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Don’t Hate Undecided Voters

This post is by Clay Campaigne, not Andrew. (It says ‘posted by Phil’, and that’s technically true, but I’m just a conduit for Clay here).  This is copied from Clay’s blog, which may have comments of its own so you might want to read it there too.

Politics has taken on particular vitriol in recent years. Commentators and political scientists have described the rising tide of polarization in terms of concepts such as tribalism and negative partisanship. These theorists argue that political psychology has largely become an exercise in affirming our bonds with our team, the in-group, by gratifying our shared contempt for the out-group.

On this model, one striking puzzle is the vitriol reserved for those who hesitate to choose a side: undecided voters.

As David Sedaris put it in The New Yorker: 

To put [undecided voters] in perspective, I think of being on an airplane. The flight attendant comes down the aisle with her food cart and, eventually, parks it beside my seat. “Can I interest you in the chicken?” she asks. “Or would you prefer the platter of shit with bits of broken glass in it?”
To be undecided in this election is to pause for a moment and then ask how the chicken is cooked.
I mean, really, what’s to be confused about?

That sounds clever at first, but who orders the shit, and why is it easier to understand or tolerate them? Many of us tacitly endorse the tribal, us-against-them model of politics, and view those who refuse to play the game with a special contempt. If the other side is populated by enemies and defectives who are beyond hope, the middle ground is populated by traitors and apostates who should know better.

My claim is that being an undecided voter is not that bad: in particular, indecision is better than a bad decision. Anti-polarization theorists persuasively argue that viewing voters on the other side with contempt is the beginning of the end for democracy. Taking that as a starting point, I argue that it’s especially unhelpful to contemn people for not picking a side. Contempt blocks understanding, compassion, and persuasion.

By next Tuesday, we have a decision to make. I’ll start by framing the issue from a broadly decision-theoretic perspective, on the assumption that the purpose of voting is to affect the election outcome, or more broadly, to cause or determine it. (This is in contrast to “expressive” theories of voting, which view voting as a form of expression. I take expressive theories to be persuasive as psychological description, but I’m not sure they have much normative force, especially since voting in elections is a private act.) Let’s restrict attention to three possible actions: voting for Trump, voting for Biden, and abstention. In terms of its effect on the election’s outcome, abstention is intermediate between the other actions. Undecided voters are open to taking at least two of those alternative actions.

Under standard models, when people disagree about which candidate to vote for, they have different beliefs about what will happen if one or the other candidate is elected, different preferences over those outcomes, or both.

Let’s start with beliefs: If you believe “P”, and you condemn someone for believing “not P,” it’s unreasonable to condemn someone else even more harshly for believing “maybe P, or maybe not P.” No evidence could give greater confirmation to both “P” and “not P” than to the intermediate belief, “maybe P, or maybe not P.”

I claim a similar property holds for preferences and values. Many of us can accept that a person could be (approximately) a single-issue voter, perhaps on the environment (favoring Biden), or on abortion (favoring Trump). Shouldn’t we also make room for the voter who values both of those things equally, and is struggling to balance them? That is, an intermediate preference between two extreme (or “pure”) preferences should not be judged more harshly than both of the extremes.

As a matter of political psychology, these middle positions can be rare. We are motivated to render our beliefs and desires consistent with each other, so that we don’t have to agonize over trade-offs when making important decisions. Psychologists describe this in terms of seeking “cognitive consistency,” or “dissonance reduction.” I would argue that we seek to reduce dissonance because we “identify” with our decisions, investing them with our sense of self, which makes us feel the need to protect or defend them. The need to reduce dissonance is particularly pressing when confronted with aversive feelings, such as moral judgments about “good guys” vs “bad guys.” It’s also a harmful cognitive bias. When we can tolerate a field of potentially discordant beliefs and desires without collapsing them to defend a particular decision, we have the beginnings of wisdom.

Now, tolerating dissonance may be a step toward wisdom, but navigating the world requires decisive action, even in the face of uncertainty. Indecision is a vice. Suppose you’re with a group of friends, walking out of a movie, and you are deciding where to get dinner (maybe sometime in 2024). You’re on the fence between two restaurants, and you’re holding the whole group up. Maybe you don’t know which restaurant has a better quality food, or you’re not sure what you’re in the mood for. This indecision may be due to pickiness, i.e. a tendency to be easily dissatisfied in comparison to some ideal, or due to an excessive fear of regret. It’s better to just make a decision and bear the consequences.

But while indecision is a vice, its relevance to voting in presidential elections is limited. Suppose you are justifiably uncertain about which candidate to support. Is it important to just make up your mind and take a leap? No:

Voting, unlike going to a restaurant with friends, is a private act, and there is no need to coordinate it with others. Because of the sheer number of other voters, your individual decision to vote for president has no material impact on your life. (The “Paradox of Voting” brings this fact to bear on our ethical intuitions about voting.) It may be important to you on expressivist grounds, demonstrating something about yourself, or establishing social connection with others. But while “making an appropriate gesture” regardless of internal dissonance may be called for in the cases of apologies and condolences, there is no such need in the privacy of the voting booth.

Further, there is no case of “Buridan’s Ass” in voting. Buridan’s Ass starved to death because it was positioned equidistantly between two bales of hay, and couldn’t decide which one to eat. But unlike food, voting is optional. In the face of uncertainty, abstention (or arbitrary voting) is perfectly reasonable.

In a polarized political climate, candidates intentionally evoke strong aversive feelings. We have a tendency to resolve these feelings by identifying with one side or another, even in ambiguous cases. I’m not arguing that you should not condemn a particular candidate, or that this election is morally ambiguous. I’m arguing that you should question the urge to resolve internal conflict merely because you find it intolerable, and particularly that you should not impose this urge on your peers.

So give undecided voters a break. Singling them out for opprobrium is irrational and prevents you from being compassionate, curious, and persuasive.


  1. Phil says:

    I don’t feel animosity towards undecided voters in the present election, but I do feel disdain for them. My feeling is: for god’s sake, what additional information do you need in order to decide?

    I acknowledge that an individual voter may have a set of values and preferences such that Biden and Trump come out about even. But I really do not believe that something like 5% of voters are in that situation. That seems reasonable to me in a typical election, but not this one.

    By the standards of most European democracies, historically our two major parties have not been very far apart. In much of Europe the Democrats would have been considered centrist and the Republicans center-right. It’s easy for me to imagine being midway between the two. If someone had trouble choosing between GHW Bush and Bill Clinton I think that’s very understandable. It’s like trying to choose between a Ford pickup truck and a Toyota pickup truck.

    But the present election is more like trying to choose between a Ford pickup and a Mini Cooper. (I am trying to be values-neutral here. No ‘chicken versus plate of shit’). Sure, any individual consumer could have trouble choosing between a Ford pickup and a Mini Cooper, I’m sure there are people out there who are in the market for both or either. But there just can’t be as many people who would struggle with this choice as much as they would struggle with the choice between two pickup trucks. My instinct is that many people who claim to be ‘undecided’ in the present election are too chickenshit to commit to a decision they know they should make, or are lying to people who ask if they have decided yet.

    • Rahul says:

      Isn’t this often the dilemma between the candidate vs the party?

      If you like a party but hate it’s candidate what do you do?

      • confused says:

        I think this is it. IMO most undecided people will be those who dislike Trump but also dislike the Democratic Party, and see a Biden win as a victory for the Democratic Party.

        I don’t think personal dislike for Biden will play much of a role – people don’t generally try to paint *him* as far-left/socialist/etc, rather the argument tends to be that Biden is senile and easily manipulated, so his administration will actually be run by far-left/socialist/etc part of the party. (The debates seem to me to pretty much destroy that argument, though.)

        I don’t think it’s “symmetrical” – I’d expect more Republicans to be undecided than Democrats. Unlike 2016, there are probably few farther-left-than-the-candidate D voters who are sitting out the election this year; in 2016, it was generally assumed that Trump had no chance of winning.

