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Dirt and Politics


In the escalating negativity in American politics, each side of every battle constantly unearths arcane new details that attack the other sides, which partisans quickly incorporate into dueling character assassinations. As a result, we are inundated with stories about ministers with controversial statements, supposed examples of corruption, potentially tainted campaign staff or advisers and the like. At the same time, voters are dangerously uninformed about important political policies and their consequences.

Why do so many Americans know almost nothing of the policies elections are supposedly about, but so much about the soap opera details of dirt that can be heaped on opponents? It is because the individual benefits from being informed about embarrassing details that denigrate rivals often far outweigh those from becoming better informed about policies.

People acquire information when they expect their benefits from a better choice to exceed their added costs of obtaining the information to make it. However, in affecting public policy, each person’s vote is but one among many. Therefore, an individual voter has only a minute chance of influencing any election, which means that the benefits in terms of changing policy from becoming better informed politically are virtually zero. Even media editorializing about the importance of each vote, illustrated by a handful of elections decided by only a relatively few votes, ironically demonstrates that your individual vote will not matter even in very close elections.

In contrast, the private payoff to being informed about political dirt can be substantial. The greatest part of that payoff for many people is in looking “with it” at various social gatherings.

Given that “birds of a feather flock together” at such gatherings, especially when politics is so divisive, most people at events where conviviality is important tend to largely share political beliefs (Hollywood comes to mind, as do many Web site communities). Since no one is likely to challenge their already shared views in such situations, there is little necessity to be able to seriously defend them against logical or factual objections. This makes the payoff to such information very small (why seriously try to demonstrate what someone already accepts as true?), especially when reinforced by the tendency to set a low standard of proof for arguments that support your position, but to carefully scrutinize any opposing argument or dismiss it out of hand.

In contrast, since what unites many groups is often a common disdain for “the other guys,” there is a substantial personal payoff in those situations to knowing dirt that can be used to demonize them or demean their character. It proves you are a member of the club in good standing, at least as committed to “the cause” as those you want to impress or fit in with. It allows you to demonstrate how smart and informed you are with the latest “can you top this” revelation about how evil your opponent is. The same sense of shared outrage can be also invoked against the partisans of your opponent. The same sense of shared outrage can be invoked against your opponent’s partisans, along with indignation that your obviously innocent and truthful candidate is similarly attacked by others, using their own collection of dirt, but ignoring the dirt you want to emphasize.

There are many reasons for the negativity of politics. But the increasing dominance of attention focused on discovering political dirt seems to be crowding out many citizens’ already limited incentives to discover policy-relevant information. That can only undermine the collective wisdom of the electorate, which politicians laud before each election, with potentially severe consequences. Of course, boilerplate rhetoric aside, that may not bother candidates or their parties much, since whoever wins will soon override much of that wisdom by substituting government determinations and impositions for many choices such wise citizens should be left to make for themselves.

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