Folk wisdom in politics

Earlier I wrote about the intuitions of political scientists by considering the results that they labeled counterintuitive. I thought that I would give it another shot by trying something a bit more direct. This time I searched through political science journals (all of the main ones available in JSTOR) for the phrase “folk wisdom”. 

This phrase captures something a bit different than intuition, probably more what the public or practitioners believe than the intuitions of experts, though in some cases below I think it is the wisdom of political scientists that is referred to (e.g., the effect of the economy on elections). 

I preferred ‘folk wisdom’ to the more common ‘conventional wisdom’ mainly because the latter would include more the consensus view of experts or the previous literature than something more popular and intuitive (plus it narrowed down the number of hits from over 8000 to under 300).

I wasn’t able to get a clear reading of the results. My expectation was that the public’s folk wisdom would emphasize the importance of politicians’ character/personality for elections and performance while the professional wisdom would highlight institutions/incentives, ie, the standard debate between journalists and political scientists. I didn’t see so much of this at least in the mentions of “folk wisdom” that I tracked down.

I’ve divided the results below into folk wisdom on elections, foreign affairs, governing, and general matters. If readers see any interesting patterns or have ideas of where to search for more folk wisdom on politics, feel free to send them on and I’ll update this post. 


Much of the folk wisdom concerns elections. The key bits are the following:

  • The economy plays a key role in elections

  • Midterm congressional elections are a referendum on the president

  • Presidential candidates have an advantage in their home state

  • Negatives count more than positives in the assessment of incumbents

  • Large war chests are built to deter challengers

  • Elections are won or lost based on turning out supporters (and turnout matters even more strongly to left-wing parties)

  • Winning votes is not the same as winning voters (specifically, mobilization is not enlistment; defection is not conversion; and detachment is not reattachment)

  • There is a last-minute swing to the governing party

  • Those who report voting in the past are more likely to vote in the future

In one case there were dueling folk wisdoms, to wit:

  • Never allow an attack to go unanswered

  • Do not lend credibility to negative attacks by responding to them 

This contradiction flummoxed John Kerry in 2004 as the article in question notes.

Some of the folk wisdoms were more specific to particular elections, whether voter alienation had a key role in 1992, the effect of fused minor-party ballot lines in New York, and the failure of the right to coalesce in Poland in 1993. One author noted the folk wisdom on British elections about shy Tories and support for tax-cutters in the privacy of the polling booth.

Another concerned the demographics of poll workers: they are reputedly older women with little technological proficiency.

Foreign Affairs

The folk wisdom on foreign affairs was more diverse but more imperative.

  • Stick with leaders in time of war (don’t change horses midstream)

  • Politics stops at water’s edge

  • Today’s friend might turn out to be tomorrow’s enemy

  • Ambition imposes a price and carries within itself the seeds of its own destruction

  • There must be unity of command and authority in military affairs

Some more specific folk wisdoms claimed that chemical and biological weapons are the poor man’s atomic bomb (and therefore would not be sought by states that have nuclear weapons) and that military systems built to control nuclear forces are so complicated that they cannot be all that safe.


There was a good amount of folk wisdom on the behavior of politicians in government, much of it assuming that politicians are rational and self-interested actors as I found for the intuitions of political scientists.

The behavior of members of Congress was most prominent with the wisdom reflecting a Mayhewian rational choice logic except perhaps for the last.

  • Congressmen do not always vote sincerely

  • One must go along to get along - i.e., successful legislators must place institutional harmony before personal, political, or policy ambitions

  • Senators alter their positions and activities as reelection approaches

  • Members of Congress get on committees because of their interests, the distribution of preferences among the intensely interested is different from the chamber at large, and committee positions can prevail in chamber debates

  • Leadership has more influence than committees in Congress

  • Senate leadership races are determined by non-systematic components like 'friendship' or whether members have neighboring lockers in the Senate gym

Some considered bureaucrats:

  • Bureaucracies are inefficient and unresponsive

  • Bureaucrats respond to budget cuts by exaggerating, or even deliberately aggravating, their effects (aka sore thumbs, bleeding stumps, Washington Monument Ploy)

  • Presidential appointees serve only two years (they are "birds of passage")

There was one piece of folk wisdom focused on parliamentary systems:

  • Surplus cabinets provide insurance against defection in times of high uncertainty or low party discipline

And a couple of others were more general but based on self-interest:

  • Decentralized power is less dangerous than centralized power

  • Control follows the dollar


Some of this folk wisdom concerns the preferences of the public. They span a variety of psychologies from maturation to resentment to negativity bias to self-interest.

  • People become more conservative as they age

  • Hollywood is pervasively liberal

  • Marginal settlements in Latin America are breeding grounds for radical political activity

  • Losers are more likely than gainers to notice losses and feel aggrieved (whenever he named someone to a position, he created 99 malcontents and one ingrate)

  • Manufacturers are protectionist and those in agriculture favor freer trade

There were competing folk wisdoms that personal intimacy with blacks does and doesn't improve interracial attitudes.

A handful considered the media:

  • Major news networks have political bias

  • Newspapers shill for local members of Congress by giving them lots of favorable ink

And another few considered the outcomes of these preferences:

  • The public must be knowledgeable for democracy to survive

  • Men should not put their faith in good times; he who has relied on prosperity will come to grief

  • An active citizenry is necessary not only to puncture communist regimes but also to build democracy


Finally, many of the mentions of folk wisdom referred to a more general wisdom that could apply equally inside and outside of politics. These correspond more closely to the proverbial wisdom described by Elster.

  • More money does not necessarily bring more happiness

  • Aggression is a more masculine personality attribute and men are more conflictual than women

  • Anyone with a little common sense and a few facts can come up at once with the correct answer on any subject

  • Level-headedness and practical common sense are ordinarily on the side of the middle way

  • Rules are (still) rules

  • The winners write the history

  • Beginnings require endings

  • You wouldn't like that if it was done to you/Do unto others as you would be done by

  • Risk nought implies gain nought

  • Know my words, know me

Concluding thoughts

It’s a bit hard to draw conclusions from this mishmash and clearly a lot of folk wisdom is missing. I’d be curious to see more folk wisdom along the lines of the Washington Monument ploy. I feel like I don’t have a good handle on a lot of political interactions that are obvious to practitioners or subfield specialists. I suppose that is what I was looking for in my review of the Axelrod and Rove masterclass on campaigning as well. The place I usually learn this stuff, about American politics at least, is Matt Glassman’s blog and twitter account. In any case, I’ll keep looking. Feel free to send me ideas.

PS: Wolfgang Mieder has written about the use of proverbs/folk wisdom in politics. His book includes case studies of Lincoln and Frederick Douglas as well as of the following pieces of folk wisdom:

  • Different strokes for different folks

  • God helps those who help themselves

  • Government of the people, by the people, and for the people

  • Good fences make good neighbors

  • A house divided against itself cannot stand

  • It’s not a president’s business to catch flies

  • We are all in the same boat now

  • Do unto others as you would have them do unto you