    • Psyoskeptic says:

      Given that this Sept. only 10% were undecided and in Sept. 2016 about 20% were, it’s clear that there is a recognizable difference among candidates that voters are recognizing. Further, undecided is usually overestimated. So, maybe there is 5%

      There are so many reasons to be undecided that I believe it would be a large mistake to believe that we could estimate the proportion correctly and most anyone would underestimate (Cipolla’s Basic Laws, 2007).

    • Martha (Smith) says:

      Phil said,
      “My feeling is: for god’s sake, what additional information do you need in order to decide?” It might not be additional information that they need — it might be additional time to consider and reconsider the information they already have.

      Phil also said,
      “My instinct is that many people who claim to be ‘undecided’ in the present election are too chickenshit to commit to a decision they know they should make, or are lying to people who ask if they have decided yet.”

      It might also be that they think it is none of your business (which I am inclined to agree with).

  2. Anonymous says:

    Don’t hate undecided voters, save your hate for the shit-eaters who have decided not to vote for your candidate?

  3. Dale Lehman says:

    I did not find this post thought-provoking at all. First of all, I’m not sure there is a prevalent disdain for those that are undecided – I think there are relatively few such people, and I haven’t felt much animosity towards them. I do feel much animosity to the “other tribe.” I think that is more the important point. We are so divided, and the hostility level is so high, that anybody that feels differently than us are hard to understand. I can understand the undecided voter more than I can understand those that are voting for the other candidate. The latter brings up so much hostility in me, that the undecided voter shares some of that, although with less intensity for me.

    What is most disturbing is that we have gotten to the point that there is no middle ground. The closest we can get is to stake a position that the choices are terrible and that our political system is broken. If that leads one to be undecided, then I can understand that, even though I don’t agree with it. I wish there was a way to honestly understand the decided – on the other tribe – but I have great difficulty with that myself. I’ve reached the point where I cannot understand the other side at all – I can state all the intellectual reasons why they might feel differently than me, but I really don’t understand it. And I resent them for their feelings. I think that is a tragic place to have come to – and, yes, I want to blame people for this.

    • Phil says:

      You may not have found it thought-provoking, but it did provoke you to post some nontrivial thoughts.

      • Clay says:

        Haha, you got him Phil!
        Funny, Dale’s comment is very much in the spirit of my post, or at least, in my wheelhouse. The framing of my post is a bit provocative for its own sake. I would recommend the materials of Bob Wright on this matter, like the Nonzero newsletter or his show on

        • Dale Lehman says:

          Don’t congratulate yourself too much. The post did “provoke” me to post something, but it did not provoke my thoughts. I’ve been thinking these things for quite a while, and mainly posted as a reaction to my almost complete ineffectiveness at influencing anything. My frustration with politics, civility, and public life has reached an extreme – all your post “provoked” was a reflexive reaction from me, not any new serious thought.

          Where is the evidence that there are significant numbers of undecided voters, and where is the evidence that they are “hated” by anyone? The real issue of hate is the decided voters,and it is intense enough to spill over to the (few) undecided voters out there.

    • confused says:

      I think the “no middle ground” thing is a combination of several effects –
      1) increased polarization in general over the last few election cycles
      2) social media and the Internet creating an “echo chamber” effect
      3) the “asymmetry” between the candidates in this election – Biden is a fairly moderate Democrat, while Trump is an unusual and in many ways extreme Republican

      3) is unlikely to last beyond this election cycle (if Trump loses, he technically could run again in 2024 a la Grover Cleveland, but I can’t see him winning a primary again with that record)

      1) may also change soon, as I think it’s a reflection of the party “coalitions” having become out-of-step with the country as it has become since those “coalitions” became relatively ‘frozen’. Depending on who wins, and what states go which ways, in this election we might see a significant realignment & shift in party platforms.

      For example, if Trump loses, the Republican party will have to re-define itself, and which of the battleground states do what may define *how* that happens. (A blue Texas would likely have huge implications.)

      2) is more problematic, but I’d expect society to adapt eventually.

      • jim says:

        “the party “coalitions” having become out-of-step with the country”


        Both 2016 and this election have a different meaning than what’s commonly espoused. Whatever people think of Trump, the fact that he was elected at all is astounding. It reflects a shift in people’s views that the media, academia, *both* parties and the NGO clique seem intent on not recognizing. I mean Trump’s odious personality was hardly a secret before or during the 2016 election. And Hilary’s positions weren’t extreme left.

        Had the pandemic not come along to give Trump a chance to demonstrate his managerial incompetence, Trump might still have a reasonable chance of winning, despite all of his other issues. So I guess in my mind there’s ample evidence that the public is taking a new direction and is having difficulty figuring out how to balance it’s emerging views against traditional views, despite the landslide that’s likely to occur in this election.

        It will be interesting to see what happens once Trump’s out of the picture. How will the actual issues shake out? Where will the Republican party re-center?

        • jim says:

          Another interesting thing to watch: What will democrats do with a “full house” – the presidency, house, and senate? And how will the public respond to it?

          Will the Democrats be able pass a far-left legislative agenda? Or will the more conservative among them prevail? And if they do pass a far-left agenda, will the public support it or throw them out two years from now?

          • somebody says:

            > Will the Democrats be able pass a far-left legislative agenda?

            Given that Biden is not even close to far-left, this seems like a resolved question

            • confused says:

              In general, I’d agree – not “far left”.

              But I do think we might get a very different result from a hypothetical Biden administration if we end up with, say, Biden winning with 279 EVs (Clinton states + WI + MI + PA + NE-2) and a 50/50 Senate, vs. say, Biden winning with 375-413 EVs (all those plus ME-2 + AZ + FL + NC + GA + OH + IA + maybe TX) and a 58/42 Senate.

              The perception of a “mandate” and the vulnerability of the Senate to one or two D Senators voting away from party lines could make a difference.

            • jim says:

              “this seems like a resolved question”

              Not at all. If I was Biden I’d keep checking behind me.

        • Dave says:

          “Had the pandemic not come along to give Trump a chance to demonstrate his managerial incompetence, Trump might still have a reasonable chance of winning, despite all of his other issues.”

          I agree with this.

          I’m convinced that Biden would’ve won in 2016, had he run. I think that in 2016, more than any election I can recall, people cast votes more to prevent the opposite candidate from winning than because they liked the choice they were voting for. Neither party managed to nominate a likeable candidate. But I also think Trump would’ve won reelection if it had been held last year, simply because the economy was doing fine, and most voters attribute too much credit or blame to the president for coincidental economic growth and employment.

          • confused says:

            >>I’m convinced that Biden would’ve won in 2016, had he run.

            I’ve been saying this for years. Given just how narrowly 2016 was decided in the “Rust Belt” states, and the idea that NAFTA killed their economy, I think basically any plausible D candidate who didn’t have the last name ‘Clinton’ would have won.

            *But* I think that’s only true because Trump was a really bad candidate — there were other factors in favor of Republicans (2 Democratic terms, distaste with the ACA, etc.

            If it had been a fairly generic Republican running against a fairly generic Democrat, I think the Republican probably would have won.

            Even before COVID, Trump hadn’t really done anything to grow his base. I think his re-election would have depended on what else happened this year – if we assume no COVID, does that “butterfly effect” the George Floyd protests into not happening, since that started after COVID?

            Without any real crisis, I think Trump would have a good chance of being re-elected simply because nothing major went wrong during his term, but it would have been very close.

            • rm bloom says:

              Since questions about counter-factual conditionals are allowed here today, let me ask an interesting one: Suppose Romney had won in 2012. Would there then have been a pragmatic compromise sought on the matter of the ACA?

              • confused says:

                Hmm, who knows. Romney did something rather similar in Massachusetts… but I think it would depend on what Congress was doing.

        • confused says:

          >>Whatever people think of Trump, the fact that he was elected at all is astounding.

