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Voters hate Republicans but are planning to vote for them anyway: The non-paradox

- September 8, 2010

Matthew Yglesias writes:

If I [Yglesias] were working with Nancy Pelosi on “message,” I’d be hoping to persuade people that (a) Democrats are better-equipped to handle today’s problems, (b) you share Democrats’ core values, (c) no matter how much you may dislike Democrats you dislike Republicans even more, and (d) therefore you should vote for Democrats. But as we see here [from recent polls that find that voters hate Republican politicians even more than they hate Democrats, yet still plan to mostly vote Republican in November], (a), (b), and (c) aren’t sufficient to drive conclusion (d).

This reminds me of one of my favorite pieces of philosophical writing, What the Tortoise Said to Achilles, by Lewis Carroll. In this story, Achilles gives the Tortoise the following three propositions:

(A) Things that are equal to the same are equal to each other.
(B) The two sides of this Triangle are things that are equal to the same.
(Z) The two sides of this Triangle are equal to each other.

The Tortoise accepts A and B but not Z. Achilles is frustrated and asks the Tortoise if he will accept A, B, and the following intermediate proposition:

(C) If A and B are true, Z must be true.

Achilles accepts A, B, and C . . . but not Z. The Tortoise then supplies the quite-reasonable next step:

(D) If A and B and C are true, Z must be true.

Which, again, Achilles accepts. But he does not accept Z. Etc.

I think of this story a lot when talking with classically-trained statisticians, who, Achilles-like, seem to expect and demand that I accept various implicit concepts (for example, Jeffreys priors, or U-values, or so-called exact tests) without ever making it clear why these concepts are good ideas. I will, like the Tortoise and like all these Republican voters, sit there patiently and let the verbiage wash over me.

P.S. Those 10% or so of voters who plan to vote Republican–even while thinking that the Democrats will do a better job–are not necessarily being so unreasonable. The Democrats control the presidency and both houses of Congress, and so it’s a completely reasonable stance to prefer them to the Republicans yet still think they’ve gone too far and need a check on their power.