Chickens, Ducks and Parrots
Jude Wanniski
July 31, 1998


Memo To: SSU Students on Summer Break
From: Jude Wanniski
Re: Simple Political Model

If you missed yesterday's memo, I encourage you to go back and enjoy Bob Novak's introduction to the 20th anniversary edition of my 1978 book, The Way the World Works. It would lead into an excerpt from Chapter One, "The Political Model" today's memo -- in which I present it in its simplest terms, using chickens, ducks, parrots... and vultures and eagles:

The electorate, being wiser than any individual in the society, is society's most precious resource. It is the job of the politician to try to divine what it is the electorate wants. Politicians have the most important and difficult task in all the society, for they are the only channel through which the electorate can realize its self-interest and in so doing preserve itself and progress. If politicians repeatedly fail to discern the interests of the electorate, winning office only because their political competitors have even less discernment, the society will ultimately resort to either war or revolution to bring about a correction.

As an example of this political model in its simplest terms, consider the following caricature. Assume that the purest expression of the electorate's self-interest is a chicken. It attempts to communicate this desire to the politicians through a multitude of voices in a great variety of ways. Only a very few of the individual voices will come close to expressing this desire precisely, most of the voices expressing negative tastes for everything that is not a chicken. If there are two keen politicians contesting, on election day one might have refined his platform to express a duck. The other thinks the voters want a parrot. And because a duck is more like a chicken, the electorate will choose the candidate who expresses duck. Personality is as important as substance, however. If the duck candidate has shown sufficient signs of being untrustworthy, so weak and vacillating that in post-election he might easily become a hawk, the electorate would choose the more trustworthy parrot.

If the two contesting candidates were not keen, but insensitive to the expressions of the multitudes, on election day one might express a vulture, the other a worm. The vulture might win if in addition he showed signs during the campaign of moving in the direction of a more peaceful bird, and perhaps thereby being educable in office. Otherwise, the voters would likely choose the less threatening worm and wait for the next election, hoping for the best. The fact that the vulture candidate had at least expressed a bird might not be sufficient to persuade the voters that their interests were being given first consideration; the vulture candidate might have confronted the electorate as being an obstacle to be surmounted, his expression of a bird of prey being a purely personal taste rather than a reflection of the electorate's tastes. In any case, with such a poor showing by the political alternatives, voters would be inclined not even to make a trip to the polls.

The only difference in reality from this simple chicken-duck-parrot model is in the number of variables that compose the consensus of the electorate's desires. The electorate may desire in addition to a domestic policy of chicken a foreign policy of eagle, and the task of the contending politicians becomes geometrically more difficult. A candidate may be near perfect in discerning the domestic desires of the electorate, but if he is widely off the mark on foreign policy he could easily lose to an opponent who is less correct on domestic policy, but less incorrect on foreign policy. No single candidate could possibly satisfy all the electors, however. In the modern nation state, individual electors have self-interests that are diametrically opposed to the interests of other electors. There are individuals whose well-being is served by economic growth and there are those who benefit by economic contraction or stagnation. So too, there are individuals whose welfare requires peace and those who benefit from tension. Each such interest is, in its own way, a legitimate one that the politician must in some sense take into account, for as long as peace and prosperity are not always society's condition, it has need of those who can deal with the alternatives. Pediatricians benefit directly from life; undertakers from death.

But while a politician can not satisfy electors who are diametrically opposed, neither can he ignore one class of elector or another, perhaps with the idea that because he can not possibly satisfy both, he will throw in his lot entirely with the one. Even when an issue can be settled by numerical voting, ninety-nine-to-one, the politician must attempt in some way to accommodate the one. At the extreme, if the issue settled ninety-nine-to-one is perceived by the one as in some way threatening his very survival or directly inviting his extinction, the one may resort to extralegal balloting to defend himself, perhaps even attempting assassination. In determining the consensus of the electorate, then, the successful politician does not view the electorate as a collection of numerical units, but as a bundle of individual interests each with a different set of intensities. To determine, for example, that the electorate desires a domestic chicken and a foreign eagle, the politician can not rely on public-opinion surveys, which merely measure numerical preferences. In 1975-76, as contenders for the presidential nominations began to assemble their political platforms, several of the Democratic hopefuls included a plank that called for the breaking up of the big U.S. petroleum companies. They relied chiefly on public-opinion polls that showed a majority of Americans favored such action. They did not seem to consider the possibility that the 55 percent who said they would approve such action felt far less intensely about their position than the 45 percent who disapproved and that the minority would more likely base their selection of a candidate on this issue than would the majority. The contender who took the mildest position relative to the oil companies was Jimmy Carter.

Indeed, on a range of domestic issues, Governor Carter's opponents were far more explicit and aggressive in their advocacy of ideas. But they frequently recommended policies that implied benefits to shifting majorities at the expense of minorities, i.e., take from the rich to give to the unrich, break up the big companies to benefit the little companies. While Carter seemed less sure of himself and was frequently criticized by his opponents for failure to advance clear specifics, he consistently seemed less threatening to the shifting minorities. A relative unknown, Carter was successful in winning the Democratic nomination by being less eager than his opponents to impose his political tastes on the electorate and at the same time openly conceding that his method was to attempt to gauge the desires of the electorate. His opponents at times criticized this admission as a lack of "leadership" on his part.

On the Republican side, Ronald Reagan almost won the nomination from the incumbent, Gerald Ford, by honing his positions to the reactions of his audiences. Reagan scored heavily on foreign policy, especially after critically raising the issue of the Panama Canal negotiations and arguing against the Ford administration's proposed "give away" of the Canal. Critics of Reagan accused him of "stirring up" the emotions of the voters in demagogic fashion. Reagan explained that he did not develop the issue for the voters, but was drawn into it by his audiences, who continued to encourage him to expand upon the theme after his first, almost accidental, mention of the issue in the earliest stages of the campaign.

Throughout his political career, Governor Reagan was frequently scorned as a mere "movie actor," but the one ingredient of his earlier career that he successfully carried over into politics was this sensitivity to audiences. The successful actor, comedian, and vaudevillian constantly strives to find what it is that audiences want and then attempts to give it to them. Stage plays are frantically reworked after testing in Philadelphia and Boston, when preconceptions of what will play are measured against theater electorates. Comedians throw out gags and routines that do not bring forth laughter, although they may have gone to great trouble and expense to have them written, yet are frequently astonished at the hilarity evoked by an "ad lib" which of course immediately becomes part of the routine. After President Ford lost a series of primaries to Reagan in the spring of 1976, his White House advisers grumbled that Ford was having a hard time "getting his act together." He did so just in time, at least sufficiently to win the GOP nomination, not by continuing to resist the message Reagan was obviously getting from the electorate (shall we say a foreign-policy "eagle"), but by incorporating much of it into his own routine. At the same time, though, Jimmy Carter was observing Reagan's success in reading this element of the electorate's wishes and weaving it into his own campaign. In the general election, Carter and Ford were almost indistinguishable in their offering of a foreign-policy eagle to the electorate, and the election appeared to turn on domestic issues, with Carter looking more like chicken than President Ford.