          Yeah, but I think the really amazing part is that he won the Republican primary. There were a lot of factors running in the Republicans’ favor in 2016: 2 terms of Democratic presidency (recently control of the WH tends to trade-off parties), general anti-establishment sentiment amplifying that, distaste with the ACA, etc.

          And then once the candidates were chosen, I think that the feeling that the Democratic party establishment “put their thumbs on the scale” to choose Clinton over Sanders, vs. the way Trump was clearly *not* the favorite of the Republican party establishment, gave him a significant boost in a “change/anti-establishment” election.

          Plus, the states that flipped vs. what was predicted were “Rust Belt” states, and Bill Clinton is widely blamed for NAFTA killing their economies (not that I think this is exactly accurate). Clinton’s last name worked against her (as it also did in the “establishment” aspect).

          So I think the fact that he won by a miniscule margin in an election where everything went in his favor actually shows he was a rather weak candidate. Hopefully I won’t be proven wrong next week…

          • rm bloom says:

            (Counter-factual question again): Had Sanders been nominated in 2016: could a “socialist” have beat his opponent, the “businessman” ?

            • confused says:

              That’s a very interesting question.

              I think he *could* have but it would be highly dependent on exactly how he campaigned.

              He wouldn’t have the “establishment” issues Clinton had, nor the reputation for dishonesty, but his positions were farther from the mainstream, and he’d still have the “2 prior terms of D, it’s time to go R” effect.

              If he could a) distinguish himself from “establishment” Democrats significantly, and b) convince enough voters in swing states that his economic plan was better than Trump’s, he could. But I think it would be extremely sensitive to how he was perceived.

    • Lorem Ipsum says:

      I used to be able to state the intellectual and ideological point of view of “the other side.” I used to be able to understand their positions as honestly held and coming for a consistent intellectual framework. My wife thought me naive and she was right. It was all a smoke screen and what was underneath were the worst impulses of our human nature. Every argument I made on their behalf was trampled and contradicted in the service of nothing more than avarice and greed.

      Now there is an empty chamber in my mind where empathy for the positions of the other side used to live and I am poorer for it.

    • Joshua says:

      confused –

      > 1) increased polarization in general over the last few election cycles

      Consider that polarization has not increased but that polarization has become more uniformly aligned along lines of partisan identification. This creates a reinforcing dynamic: polarization enhances partisanship and partisanship enhances polarization.

      • confused says:

        Yeah. I still wonder how long the current setup can last, though, given that both parties are made up of interest groups which fit together rather awkwardly.

        I wouldn’t be surprised to see a pretty significant shift in platforms after 2020, especially if Trump loses.

        • Joshua says:

          confused –

          > given that both parties are made up of interest groups which fit together rather awkwardly.

          Is say that’s true of the demz. Pubz, for. Is have basically narrowed down, eliminating anyone not all the way on the Trump train. No Justin Amash. A Ben Sasse or a Romney can represent any diversity because they’re in such safe states.

          What seems unsustainable to me is the disproportionate power pubz have relative to the number of votes they get. Biden could win by 6% in the popular vote and still lost the EC. A Senator from CA represents 60 x as many citizens as one from Montana? And gerrymandering has given them disproportionate power in the House. Along with a majority on SCOTUS despite fewer voters? At what point is that unsustainable? We need more than two parties.

          • confused says:

            Yeah, I guess I should say that was true of the Republicans as of 2015 — though I think a lot of people who are part of one of the other Republican elements still are going to vote for Trump, otherwise he would get like <10% of the popular vote (I'm talking more about what attracts Republican voters, not just politicians in the party).

            I kind of see the Republicans as being (as of 2015) as being three or three-and-a-half factions:
            1) the moderate conservatives/fiscal conservatives
            1a) the near-libertarians like Ron Paul/Rand Paul, who are arguably a more extreme version of that
            2) the evangelicals/social conservatives
            3) the plutocrats/corporate element of the party (big oil, military-industrial complex, etc.)

            And with Trump's rise the plutocratic element has distinctly taken over. But he still got the other votes (e.g. from pro-life/anti-abortion voters).

            As for the disproportionate thing… I don't know how long it's sustainable, but I don't think 3+ parties is really workable in our system. I think it's more likely that the Republicans will realign post-Trump to a fairly different platform (which could happen as soon as next election cycle, if they lose AZ and NC and TX is even close).

  4. Anonymous says:

    The platter of shit with bits of broken glass analogy isn’t a general purpose one. It specifically calls out Trump. Trump has been all that and more.

    It might be reasonable to be on the fence between Clinton and Dole or GHWB and Clinton or Obama and McCain, but Trump vs anyone is really brain damaged.

    Trump is a mentally ill person who is probably an organized crime boss doing tremendous quantities of stuff that got Al Capone put in jail. It makes no sense to be on the fence about him.

    • confused says:

      >>Trump is a mentally ill person who is probably an organized crime boss doing tremendous quantities of stuff that got Al Capone put in jail. It makes no sense to be on the fence about him.

      But by that logic, it *also* makes no sense to vote *for* him.

      Yet, probably 40-45% of the electorate will.

      I agree that *objectively* Trump is a terrible President. But unless we are willing to just say that 40-45% of the US electorate is insane and/or evil, there is still something that needs to be explained. So I think we need to say that those people *don’t believe* that description of Trump.

      I think the “echo chamber” effect & general distrust in the objectivity of media is being underrated here. Once someone gets to the point that anything said on TV or major news outlets about a Republican candidate/politician is *automatically assumed to be biased against them, before even hearing it* it becomes quite possible to believe that Trump is a lot more sane than he actually is.

      I think another thing being missed is that a significant proportion of the people who voted for Trump probably voted for him *specifically to weaken the federal government*. So things like his utter incompetence on handling COVID may not have much impact on that group of voters, as they’d rather the federal government not do much of anything anyway.

      • I’m not against the idea that a big fraction of 40% of the electorate is actually mentally ill. We have a major crisis of mental illness in our country, including enormous levels of opioid drug use, very high suicide rates, QAnon is a thing, and not just a little thing, flat earthers are out in the desert shooting themselves up in the air with steam powered rockets… I could believe that say 20% of the electorate is experiencing nontrivial mental health issues: paranoia, irrationality, inability to determine truth from lies, etc.

        • somebody says:

          I’m strongly against the idea that a big fraction of the electorate is actually mentally ill. It’s attractive for both its elitist pomposity and useless fatalism; we get to feel smug at our fundamentally broken political opponents. We’re just better than them, there’s nothing there for us to learn from, nothing for us connect with, and no point in spending our energy trying to convince them. It’s a cozy position, but at odds with my reality where most registered Republicans aren’t into QAnon and flat earth, vote based on their view of what’s good or bad for the country, and most people can support that view with their cherry-picked basket of examples, spurious or otherwise.

          My guess is that most people’s minds were made up about Democrat or Republican long before Trump took the party, and would have voted for whoever emerged from the unstable mess of their party’s primaries. I further conjecture that even the hardcore Trump supporters earnestly believed he had a policy program that would be good for Americans. Everything since then has been just the post-hoc justification of looking at job numbers and not looking at tweets, looking at the Dow Jones and not looking at policies, looking at riots and not looking at kids in cages. You have their QAnons and flat earthers to point at, they have their Chaz and weird protesters chanting at dining couples.

          I’m not trying to play both sides here–I think Trump is a racist, the Republican policy platform is incoherent to nonexistent, and the Democratic policy platform is marginally less bad. But I strongly reject that everyone on the other side is just mentally ill or basically evil or otherwise not understandable. The reality seems to me to be that they have a different idea of who’s good or bad for the country, arrived at through a differently curated set of facts. At the end of the day, the Democratic program of regulation and redistribution seems to decided Republican voters like it’s bad for the country, and they’ll vote against it. If I want those people to vote against the Republicans, I have to convince them that the Democratic program is more good or that the Republican program is more bad. Even if they were just stupid and evil and psychotic, making convincing them impossible, unless I’m willing and able to send them into the asylum and deny them voting rights, I gain nothing by operating otherwise except a feeling of superiority.

