“The politico’s error is to see voters as particles that are acted upon by political forces…”

My only problem with Janan Ganesh’s  piece in the FT today (and the Irish Times) is that’s not possible to quote all of it. I recommend reading it in conjunction with Martyn Turner’s Politics of Fear cartoon as the Irish commentariat works itself up about a whole lot of things that are unlikely to happen.

He starts with an invitation to look back a year to look at the news stories from February 23rd, 2015, to see just how utterly beside the point most political commentary turns into after the passage of even a short time.

He notes too that the political classes themselves have learned little in the passage of that last year…

Breathless hyper-scrutiny of fiddly events could have given way to a discriminating regard for fundamentals. Opinion polls could have returned to their proper place as contextual information, not the story itself.

Instead, we still react to transient events like over-caffeinated children.

He continues…

The politico’s error is to see voters as particles that are acted upon by political forces – as the subjects, not the agents of politics. If people are Eurosceptic, it is because politicians have not “made the case”.

If people are nervous about Brexit, it must be the lack of a dazzling frontperson for the cause. The sour focus on economic risk by the campaign against Scottish independence 18 months ago – just a tactic, and a successful one – is now blamed for a development as large as the Scottish National Party’s near-monopoly in that nation.

If you believe voters are blank subjects, you judge the electability of a proposition – in this case, Brexit – by looking at the people promoting it, their campaign tactics, the slant of the media coverage, contingent events, the wind-chill factor on polling day.

Everything but the proposition itself. [Emphasis added]

Do read all of it

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  • Paul Hagan

    Politics is chemistry, not physics

  • mickfealty

    Go on Paul, tease that out a bit further?

  • Reader

    Just a guess – that it relates to groupings and bonds rather than force and inertia?
    However, that may be true of Irish politics, but much less so for GB politics.

  • Kevin Breslin

    “All science is either physics or stamp collecting.”

    Ernest Rutherford, 1st Baron Rutherford of Nelson, OM PC FRS (30 August 1871 – 19 October 1937) was a Nobel Prize winning nuclear physicist from New Zealand.

    Winner of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry (1908)

    “Yes, I’d be a physicist with a Nobel Prize in chemistry. Everyone laugh at the circus freak.”

    Jim Parsons as Dr. Sheldon Cooper,

    Big Bang Theory Season 7, Episode 10 The Discovery Dissipation.

    Pretty much sums up the perception and reality of science in popular culture.

  • Kevin Breslin

    In terms of physics, of course people behave like particles, the de Broglie Equation says so. They make very bad waves within the realms of anthropological conception but technically everyone is a a wave too.


    “Finally! What is the wavelength of a human being? Assuming he/she weighs 70 kg, and is being fired at 25 m/s, it’s about 3.79 x 10^-37 meters.”

    I’m going to disagree with a lot of the analysis about modelling people as particles.
    People are modeled as particles all the time in financial models. Our economic system is based on modelling people as particles, determining prices,

    If we didn’t model people of particles we wouldn’t use statistics, or the statistical rules that were derived from studying particles.

    Different people respond differently to political forces, but then so do different types of particles.

    We talk about someone’s “magnetism” or someone being “electrifying” in a debate … even “people tend to gravitate towards” … all physics analogies.

    Oh well but people unlike particles don’t always take the path of least resistance provided by their external environment … actually particles don’t either, they can tunnel through resistance with enough energy.

    Quantum tunneling effects like these may unlock the origin of consciousness, free will and free choice, these little effects can be why I’m making one argument and why you may criticize it.

    People are particles acted on by forces, political people will be effected by a political force in differing ways … just like different particles act differently under the same force.

  • Greenflag 2

    In Ireland and elsewhere it’s very often biology . Which side your family were on in the Uncivil War used to and still largely determines who people will vote for .

  • Greenflag 2

    Good lord next it’ll be the impact of the Higgs Boson on Scottish voting patterns in the next referendum . The Particle Party of the Republic of Dyslexia rules – K.O 😉 It’s Friday GE 16 day and the particles are on their way to the hustings but about a third of particles will choose not to participate in the quantum universe of the politics of physics or versa vice as they’d say in Dyslexia ;;)

  • Greenflag 2

    The PR system in Ireland facilitates local personality politics much more so than the Westminster FPTP system but ‘personality /chemistry still has an impact .

    Why does Donald Trump win 45% of the Hispanic vote in Nevada when logically he should have garnered about 0.05 % based on some of his more outlandish comments . Still I can’t imagine Paisley ever getting more than 1% of Catholic votes in his old constituency .Some particles I guess are more inert than others ;)?

    Question of the day .

    Why do so many people take an instant dislike to Ted Cruz ?
    Answer ;

    Because it saves time !

  • MainlandUlsterman

    Isn’t that exactly the problem with the “rational actor” theory of traditional economics, as holed below the waterline by Kahneman and Tversky? People are treated by the models as ‘econs’ rather than acting in the way humans actually act.

