Yes, there’s a word for this.
Commentators today (enough, at least, that I needn’t bother linking) are viewing last night’s GOP victory in Massachusetts not just for what it is – a potentially staggering setback to healthcare reform – but, more prominently, as a potential reflection on “the president’s agenda,” on “the country’s direction,” as “a referendum” on all our none of these things.Potentially it involves the Red Sox.But the fact is, we do actually have an electoral ballot measure called a referendum. These are the annoying little questions at the end of everyone’s ballot that ask about issues that most people have no real capacity to answer; occasionally they do things like affect the fate of same-sex marriage in Maine. But last night was a special election: none of these things were on the agenda.
Unlike every major election since, I’m guessing here, Dewey failed to actually defeat Truman, there was no professional exit polling conducted last night. As Slate rightly points out, we can’t know whether women left Coakley’ s camp or whether elderly voters were really tickled by Scott Brown’s truck.
Representative democracy tricks us into thinking that limited events genuinely reflect the will, motive, and fundamental being of a people. They do not. All told, last night, 100,000 voters were the final margin of victory for the nation’s newest Senator. These people live in a state that already mandates universal healthcare coverage. That their collective will could somehow reflect the national impulse to extend healthcare to another 40 million separate individuals is preposterous. This fallacy isn’t just limited to politics; it’s latent in the assumption that the most popular show on television is really watched by a majority of the populace. But it’s always the simplest, most readily gobbled narrative. Because we’re accustomed to living in a country of We the People, where a part always stands in for a whole, we tend to see every action as a movement, rather than what it might be instead: a sample population less than the size of Fenway Park itself.
Follow-up: Conor Friedersdorf detects a second fallacy – the assumption that any outcome reflects whatever my worldview happens to be. Generally we call this politics.