          • rm bloom says:

            A generation or two having grown up watching “The sopranos” found the opportunity to “run with the mob” irresistible. Mobsters may be gruesome and have no scruples, but, so the story goes, they “get things done”.

            They also put a lot of tiresome authority figures in their place; like the lady politician who thinks she knows better than everyone else; like the first-grade teacher who’d wag her finger at you; like the boss you have to take guff from in the little office you’re stuck working in.

            The little accountant who does the books — those tough sons of bitches in the neighborhood used to really lean on him when he was in high-school, made his days miserable — now look at him, they keep their respectful distance, “How-ya doin’ Mr. S., how’s the little ones doin!?” He does the books for the “real” boss now. No one’s going to even look at him the wrong way; let alone lay a hand one him.

            Except, I guess, his wife.

          • I have a close relative who is a psychiatric nurse practitioner who worked at the VA for years, so my view may be skewed by that… but I think you may misunderstand what I mean by mental illness.

            I certainly don’t think that 20% of the population has say schizophrenia or bipolar disorder… but what fraction of the population has clinical depression, or anxiety disorders, paranoia, or drug addiction, or PTSD? Back in 2017 12% of the population was taking antidepressants:

            so already there’s 12% of people with mental illness of one form or another even without counting other forms. Around 8 Million adults have PTSD at any given time in the US according to


            38% of Republicans believe that QAnon’s claims are “at least somewhat accurate”

            I consider that pretty bad mental health, since the QAnon conspiracies are rather outlandish, and fairly clearly a part of a psy-ops campaign to damage the mental health of americans. It’s designed to create paranoia! And it seems likely to be working.

            Similarly, I think the 1950’s McCarthy era really was a mass onset of serious levels of mental illness: paranoia in particular.

            This is mental illness the same way that if you live and breath in one of those Chinese cities with coal smoke everywhere you have lung illness… sure it’s not tuberculosis, and when it comes to mental illness we’re not talking about schizophrenia, but we’re not talking about healthy people who are capable of making rational decisions and understanding what is vs what isn’t a fact.

            If you accept that there are groups who are actively trying to manipulate people through online media to induce paranoia and create a false impression of an existential crisis, then you are talking about a mental health crisis, and I don’t think it’s purely a republican issue, it’s also democrats who have “the end of the world is coming” type thoughts.

            • confused says:

              But things like anxiety disorders and clinical depression don’t make you unable to hear what a politician is saying and relate that to what its implications are for your life. That’s not “insane” in the sense that a Democrat would expect a Trump voter to require (ie, “these economic policies are *obviously* bad for your rural community, COVID is *obviously* not just the flu, etc.”).

              I’m not even sure that some of these things necessarily make you ‘less rational’ in an overall sense – I think I could argue that my own OCD/anxiety has made me more aware of the distinction between what my reason is telling me and what my emotions are telling me.

              • I definitely wouldn’t claim that 20% of the electorate is “insane” meaning suffering from severe mental illness for example with homicidal tendencies or belief in aliens beaming things into their brains etc.

                But it’s *definitely* the case that relatively moderate paranoia would “make you unable to hear what a politician is saying and relate that to what its implications are for your life”.

                Furthermore severe persistent economic stress could make you unable to really evaluate policy ideas because your emotional responses of say fear of destitution is so strong that it prevents you from listening or thinking rationally.

                Also if you believe that there is a conspiracy among the media to distort Trump’s statements such that you can’t even really believe when you see him recorded saying something whether it’s really what he said…

                that’d totally destroy your ability to evaluate politics rationally. And I think that could easily be in the vicinity of 20% of the electorate.

                Similarly I could see 20% of the electorate having sufficient paranoia to be unable to decide whether someone like Fauci is telling the truth about public health issues or primarily saying things to discredit the president’s response so that he’ll lose power through lies told to make him look bad… etc etc.

                Paranoia, emotional instability caused by long duration extreme stress, PTSD, drug addiction, isolation, I could see all of those playing important roles in this election.

              • Also I don’t think the mental illness is all on “one side”. I have seen some pretty unhealthy apocalyptic things posted on social media from Democrats.

              • Chris Wilson says:

                confused, I agree with you especially in the sense of destigmatizing the experience of emotional and mental distress. Indeed, anxiety is ultimately part of an adaptive response, and sometimes very useful!
                Anyhow, I’m concerned that in the context of our present media environment, epic low levels of social trust/cohesion and atomized society, Daniel is more right than wrong…

              • Joshua says:

                I interact with a lot of Trump supporters online.

                I disagree with them almost completely on anything Trump related (there is some cross-over at the edges of foreign policy), but I don’t see evidence of what I would consider mental illness.

                Motivated reasoning is a very powerful phenomenon. It can cause people to think in ways that I might consider “irrational” working from my world view – but that’s a tough call to make. What is and isn’t “rational” is often largely contingent on certain starting assumptions, and those are very much a product of cultural/world view orientation. This would be rather like saying that certain religious beliefs (say that the world is 6,000 years old) are irrational and hence a product of mental illness.

              • confused says:

                @Joshua: yeah, I basically agree with that… but I think in some cases a sufficiently “partisan” environment (either in terms of partisan media online, or in terms of living in say a basically-all-Republican community in rural West Virginia) can “filter” what one listens to before one even gets to the “motivated reasoning” stage.

              • Joshua says:

                confused –


                But I’ve never encountered a Trump supporter yet that didn’t display what looked to me like motivated reasoning to defend him. For example, like when evangelicals do a 180 from their views before Trump to determine that a candidate’s personal behaviors don’t affect his suitability for office after Trump started running. Or when they defend his statements that anyone who wants a test can get a test or that we only have more cases because we’ve done more testing. Or that he only went after Biden/Ukraine because he was concerned about corruption. These are educated people that have actually made these arguments to me. They have to know that their arguments in defense of Trump are BS. Amd it isn’t just a matter of an echo chamber effect on their information base. But they aren’t irrational arguments, or irrational people, or mentally ill. They’re just “motivated” by a driving need to defend him – because they hate the people he defeated and humiliated.

              • confused says:

                Yeah, true.

                I think it’s kind of a “sliding scale” though. I mean sure people use motivated reasoning to defend but I think there’s still the question of how they *got* to the point of being committed enough to do that. Trump seems significantly crazier now than in 2016, but he was pretty odd then too, and it was pretty clear how offensive at least his personal behavior was before the election (although some of his policy views could be interpreted different ways).

            • jim says:

              Connecting a supposed rise in mental health problems with a belief in this or that group that you personally have designated as “weird” doesn’t mean much – particularly on a blog where we’re constantly seeing how much bullshit is published in psychology!

              Chances are good that the purported rise in mental health issues correlates with a rise in the number of mental health professionals trying to earn a living.

              • Martha (Smith) says:

                Trying to earn a living, or trying to make a living? (I suspect the latter is quite common.)

        • confused says:

          >>I’m not against the idea that a big fraction of 40% of the electorate is actually mentally ill

          There’s a big difference between a broad definition of “mentally ill” (including things like ADHD, OCD, addiction, etc.) and “insane” in the legal sense, which is more what I was talking about. Flat-earthers are a tiny tiny tiny proportion of the population and I think the Internet magnifies other fringe groups.

          And I think the “inability to determine truth from lies” isn’t really an internal psychological thing, it’s more of a miseducation thing – a result of media echo-chambers and wrong information becoming ‘presuppositions’. If you have been convinced that a source is fundamentally biased then you may not listen long enough to hear the facts that *could* change your mind.

          • David J. Littleboy says:

            I don’t think 40-45% of the population is mentally ill, I think they’re white, doing reasonably well financially*, and not interested in hearing about any one else’s problems. The “I don’t want my tax money going to them” demographic.

