Strategic Ignorance in the US Primaries

The Republican Presidential Primary debates are frightening. From the audiences at these events, we’ve had the booing of a solider because he is gay, the cheering of the idea of someone dying because they didn’t have health insurance, and the enthusiasm for the executions of potentially innocent people. Meanwhile, the candidates seem entirely ignorant of foreign affairs or proper fiscal policy, and instead double down with their demonstrably untrue lies about President Obama.

This is clearly evidence of an extreme intellectual and moral decay – the sort of thing that, if unchecked by good people, could end up at some pretty unpleasant and illiberal end points: war, torture and extreme poverty. Let us hope that Obama prevails in the 2012 election.

In trying to comprehend why the Republican prospective nominees are so ignorant, it is easy to assume that it stems from an underlying stupidity. But this post from Chris Dillow introduces the concept of ‘strategic ignorance’:

Ignorance – normally a weakness – can increase one’s bargaining power. For example:

… The man who doesn’t appreciate the cost of a breakdown of negotiation – say who doesn’t know how much a strike will cost – will adopt a tougher negotiating stance, and so extract more concessions, than the man who doesn’t.

Applied to the presidential primaries, the idea here might be that many of the candidates are being willfully simplistic and ignorant in order to get votes.  In the wider US political system, they’re being ignorant in order to increase their barganing power in Congress.

This tactic is of course deeply cynical, disingenuous, and wrong.  However, I find it a strangely reassuring analysis, because it suggests that the Republican nominees aren’t actually as nutty as they appear.  If (or when) they achieve office, and faced with actual governing decisions, the cynical political player might at least pick the option which diffuses the chance of war or economic depression, when the genuinely ignorant leader might sleepwalk towards catastrophe.

My guess is that the nominess fall into two camps: The genuinely frightening (Congresswoman Michelle Bachmann, Herman Cain and Rick Santorum) and the cynical (Newt Gingrich, Gov. Rick Perry, Gov. John Huntsman, and Mitt Romney). Congressman Ron Paul feels like he should have a category of his own: A zealot, but self-aware in a way Bachmann and the others are not.

“[The Republican Party] consists half of people who think like Michele Bachmann and half of people who are afraid of losing a primary to people who think like Michele Bachmann and that leaves very little room to work things out,” – Barney Frank, the witty Speaker of the House we never had.

Via the Daily Dish.

In the UK we have plenty of terrible politicians, but very few who fall into the former group, of frightening zealots.  The negative virtues of cynicism and opportunism, which we deplore, also provoke compromise and middle-of-the-road choices, which we admire.  Ann Widdecombe (now no longer in Parliament) and Nadine Dorries MP might plausibly be added to the former category, but even they seem to be more self-aware than their American counter-parts.  Could this be because our constituencies are less gerrymandered and more diverse, preventing extremism that can exist when you have a whole continent of disparate values bundled together into a single political system?

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