being white people attacking black people -- that model just doesn't really work in the 21st century. Racial bias is exhibited by both blacks and whites. Both blacks and whites demonstrate anti-black bias in the US. More importantly, the effects of those biases have nothing to do with race questions at all. So when you ask people whether they want smaller government or whether they're for the health care bill or not, at an ostensible level that question has nothing whatever to do with race. The question of unemployment ostensibly has nothing to do with race. I don't know of solid, empirical work that looked specifically at this question, but there has been very strong work showing that racial bias has influenced people's views on questions that have nothing to do with race whatsoever. So in the run-up to the 2008 election, for example, psychologists conducted empirical experiments that showed when you prime people with racial bias, they were much more likely to believe claims about President Obama that had nothing to do with race. For example, that he was the antiChrist. There's a popular movement, I guess, on the internet shared by significant numbers of people that President Obama represents the antiChrist. What they showed is that racial bias predicted whether people bought the claim about Obama that had nothing to do with race. So the effects of racial bias are, I think, very complicated and very subtle. When we look to the 1960's for a model of how race works in America, we come up short. Because that's not the way it's working today.
MMC: Frank is calling from Newark.
Frank: With all due respect to your guests, I think this is just over-analysis. It really is very simple. We're a country with a large chunk of people on the left and a large chunk of people on the right. What those people care about is ideological purity. Liberals want liberal policies; conservatives want conservative policies. Those of us in the middle -- and there are frankly not many of us left -- what we want is results! We looked at what happened when Bush was president. We didn't see the results we wanted. The last two years -- I don't know anybody that would say we've gotten good results. The president himself said unemployment would never go above 8% if we passed the stimulus bill. We pass the stimulus bill, unemployment hasn't been below 8% for a year and a half. His supporters will tell you that the stimulus saved jobs. Really? What jobs has it saved? One of your guests talked about "the facts." Well, I'm looking for the facts. When I look at it objectively, I don't see where jobs have been saved. They say, "It would be worse." Well, okay. Show me the facts. How was it going to be worse? I just want to see results. I didn't see results. That's why you get these swings. The people on either end aren't moving. It's those of us in the middle who are looking at it, I think, somewhat objectively and saying, "I don't like what I'm seeing!"
MMC: Let's give Julian Zelizer a chance to respond.
JZ: I don't disagree with that at all. Again, there were many liberals who criticized the stimulus early on and said it wasn't nearly big enough, and that you would have a stimulus that would be big, in the minds of most Americans, and it wouldn't actually repair the economy. So now a lot of voters look back and they see a package that was quite large, and unemployment at 9.5% and 9.6% is bad and Obama can explain all he wants that it would have been worse. But I don't think that's very satisfactory to many voters. So there is something to that. There's also the issue of can you get the base that the caller is talking about to come out and vote for you. I think Obama might have had some trouble with the liberal base this time around in part because of tensions brewing over the past two years, including some statements by him and Robert Gibbs about the left.
MMC: And Shankar -- can you prove the negative? That's actually what Frank wants. Can you say to people in a way that they would understand that these policies prevented the country from being in as dire straits as we were back in the 1930's with the Great Depression?
SV: I think with every elections voters have to deal with what social scientists call "counterfactuals." And that's exactly the question that Frank is raising. Which is: In the absence of a stimulus, would we be better off or would we be worse off? The truth is, no one actually knows. You can't rerun history and try not offering a stimulus to see what the effects are. In effect, that's what voters are being asked to do. Many voters will look at the evidence and say, "Minus the stimulus, we would have been much worse. There'd be an unemployment of 12%." And there are going to be other voters who say, "Without the stimulus we'd probably have an unemployment rate of 6%." In both those cases voters are using counterfactuals, using an imaginary run of history as a way to make judgments about the present course being the right course or the wrong course. The reason counterfactuals are very interesting at a psychological level is because even though they appear as if we were trying to judge the issue carefully and rationally, it turns out that people are systematically biased in the way that they pick counterfactuals. So if you look at Democrats, Democrats are overwhelmingly likely to pick the counterfactual that says, "Without the stimulus we would be much worse." Conservatives are much more likely to pick the counterfactual that says, "Because of the stimulus, we're much worse." You can go back to Republican presidents. This happened constantly during the Bush administration and the war in Iraq when liberals said we would be much better off if we hadn't gone to war and conservatives said we would have been much worse off if we hadn't gone to war. In both cases, the sides believe they are making a rational argument. But they're comparing the status quo with some imaginary status quo, and they're saying, look, the status quo is either very good or very bad. What they're not realizing is that, unconsciously, we reach for the counterfactual that justifies our preexisting point of view. Liberals will reach for the counterfactual that will say minus the stimulus we would have been much worse; conservatives will reach for the counterfactual that says if we hadn't had the stimulus, we would have been much better off.
MMC: Julian, the last word. Where does that leave an historian like yourself?
JZ: I think the historian that says you'd better have policies for the next go-around that make a very strong argument that people can't turn to those counterfactuals! If the stimulus had been more effective, if somehow other policies had gotten unemployment to much lower levels than this, I think some of the opposition arguments -- even if people are biased -- would have been harder to make. I think Frank, the caller, got right to the point. I think Obama needs to focus on that in the next two years if he wants to win again.