            Trump’s political brilliance was that he got the rural, land-owning, well-employed/business owning whites off their duffs and out to vote while the NYT kept running smear hit pieces by Maureen F. Dowd and the like. The whole lamestream “intellectual” media was all “Trump’s so ridiculous he’ll never get elected, so we can dump on the white trash Clintons to our heart’s content**.” It didn’t work out well.

            My political awareness dates back to the 1960s, when Johnson was irritating us hippies something fierce with Vietnam, to the point we didn’t realize he was good on social policy. But it wasn’t (as he thought) just one generation of the “I don’t want my tax money going to them” demographic that he lost (with integration), but several. And Republicans have always been opposed to social spending of any sort (and have tax policies most of the rich love). There’s nothing new in contemporary US politics; it’s been the same story for the last 50 or 60 years. There have always been two sides with completely incompatible policies in the US. The idea that “polarization” is any different today than it was in the ’70s and 80’s strikes me as counterfactual. Half the population were fine with Iran-Contra, just as Trump’s love for Putin doesn’t seem to bother said 40-45% of the population.

            Also, I don’t think there’s any such thing as an “undecided voter”. There are two types of folks claiming to be one, the “it’s none of your business” type and the type that likes attention. And the former probably doesn’t exist, either.

            *: The median family income of Trump voters in 2016 was significantly higher than that of non-Hispanic whites overall.
            **: The NYT had an article the other day interviewing women voters who didn’t like Hillary, without the slightest trace of self-awareness that the NYT itself was where much of the dislike for Hillary came from. Friggin’ idiots.

      • Phil says:

        To go ahead and get Godwin’s Law out of the way: what about Nazi Germany, is it OK to say there was something wrong with a majority of people there in, say, 1939? I think it is.

        What’s the opposite of ‘essentialist’? I wouldn’t claim that 45% of Americans are _essentially_ horrible people. But they are horrible people right now, under these circumstances. Or ‘deplorable’ if you prefer. Actually it’s more than that: I don’t think a decent person can support Trump, but I also think there are lots of deplorable Democrats.

        So, what am I saying, that more than half of Americans are awful? Yes, that’s what I’m saying. Clay (the author of the piece) has already chastised me for this, saying it’s “unhelpful.” I don’t deny that: it is unhelpful. But I’m not trying to be helpful, I’m trying to get the facts right. I think that what I’m saying is unhelpful but true. It’s clear from history that there can be a period in which a lot of people in a country embrace values that they later found appalling, and I think (I hope!) we are in such a time here and now.

        • I’m more or less in agreement with you Phil. I’m not sure it’s more than half, but well over 25% of Americans are at the moment awful. Whether it’s showing up armed to white power rallies in Virginia or “cancelling” celebrities who fail to say the “right” things about whatever… or refusing to “believe in” the coronavirus and choosing to bring 500,000 people together for a motorcycle riding rally… or burning police stations to the ground, the US isn’t in a healthy place and hasn’t been for years.

        • jim says:

          “OK to say there was something wrong with a majority of people there in, say, 1939? I think it is.”

          Sure, it’s OK to say it. Say what you believe.

          But I don’t believe it’s true, or even close to true. It only takes a small number of evil people to force their views on a much larger population, most of whom simply don’t want to be killed or severely ostracized and cast out.

          “more than half of Americans are awful”

          It’s not just unhelpful. Its wrong. Its troubling that you believe this.

          • Phil says:

            A lot has been written about Nazi Germany, including soul-searching by Germans about how and why the Nazis rose to power. It is my informed belief that the Nazis enjoyed broad popular support in Germany in the 1930s and into WWII. “Broad” does not mean “universal” or anything close to it. Perhaps it was just a substantial minority, like 40% or something. But I don’t think it’s the case that a “small number of evil people force[d] their views on a much larger population.”

            This does not mean the German people are, or were, inherently evil. A culture can be evil or just bad. What about the South during slavery, or during Jim Crow? Am I allowed to say the racist whites were ‘horrible’?

            In the case of both Germany and the South under slavery, the people at least have the excuse of being immersed in a bad culture. In the present circumstances that’s a harder case to make; for one thing we have a lot more scope to choose the culture we participate in. If you choose to associate with people who want to permanently take children away from their parents, that’s on you.

            I don’t think I’m wrong that something like 50% of Americans have values I think are horrible. That is well supported by evidence. One can argue that just because the values are horrible doesn’t mean the people themselves are ‘horrible’, and I acknowledge that the ‘these people are horrible’ language sounds essentialist. I assure you I am aware of the distinction.

            So maybe I can satisfy you by putting it that way: more than half of Americans have awful value systems. Sorry it troubles you that I believe that, but I think I can defend my position better than you could defend the contrary!

            • jd says:

              >more than half of Americans have awful value systems
              It may be entirely possible that the half you just described view you and the other half in the same way…polarization?

              • Phil says:

                Oh yes, absolutely! I think a large portion of the people I described view me as having an awful value system. For one thing, I don’t approve of permanently taking children away from their parents, even if their parents tried to bring those children into the U.S. illegally. Whereas all right-thinking people agree that Jesus wants us to do that.

                Some cultures are better than others. (For instance: Our present culture, for all its faults, is better than that of the South during slavery, or Nazi Germany). I don’t see the need to say “there are fine people on both sides.”

              • Andrew says:


                This discussion of incompatible values brings to mind our blog discussion from a few years ago, where several commenters seemed to find it hard to believe that you, I, and others truly didn’t believe it was “morally wrong” for a woman to have a child on her own without another parent. These are frustrating discussions, where there’s not just disagreement; there’s also disagreement about the legitimacy of the disagreement.

              • Phil says:

                Andrew, I had completely forgotten about that! Not surprising, considering I have no memory. That’s a pretty funny comment string to reread.

            • somebody says:

              These days, it is not infrequent that strangers in public are actively hostile to me on the basis of my ethnicity, explicitly telling me that the reason for the confrontation is that I “look Chinese”. I’m not confident any of them are horrible people. On one occasion, a white lady half my size threatened to fight me for brushing against her on public transport. She didn’t do it because she has horrible values–she didn’t do it because she would take pleasure in me suffering or feeling bad. She did it because she was genuinely convinced that me being asian meant I was a danger to her. Her motivating value — personal safety — wasn’t horrible, she incorrectly but genuinely believed that my race had a negative causal relationship with her health.

              People don’t take pleasure in the suffering of would-be immigrants, they believe that unrestricted immigration will cause poverty and increase suffering, people don’t want healthcare bankruptcies, they believe socialized healthcare systems will lead to healthcare rationing, death, and disease. People don’t want to riot and loot and burn things for the fun of it, they think it will force some kind of change. I’ve never met a person whose political opinion is that they want more misery and despair.

              • Phil says:

                “Unrestricted immigration” is a straw man, nobody (or at least no prominent politician) is calling for that.

                The examples you give are more of the “Ford vs Chevy” variety. Nobody is horrible just because they favor or oppose socialized healthcare, or differ on whether illegal immigrants should have a path to citizenship, or things of that nature.

                But I think the family separation policy is morally indefensible, indeed it’s the most morally indefensible peacetime policy I can think of since sometime in the 60s. (And, not that this matters to my argument, I _do_ think the point of it is to cause more misery and despair.) I started to list several more things, but decided that the number of morally indefensible things Trump has done is not really the point.

                Perhaps we just differ in our standard for what it takes for someone to be a “horrible person.”

              • somebody says:

                Unrestricted immigration is not a real policy proposal that necessitates a Trump to stop, but Trump voters believe it is. The family separation policy is morally indefensible, and Trump is a bad person for doing it, but Trump voters don’t believe it’s a real thing. Most of them just try to ignore it, and at most believe it’s an incidental occurrence as a consequence of existing border enforcement rules being stepped up, not a deliberate policy of the Trump administration.


                They are wrong. I don’t think large swaths of the country are looking at family separation and going “this is good,” they’re just trying their best to not look at all. I’m not trying to justify Trump voters really, but advocating we confront them as they are — they by and large don’t like to separate families, but have not been convinced that that’s a thing that Trump did at scale and on purpose. That might be more or less depressing to you, but if you go around convinced that 70% of registered Republicans are really okay with or enjoy separating families I think you’d be incorrect.

        • Clay says:

          Phil, consider the example of Han Chinese who live in Xinjiang, and reasonably well informed Chinese citizens in general. They generally support the CCP, and they are fairly clued in to what’s going on. From our perspective, many of the CCP’s actions seem morally problematic to say the least. What is your attitude towards them? I would encourage “cognitive empathy” as well as just regular understanding. Perhaps the distance helps: it’s less frustrating because you have no chance in hell of persuading them. (Sinica podcast is good on cognitive empathy regarding the Chinese perspective.)
          It might also have to do with my differing intuitions about moral blameworthiness of groups vs individuals.

          • somebody says:

            I disagree with Phil here, but I think the analogy is a bad one. The typical person living in China can do zilch about the CCP, and even ineffectual opposition comes with major personal consequences. A Republican voter can vote against Trump nearly for free.

            I just disagree with the premise that doing thing that causes bad effects makes you an essentially bad person. If we’re talking about people’s character here, good people cause bad things all the time. I could easily see the bulk of Democratic voters intentionally not noticing a Democrat’s unlawful drone strikes

        • somebody says:

          Moralizing large groups of people you don’t know is a black hole.

          Do you mean to refer to an aspect of their personality, that they take pleasure in others’ suffering and that’s why they vote the way they do? I know you don’t have the information to support that, that everything I know about people points the other way. Even if it were true, that’s a path to nihilism, where convincing others or forming political coalitions are impossible.

          Do you mean that by voting for Trump, they are doing a bad thing? Sure, but good people do bad things all the time. They earnestly believe they’re doing the right thing, and whether you think that belief is ridiculous or stupid or motivated reasoning or not (I think all three), I don’t think it’s extraordinary or evil. Most people are like most people and can easily fool themselves. Were there a Democratic president ordering extrajudicial drone strikes, the other side would look away, and if 90% of everyone is morally awful then being awful don’t mean much.

          Moralize your friends and family and enemies, but the country can only be convinced.

      • Joshua says:

        confused –

        > So I think we need to say that those people *don’t believe* that description of Trump.

        I think that some portion think that Trump is pretty awful person – but he hates libz and demz and offers a way for people who believe they’re victims of libz and demz to feel vindicated and to hand libz and demz their commupence.

        Another portion see him as a vehicle to achieve certain goals (overturning Roe V. Wade), so in the end it’s less important who he is.

        • Martha (Smith) says:

          Then there is a third group, exemplified by my nephew’s wife, whose views are more complex than the simple stereotypes. She considers herself pro-life, which includes being personally against abortion (although she supports a woman’s right to choose), but also includes public health measures that provide for a baby’s well-being after birth. She also is against Trump — supporting her position by quoting scripture on how Jesus criticized the Pharisees.

        • confused says:

          Sure, but it’s one thing to vote for a candidate despite thinking they’re a pretty awful person *personally* – quite another if they’ve been shown to be incompetent *as a leader*. We’ve had Presidents before who were both personally slimy and effective Presidents.

          There’s definitely a category who see voting for Trump as a vote against liberalism rather than anything about him personally — but I think that that, itself, implies some degree of “mis-education”, “echo chamber” effect, or being subject to propaganda.

    • TBW says:

      “The platter of shit with bits of broken glass analogy isn’t a general purpose one. It specifically calls out Trump. Trump has been all that and more.” – I disagree, I think most Trump supporters would be comfortable characterizing Biden as a platter of shit with bits of broken glass. Each side thinks the other side winning will spell the end of the country.

      • anon e mouse says:

        …but the people who think that on the right are often basing it on wild theories that don’t make any sense! We don’t have to pretend that all opinions are equally valid. Joe Biden is about as generic of a Democrat as you can imagine, but the right wing seems to have convinced people he’s going to usher in some sort of socialist authoritarianism. And that has no basis in anything either proposed or in his record, yet I have seen previously-sane, middle of the road Republicans go out and buy guns in preparation for it, despite the objective fact that Biden would have to look fairly far to his left on most economic issues to find the New Deal, a thing that actually happened and didn’t usher in socialism or authoritarianism!

        In contrast, over the past four years, there has been a significant amount of what we would call “democratic backsliding” when it happens in Turkey or wherever else. That’s not a loony conspiracy theory, it is literally the same kinds of executive actions to which political scientists apply that moniker elsewhere, and often times those erosions have led to further erosions. Can Trump destroy American democracy as we know it? Maybe not, but we’re not inventing a theory of how he’d do it out of thin air, we’ve been watching him chip away at the edges for 4 years!

        • confused says:

          Yeah, I really haven’t even seen people claim that Biden is socialist/far-left; the claim is usually that Biden is senile and will be manipulated by those Democrats who are. I think the debates pretty much removed any plausibility on that — he seems significantly more coherent than Trump — but it’s still out there (Trump apparently claimed today that Biden would be removed by the 25th Amendment three weeks into his presidency…)

  5. John Williams says:

    “I claim a similar property holds for preferences and values. Many of us can accept that a person could be (approximately) a single-issue voter, perhaps on the environment (favoring Biden), or on abortion (favoring Trump). Shouldn’t we also make room for the voter who values both of those things equally, and is struggling to balance them? ”

    I doubt that this describes many non-voters. I think most non-voters are like the guy the dancer imitates in the “Get your booty to the poll” video (check out the video if you don’t understand this), or the sort who say “I never vote; it only encourages them.”

    • Phil says:

      I think there’s a difference between committed non-voters and ‘undecided’ voters.

      • Keith E. says:

        I’m a committed undecided voter. I have the ballot on my desk, and I’ll fill it out in a few days, but I very deliberately never decide who I’m going to vote for until I’m ready to check the box.

        Sure, I know which way I’m leaning. But sometimes I’ve leaned back. And I know that choosing your candidate far in advance is a mind-killer… obviously so, as other posts in this forum are talking about the mental illness of those voting the wrong way. I want to avoid that trap, that cognitive failure.

        • Martha (Smith) says:

          Sounds like very rational thinking to me.

        • Adrian says:

          I’m sorry, but the idea you could lean back and forth between hard right and moderate left seems mentally ill. It makes zero sense and seems far more like willing cognitive dissonance to justify voting for Trump, even though in reality you realize what a terrible president he is.

          • confused says:

            ” lean back and forth between hard right and moderate left seems mentally ill”

            But being undecided doesn’t necessarily mean you’re “swapping” between the two positions – especially if one’s own position is not well-described by a left-right spectrum.

            Someone could, for example, be a strong nationalist/isolationist who would vote for Trump for his foreign/trade policy, but finds him personally offensive, or thinks his mishandling of COVID calls his leadership ability into question.

            Or someone who is a pretty strong libertarian/minarchist/etc. might find it come down to whether Trump is more likely to permanently damage democratic norms, or weaken the Federal government, if re-elected (or, if he does both, whether the net result is more likely to be less government/more liberty or the reverse).

            • rm bloom says:

              Maybe the vote for him *because* he is personally offensive, etc. They are bored and tired of pretending they should follow the golden rule. HBO and Showtime have taught them otherwise: a gangster cuts through the crap and the pretense. This line of thought is just as magnetic for me as it is for anyone else. But some time in my early teens I guess I came to the conclusion that — while it is exciting to imagine one completely dominates over others — there are other attractions in life indeed! For instance: A few kind words to someone having a tough time also gives one a momentary sense of supervening all worldly burdens too. My Father must have shown me that; though he never said much about it.

              • Andrew says:


                I think you’re overthinking this one. Once it gets to the general election, the overwhelming majority of Democrats will vote for the Democratic candidate, and the overwhelming majority of Republicans will vote for the Republican. Whether or not he or she is rude or polite. Small differences in vote share can make the difference between winning and losing, but most of the vote is based on party.

              • rm bloom says:

                Whatever happened in 2016, it depended on friends of mine in Michigan who stayed home. Small, pivotal numbers like that in several states. Why’d they do it? One I know who’d been so embittered by what happened to Sanders began to shift his interest, from whatever Sanders preached, to a fixation on the devilish designs of the “left” — “They’re worse than ‘T'” was what he first declared and when I heard I knew this was what they talk about when they say “L’extremes se touche”. Sanders is no extreme, really; but my friend’s conversion — if that’s what it was — from one to the other pole is I think an underexamined phenomenon. The connection is neither to party, nor to idea; but it is all about the overwhelming desire to “win”. Attaching first to a vocal fighter for the ‘underdog’ and when that fight was ‘lost’ a conversion to the fighter for the ‘winner’. It is embarrassment or shame that one had too long backed the losing side. Why not, then stand with the ‘winningest’ no matter how obscene?

              • confused says:

                @Andrew: yeah, I do think some supporters are attracted to Trump because he “offends the right people”, but in general I think the more interesting question is how he won the Republican primary.

                The fact that he won the general election in a relatively favorable year against an exceptionally disliked candidate isn’t as surprising IMO.

  6. Alex says:

    I think there’s a confusion in the post between being undecided and not voting. I’m sure that partisanship is associated with likelihood of voting, but there are plenty of practical reasons that people don’t vote with indecision or indifference being only one. Or phrasing it the other way, you can be strongly on one side or the other and still not vote. I don’t think a lot of people are aiming vitriol at non-voters. But to strong partisans, which I think overlaps quite a bit with being politically informed and the only kind of people having these kinds of conversations, being truly undecided in how you would vote regardless of if you will means that you are somehow unable to see all the flaws in the other side or somehow find them equal to the flaws in your own. And it is mind-boggling how someone could equate or not see those flaws if you’re well-informed and partisan.

  7. Richard Juster says:

    It is interesting that none of the comments on this topic point to any empirical evidence as a basis for their arguments — the comments seem largely speculative and “seat-of-the-pants.” I was under the impression that most of the participants in this blog were interested in the empirical basis for scientific claims. Maybe I’m missing something here, but there is an active, empirically-based scholarly interest in this very topic.

    • Martha (Smith) says:

      I see the comments as providing important information for anyone seeking empirical information on voter behavior. An empirical study that excludes many real possibilities does not give an accurate picture of the varieties of voter thinking. In other words: If you ask questions that exclude viable options, you’re not going to get meaningful results from your study.

      • Richard Juster says:

        My comment only was to point out that there is a very large literature on this topic and that there are researchers who have spent the bulk of their careers largely devoted to the study of non-voting. It seems to me that people who wish to speculate on this or related issues should make some attempt to familiarize themselves with the literature on the topic. A web search will show that there is a very large literature that is relevant.

        • Phil says:

          Good point. When it comes to ‘undecided’ voters, and non-voters, this discussion is sorely lacking in facts.

          In note that much of the discussion in this thread is about other issues for which the facts don’t seem to be in dispute. There’s not much question about what Trump has done and said, or Biden, and people are making their own judgments about how acceptable or unacceptable it is to support one or the other. But you’re right that when it comes to undecided voters, which is the topic of the essay that started all of this, we’ve got few facts to work with.

      • Esteban says:

        115 comments in…

        Let’s recap and try to sum up at least one side of this election for any of the still-undecided voters:

        …disdain…chickenshit…liar…shit-eater…hostility…resent…mentally ill…organized crime boss…insane…evil…racist…manipulate…paranoia…irrational…crazy…awful…Nazi…morality…obscene…HORRIBLE…psychosis…low-educational-attainment middle-aged white people…vile…sex offender…

        Glenn Greenwald is currently on the receiving end of some of this same type of colorful commentary, yet his insights rise above the pedestrian and are reminiscent of a time and of a purpose for journalism that appear to have all but unfortunately been lost, no matter anyone’s particular political bent:

        • Phil says:

          Your list of terms is kind of ridiculous. Nobody said undecided voters are as bad as the Nazis, or that they eat shit. If you’re going to criticize people for demonizing those they disagree with, perhaps you shouldn’t do it yourself.

        • Andrew says:


          I followed the link and I didn’t see any great insights there, just someone who seems to want to relive the 2016 election campaign and is mad that the press isn’t playing along as much as he’d like.

        • Joshua says:

          Estaban –

          Since you mentioned Greenwald I could add quite a few more adjectives but I’d guess Andrew would prefer thsi didn’t.

          I’ll just note that “rising above pedestrian” is not the only possible descriptor and its questionable as to whether there is a clear directional trajectory in journalism. Consider when the “yliw journalism”

    • David J. Littleboy says:

      I did! I did!

      I mentioned that Trump voters were/are quite well off. OK, I didn’t give numbers or a reference, but it’s true and I could have had I done my homework.

  8. Terry says:

    The post assumes all voters are informed and care about the election.

    But there is a chunk of the electorate for whom this is not true. I think a chunk of the undecideds are people for whom politics is not important. They aren’t paying attention or they don’t care. They are more interested in their Hummel figurine collection.

    To give this group their due, they shouldn’t care because they aren’t in a position to cast an informed vote. To look at it from the opposite perspective, I am undecided about their Hummel collection, and that is a perfectly proper attitude on my part.

  9. Dave says:

    Could it be that polled voters are acting strategically? Probably the best way to have political power via voter poll is to say you are undecided and then give your views on political topics in the hopes that the candidates will make promises about them.

  10. Yuling says:

    It is not unclear what “undecided voter” means. Does it mean they have a current preference p =0.5 such that they could not name one choice? But p = 0.5 has measure zero. Does it means their preference is so fluid such that they could flip the preference in the future? But anyone else’s opinion can flip too. The point is no matter how reluctant to reveal the actual preference and hide it under the undecided category, there must be some preference.
    In practice I guess “undecided” just vaguely means the preference is close to 0.5.

    • rm bloom says:

      Depends on the issue. Complicated fiscal propositions or charter amendments, or judicial seats: cannot decide unless some effort is made to study the alternatives (else one chooses at random, or chooses not to choose).

  11. Jonathan (another one) says:

    Mark Lilla’s brilliant essay “On Indifference” in Liberties, a new journal just published (with no online link) puts it well in the last two paragraphs (but the whole thing is great): “It is a paradox of our time that the more Americans learn to tolerate difference, the less they are able to tolerate indifference. But it is precisely the right to indifference that we must assert now…. America is working on itself. Let it work, and may some good come of it. But the indifferent will politely decline the invitation to shake pom-poms on the sidelines or join the Battle for the American Soul just now. Why now? Because the illiberal passions of the moment threaten their autonomy and their self-cultivation, and have formed a generation that fails to see the value of those possessions. That is the saddest part. Perhaps a later one will find it inspiring to learn that…America’s claim on us is never greater than our claim on ourselves. That democracy is not everything. That morality is not everything. That nothing is everything.”

    • Clay says:

      Great reference, I want to read this! I really enjoy a lot of Lilla’s work. My post has a lot of passing references to notions of privacy (of the voting booth), which might be better put in terms of autonomy and self-cultivation.
      Wait there is no online version?

      • Jonathan (another one) says:

        Liberties is Leon Wieseltier’s new effort. The first issue is great, but it is print only, which is SO idiosyncratically precious…
        As soon as I read this essay I emailed Lilla, who responded immediately, but said he doesn’t know how to make the essay electronically available either. I guess the scan function on our printers is about to get a workout…

        They do have a website,, where you can subscribe. It’s apparently going to be four times a year, and if it survives, the subscription price is well worth it.

  12. Alex says:

    I can give my personal experience with this. I support the Chinese government and I’m pretty much a single-issue voter.