    I tend to agree with the case Ian McGilchrist made in “The Master and his Emissary”, that in Western culture since the Enlightenment we’ve tended to favour the types of thinking that are based around manipulating dead systems. We’ve given less weight to understanding elements of human life that are less measurable. His Animate for the RSA is worth a watch on that, if you have 10 minutes: https://www.thersa.org/discover/videos/rsa-animate/2011/10/rsa-animate—the-divided-brain/ Really interesting stuff I think.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    If it’s any science it’s psychology, surely … but actually I think it’s no accident politicians tend not to be from the ‘hard sciences’. The hard sciences tend to train people in ways of thinking that are not always that helpful when dealing with the reality of people’s lives and what matters to them.

  • Kevin Breslin

    Well in someways I guess, central banks and financiers are the measurement system for finance but there is calibration problems with them being the control system too.

    Finance and economics is confessional cannot measure the contribution random human behaviors have on markets in isolation. What it does is measure/speculate on things like commodities and assets that can determine human behavior.

    If there’s high production i.e. high supply it can drive up consumption i.e. high demand just like temperature can rise if there’s heat applied to a system. However in both cases there is “disorder” in the form of entropy in terms of the particles and possibly irrationality in terms of the people. That doesn’t mean we can’t measure supplies and demands through commerce and extrapolate some insights into human behavior.


    If we don’t measure these things we can have unwitting Malthusian catastrophes. Which is probably why “Rational” and “Rationing” have the same word origin.

  • Greenflag 2

    Very true . Margaret Thatcher was a Chemistry Graduate but I think she never ‘practiced ‘ or perhaps for only a brief period . Angela Merkel the German Kanzlerin was a Physics Graduate and only became involved in politics when the Berlin Wall came down . As to HIlary Clinton -I know not

    Lots of folks don’t like to hear somebody say ‘If you’ve got a headache take an aspirin ‘ It may sound less than empathetic despite being sound advice ; ) Its as the man said not what you say but how you say it and to whom . Whatever you say say nothin is probably good advice for those of us who are to outspoken and being able to say nothin while saying saying something is the modern politicians most frequently used electoral trait 😉

  • MainlandUlsterman

    also, much as politicians are reviled, they usually have some people skills – and to the extent they don’t, it holds them back, as indeed it should. Otherwise we’d be run by super bright fellows of All Souls like John Redwood who can’t actually lead people (because they look down on us) and who see the problems of the country as an intellectual puzzle that only the likes of them have meaningful ideas about solving. You do need some people like that, the chess champions of this world – but in the civil service, de-politicised, not representing or dealing with the public. Even in the civil service, they should answer to colleagues who get people a bit better than they do.

    I’m not saying ‘hard’ scientists can’t get people but their training and inclination certainly doesn’t make it easy. I am very opposed to technocracy and feel strongly that arts and humanities graduates bring something to the table in terms of outlook and disposition that is currently undervalued in society and in government – circumspection and a comfort with the grey areas of life.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    we do still need to measure, but I know from the research industry that we fell into the trap for many decades of thinking what was readily measurable was what was important.

    Also, realising (as the research industry largely now does) that people’s behaviour and thinking is a mountainous topography and not a flat plain, where and what you measure, and why, has changed quite a lot. You can’t do economics, or research, these days without some idea of behavioural economics, which in turn is based on how people’s minds actually work.

  • Greenflag 2

    ‘circumspection and a comfort with the grey areas of life’

    FF or what I call the ‘fudge factor ‘ not the Irish political party though that FF were always more cognisant of ‘fudge ‘ in politics than their political rivals . And some would now say they have been ‘reborn ‘ thanks to the fortuitous juxtapositin of their inherent ‘fudginess ‘ and the current political and economic situation in the Republic .

    The Old Unionist Party of NI was never into fudge – It never had to be . It was a black and white world (orange and green ) and grey was nowhere to be seen or heard . It worked for five decades until the other side stopped playing the game . When one team wins all the time -eventually the others decide the game is rigged and stop playing according to the old rules . The late Enoch Powell though a ‘humanities ‘ scholar of some repute did not possess enough of the ‘fudge factor ‘ to survive in politics in Britain . He did however prolong his career in Northern Ireland where his lack of fudge was less of a hindrance . In times of political turmoil a larger than normal percentage of the population will turn their backs on fudge and seek political or national salvation from those with a simpler black and white perspective on why the ‘world ‘ is nt fair any more to people like ‘us ‘ while ‘they ‘ get everything they want .

    Churchill who was skeptical of democracy was even more skeptical of rule by experts – Experts (by which he meant scientists ) should be on tap but never on top ( by which he meant in political power ) . Its the nature of speciality i.e knowing everything about one area of life that inhibits (not in every case ) a broader knowledge of the human political animal . The American Presidential candidate Ben Carson – a brain surgeon – is perhaps the best current example of this ‘fact ‘ . While I’d certainly trust the man to operate on what’s remaining of my brain cell I’d have much less confidence in his political presidential talents .