A lot of people are really impressed by the insight that survey research among the British reliably suggests that both strongly left-wing and strongly right-wing positions are popular. A more nuanced version refines this to economically left-wing and socially right-wing positions. Nick Barlow’s post here is an example, but I don’t want to single him out particularly – the post is not stupid, it’s just an example that was to hand. Some people take this all the way to thinking that there is a big opportunity out there for a political party that wants to “fund the NHS and hang the paedos”.
There is a serious problem with this. Consider, if you will, a population where 40% of the people support the Red Party, which is strongly redistributionist, socially liberal, and cosmopolitan. Another 40% of the people support the Blue Party, which is economically libertarian, socially conservative/authoritarian, and nationalist. The people’s priorities among these issues are the usual ones – economy first, then society, then foreign policy. If this seems familiar it’s because I have selected parameters that resemble Britain today.
Now let’s ask some people what they think. Let’s draw a representative sample of people and ask them to, say, rank a list of policy positions taken from the Red and Blue election manifestos. Fairly obviously, the Reds will rate the flagship Red policy – say, generous public healthcare – top and the Blues will do the same with theirs – say, hating foreigners. If nothing else happens, both these policies should be ranked top by 40% of the public, plus or minus the sampling error. Exactly which one comes top will be determined by the margin of error. Something similar will happen as we go down the ticket.
In this example, it would probably be sensible to expect that politics in Red and Blue Land would have a lot to do with the two tribes’ favoured top policies. However, it would be really stupid to imagine you could become president by running for election with the list of top-rated policies in your manifesto. In our example, by construction, there is literally nobody who believes in both parties’ top priorities. Rather than a historic compromise, the hypothetical centrist candidate would be more like Steve Bell’s proposal to reconcile Northern Ireland’s conflict by launching the Fuck The Pope And The Queen Party, or the wonderful Yiddish concept of the kosher chazzer. The apparent public consensus is a vacuous artefact of aggregating very different groups.
This is a common enough error to have a name: the ecological fallacy, which occurs when you assume that the average properties of a population are informative about those of individuals within it.
And you can’t save this by appealing to the politics of emotion. The kosher pig candidate would have to project generosity and meanspiritedness at the same time, some trick. If you think political platforms are aesthetic and emotional constructs, this implies that coherency of style, tone, and story is important. If you think they are programmes for action, they need to be administratively workable and physically possible. In case you’ve not noticed, we’re having a test of that one.