    Of course, rationally I know that on the whole, Trump is worse from my perspective. For example, he wants to ban party members, started the trade war, and appointed Pompeo. On the other hand, Biden is also anti-China and makes a lot of anti-China and anti-Xi statements.

    So for me, going out to vote for Biden would be an unpleasant experience. For that reason, I’m not voting. This doesn’t mean that I’m undecided or don’t have a preference, but I really don’t like either side enough to feel motivated to vote.

  13. Renzo Alves says:

    The problem might be less about POTUS Trump or Kamala or whoever candidate/party, but rather people who are so sure they are “know the TRUTH,” and have “moral clarity,” and have seen the “inner light” that it is worth discarding democracy to force their preferences down everyone else’s throats.

    Uncompromising morality (a constant feature of American political life from the beginning) has a place one might argue in extreme cases such as Total Immediate Abolition vs. Gradual Amelioration of Slavery, but when every damn little thing has to be decided by uncompromising morality, it’s no wonder America has problems.

    It is sad, depressing, and discouraging to see the extent of woke emotionalism on a blog frequented by math and stats experts.

    • Andrew says:


      We should get you and this commenter in the same room to thrash this one out. There seems to be disappointment in our commenters from all directions.

      • Renzo Alves says:

        Thank for the invite but I’m not here to thrash anything out. I don’t live in the USA (by choice) and don’t want to (but did for many years, living through some turbulent times). I’m a former psychology person (cross-cultural personality and soc. pscyh.) now reverted to my original academic training as a working historian (I also have a Ph.D. in linguistics.) I am commenting on the historical parallels. Without wanting to be insulting, I feel some people would benefit by having a better and less political familiarity with what has already happened (because it is happening again, and most likely will continue to do so.) In case you were wondering why I come here, it’s for the statistical insights, not political hysteria (sorry if that seems not-ok (from the comments, I guess it isn’t ok these days), just the way it looks from a historical POV.

    • rm bloom says:

      What “damn little thing” at this particular juncture is it, that you suggest be viewed with greater indifference?

      • confused says:

        I don’t think it’s necessarily even about “indifference”. Even if an issue is critically important, one can sometimes lose support by taking a ‘harder’ stance — it’s not necessarily a win to get *nothing* done on the issue, vs getting *something* (but less than you wanted) done by compromising with people whose positions one finds repellent.

        A lot of environmental stuff, I feel, suffers from this; a green-energy plan that was focused on government investments in green infrastructure rather than setting regulatory limits for CO2 might not have gotten indefinitely stayed in the courts (and then replaced by a super-weak plan which basically just nominally fulfilled the requirement to have *something*, the ACE rule) the way the actual Clean Power Plan did.

        • rm bloom says:

          Indeed, and compromise is not a weakness; to seek consensus (as we see when the dogs are let loose so to speak) is very hard; it takes practice — it is hard to really figure out what the other guy needs and be “big enough” to give it if you can. But sewers and roads and hospitals and armies and other significant endeavors do not come into being with out it. Well, not in our system, not in our “English” inheritance anyway.

      • Renzo Alves says:

        I was alluding to a comment made by Henry Adams to the effect that history is just one damn thing after another. Perhaps I should have alluded to “little enders” v. “big enders.”

    • Jim says:

      +10. Well said sir.

    • Phil says:

      Who’s talking about ‘discarding democracy’?

      Thank you for moralizing about how wrong it is to moralize. I’m not saying you’re wrong! But it’s sort of funny.

      • Renzo Alves says:

        I didn’t say it was wrong (or not wrong). I wasn’t commenting on the morality of it. I said that if you reject the process because it doesn’t immediately yield exactly the totality of your preference(s), that is a threat to the process. Some people believe the END justifies the MEANS. The problem starts when different groups have different preferences for different ENDs and different ideas about how to achieve them. Surely it is a good thing that people cherish their gifts from God and fulfill their obligations to yada yada. The MEANS to that END is to put them in cages until they see the inner light the way right thinking people (like you) do.
        Democracy means compromise which means “you can’t always get what you want” as the great philosophers said. Politics is the “art of the possible,” but some groups reject that definition as a cop-out. Only what is RIGHT as they see it with their moral clarity inner light is acceptable. If it requires killing millions, then it is worth the cost (they believe.) Personally I think uncompromising morality + belief that the end justifies the means is a dangerous combination.

        • Phil says:

          I don’t disagree, but I don’t see a direct connection to this conversation. Other than (arguably) Trump himself, nobody seems to be talking about rejecting democracy, much less killing millions of people

  14. Michael says:

    Hate undecided voters? Who does that? Shouldn’t we all – especially the reasonable and wise who frequent this website – be admirers of undecided voters? At least a few of them? In this group, critical comments about a lack of evidence or data is basically virtue signalling. In this group, the insightful data driven folks want information and facts and science to shape their opinions. Meanwhile, undecided voters are making up their minds – maybe even changing their view – after hearing the stories, watching debates, reading the propaganda, etc. (Did you watch the presidential debates with any notion that anything said might change your vote?) Without empirical data, I can claim that some undecided voters are actively listening to candidates and are open to new facts, ideas, and opinions that can change their own decisions. Those are the people who are doing the hard work of adulting that so many of us talk to our kids about. Those are the people actually trying to be “informed” citizens doing their duty, right? Even if they are unintelligent, biased, self-interested, flawed people, some of them must be the best of us.

    • Anonymous says:

      It seems to me that being undecided at this time point is about being *supremely* incapable of reading what the data shows…

      The data shows Trump is a HORRIBLE choice, unless you *like* white supremacists with guns suppressing the vote or intimidating or ramming their cars into people. Or you like that they show up and threaten the governor and legislature… or you LIKE the fact that hundreds of thousands of people died of a virus who didn’t have to, and that people are still convinced because the president said it that wearing masks is stupid, and that the virus is just “like a flu”, and that businesses really can’t reopen successfully because people are still rightly afraid of the now spiking virus cases and that we still don’t have N95 masks available on the general market for everyday people, etc etc

      Basically people look at the plain evidence and prefer the spin. Hence the up-thread discussion of mental illness: psychosis is when people experience a “significantly altered or distorted perception of reality” after 4 years of Trump doing what he did do, to believe that he’s a “savior of the middle class” or will “protect people from job losses” or whatever else is espoused by his base is basically psychosis. it’s directly counter to every piece of evidence we have.

      • rm bloom says:

        Why do people jump off bridges?
        Sometimes some of them survive and on interview among the reasons given are:
        [1] to get away from something else they think is worse that’s catching up with them.
        [2] To wreak revenge on their families or friends whom they feel have mistreated them.
        [3] The “Imp of the perverse” — the drive to do a thing *because* one “ought not”.

        • Anonymous says:

          I definitely think that a major driving force behind Trump is low-educational-attainment middle aged white people losing their economic stability and diving into poverty due to bad policy and deciding “what the hell, if I’m not doing well, I’m going to take a few of you assholes with me”.

          In other words, a politically powerful but economically disadvantaged minority who has political power due to the tremendous imbalance in the Senate actively trying to harm the majority in a lashing-out way. No wonder we have so much animosity in our country.

  15. Jason says:

    Is it possible to imagine a candidate so vile that the other side is completely justified in disdaining his supporters? If so, how is Donald Trump not that candidate?

    The danger of polarization is real, but polarization as the problem in and of itself sort of implies an unjust symmetry and overlooks the fact that one side is putting forward flawed but basically qualified, decent candidates, and the other has rallied around a sex offender from tabloid television whose main political qualification pre-2016 was as the lead advocate of a racist conspiracy theory. If the Democrats become cultishly devoted to empowering a lobotomized Harvey Weinstein, then we can talk about “polarization” in and of itself as the problem. Until then, the problem is that one side actually is completely insane and the other side doesn’t like that.

    • confused says:

      Well, I think “polarization” is the problem in the sense that it means that any candidate, no matter how bad, will automatically get at least 40% of the vote if they are the candidate of one of the major parties.

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