A Theory of Politics In a Single Graph

Andrew Sullivan highlights a fantastic little statistical anecdote: most people in American support gay marriage, and most of them think they’re in the minority of public opinion.  In contrast, most opponents of gay marriage think they’re in a majority – a mere 20% are aware that they are the minority.  Here are the number in each group who can correctly identify how many Americans support gay marriage:

This is a great little case study demonstrating the ambiguity of politics.  First and most obviously, people tend to believe they’re in the minority, especially when the cause is important to them.  Those who strongly favor gay marriage are the only ones right on this, but in a broken-clock-is-right-twice-a-day sense.  More generally, people believe what flatters them.  But the other thing it shows nicely is an explanation for “punctuated equilibrium” in politics.

This is an important question for students of politics – do things change gradually and continuously? Or are political transitions like bankruptcy; they happen  “slowly, and then all at once“?  This graph demonstrates why the second might be true.  Today gay marriage supporters are a majority, but conventional wisdom hasn’t yet incorporated that fact.  I’m guessing that the second change, which doesn’t rely on people changing deeply-held beliefs, will happen a lot faster.  And as it does we might well see a sudden sharp shift in outcomes as people realize where the median voter actually is.  We might see breathtakingly fast change in policy…like for example, a wave of judges across the country releasing a cascade of decisions finding an equal right to marriage.

A whole theory of political change from a single graph – isn’t social science neat?


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