Friday, August 15, 2008

Who's to Blame?

An interesting article looks at the role of political sophistication and assigning blame about Hurricane Katrina. The abstract sums it up nicely: more politically sophisticated Louisiana residents were less likely to blame the federal government or the president for the lousy response to the storm than were residents of less political sophistication.

The authors use eight political knowledge items to measure sophistication. Fine, though others criticize this as tapping only one of many dimensions of this concept. I tend to agree with the knowledge approach as being adequate. Not great, but okay.

A multivariate model (meaning various factors statistically control for one another) looks at what predicts the likelihood of blaming the president for the Katrina response. Being evacuated, being older, and being Republican (no surprise) were associated with being less likely to see the president as "among those most responsible" for the sucky response. Even with all these other variables controlled for, people with greater sophistication (i.e., political knowledge) were less likely to blame the prez and instead spread the blame around to state and local officials.

What's this mean? Are politically knowledgeable people fans of George W. Bush? No, probably not. These people are more likely to understand the responsibilities and failings of various levels of government rather than rely on a single anchor, like the prez, as a reason for crappy response to a national tragedy. My own take is this: less sophisticated people look for an easy way to make sense of the world, and blaming the president (whether deserved or not) is one of those.

We're all to some degree cognitive misers, we all to some degree use mental shortcuts to make sense of the world. The less we know, the more important these become.

How do the media fit in this? Journalists love focusing on individuals, or finding people willing to blame individuals. The complexities of the process don't work, especially on TV, and the "blame game" that goes on in our highly partisan times also plays right into this. Some people, though, see a bigger, more complex picture. Not to say the Bush Administration had a clue in Katrina. It didn't. But neither did a lot of others at the state and local level.

Full Disclosure: my wife is a Cajun from south of New Orleans.

No comments: