Roger’s Rules

Forget About the "Bradley Effect." It's the Berkeley Effect that Matters

Will racism be a factor in this election? Is the Pope Catholic? Of course racism will be a factor in the contest between Barack Obama and John McCain. After all, somewhere in excess of 95 percent of black voters are expected to pull the lever (or fill in the dot) for Obama on November 4. That’s a statistic any dictator would be proud of. And once Acorn gets through fabricating voter registrations, the number will probably rise to 123 percent, give or take a point.

So, yes, racism will likely play a role in the election, but it won’t be the only sort of racism Team Obama allows in its lexicon, i.e., white racism. A month or two ago, there was some speculation about whether the so-called “Bradley Effect” would ultimately hurt Obama. The “Bradley Effect” is named after Tom Bradley, the black candidate for governor of California in 1982 who was ahead in the polls but ultimately lost to the white candidate. How could that be? asked the pollsters and pundits. “Racism” was the all-purpose answer: People told the pollsters they were intending to vote for Bradley–that was the socially acceptable thing to say to a pollster–but, once in the privacy of the voting booth, their secret, deep-seated racism came forward and they did the wrong thing.

Maybe. Or maybe the pollsters just got it wrong. In any event, the power of the Bradley Effect, if it exists, has been widely discounted in this race (see, e.g., here), partly because pollsters say that they now have mechanisms to account for it, partly because Obama is presented as the candidate who “transcends race” (while cinching 95-plus percent of the black vote–now that’s transcendence!).

In short, you can forget about the Bradley Effect. What you should keep your eye on, however, is the Berkeley Effect, a hitherto insufficiently acknowledged psephological phenomenon I name after George, Bishop Berkeley, the 18th-century theologian, proselytizer on behalf of the virtues of tar-water, and philosophical metaphysician. Berkeley–the name, by the way, is pronounced “Barclay,” as in “barking mad”–believed that the physical world existed only in the perception of God. “To be,” he said, “is to be perceived.” You might think that the computer screen upon which you are reading this exists “out there” as an independent reality; really, though, it exists as an idea in the infinite mind of God. Our “perception” of the computer screen depends from moment to moment on God’s gracious intervention.

In essence, as the philosopher David Stove put it, Berkeley’s philosophy promulgates the doctrine of “universal hallucination.” Silly stuff, but it’s kept many philosophers in business for two and a half centuries now.

I bring it to your attention because there are, I believe, marked similarities between the media perception of Barack Obama and Bishop Berkeley’s idealism. Both depend on what the poet Coleridge, in another context, called “the willing suspension of disbelief.” The admirable thing about Berkeley’s philosophy is its consistency. Granted its premises, it is a marvelously coherent construction: quite beautiful in its elaboration. Its one defect–rather a large defect, alas–is its distance from reality. It sounds dandy; it accounts for everything; only it is utterly insane.

So it is with Obama’s campaign. For example, everyone likes to hear a candidate say he is going to cut taxes for 95 percent of tax payers. But when you ask how he plans to do that, especially  when 40 percent of those who file pay no taxes to begin with, you are met with a blank, or rather, with a hostile stare. In fact, as has been shown over and over, Obama’s tax plan is in large part a covert campaign to re-institute the discredited welfare policies of the Great Society. You might have thought those policies were as thoroughly discredited as a social policy could be. You would be correct. But you would be wrong to think that just because a policy has been tried and failed, just because it has been retried and had been discredited, it would therefore be permanently retired.

No, bad ideas never die. They just lie dormant until some clever politician manages to repackage them in sufficiently seductive rhetoric. Nowadays, you don’t say “Property is theft,” as did Proudhon. You don’t say you want to “redistribute wealth,” which is a fundamental aim of Marxism. You don’t say you want to nationalize health care and transform independent citizens into wards of the state. You talk instead about “fairness” and tell people who accuse you of preventing them from realizing the American dream that you just want to “spread the wealth around.”

Does it work? Up to a point. Eventually, though, reality has a nasty habit of intruding and upsetting the hallucination. A witty anonymous blogger has drawn on Clever Hans, the famous calculating horse, and the psychological experiments about conformity that Solomon Ashe conducted at Swarthmore College in the early 1960s, to argue that Obama’s performance in the polls owes much to certain habits self-deluding exaggeration among Obama’s supporters and their allies in the media. “Will the exaggerations become a self-fulfilling prophecy,” he asks, “as assumed, or are Obama supporters spinning further and further away from reality, constructing one unsupportable exaggeration on top of another — only to be stunned on election day when the actual results, once again, don’t match either their pre-vote opinion polling or their post-vote exit polling?”

I think there’s a good chance that the latter will happen. Sure, Obama might win. But the American public is, when you come right down to it, a heartily pragmatic lot. Confronted with hallucinations as public policy, I expect a good many of them to react as did Samuel Johnson when Boswell asked him whether he could refute Bishop Berkeley’s contention that the physical world did not really exist. Dr. Johnson drew back his booted foot and administered a stout kick to a convenient rock. “I refute it thus,” he told Boswell. Pedants will object that Johnson’s action did not constitute a refutation. Quite right. But it did constitute an thoroughgoing repudiation. That will be good enough for me on November 4.