Paul Pillar

The Soft Quagmire of Low Expectations

I am struck by how quickly attention to last weekend's parliamentary election in Afghanistan has faded.  It was off the front pages within two days after the balloting, and by mid-week was pretty much gone from mainstream U.S. press coverage altogether.  One major aspect of the election result was low turnout, which could be due either to fears among would-be voters for their safety or disillusionment about the importance, legitimacy, or effect of the voting, or some combination of these reasons.  Whatever the exact cause, this result was not encouraging.  The other major aspect was indications of widespread fraud, including ballot boxes being either missing or stuffed, ink being scrubbed off fingers to permit multiple votes, and an open market in buying and selling votes, with the average price reported to be about $5 or $6--a low rate reflecting the poverty of Afghans more than any lack of buyers.  Also not encouraging.

Admittedly, none of this was surprising.  Afghans already were known not to be enthusiastic about how the political order in their country was shaping up, and rampant corruption in Afghanistan has been a long-running story.  So perhaps it is understandable that common reactions in the United States were either a ho-hum or an observation that it could have been worse.

The election, however, has major implications for what the United States and its allies are trying to do, at great cost, in stabilizing Afghanistan and facilitating the building of a legitimate new political order there.  By that measure, it is less understandable that the event should be treated as if it were just another crooked election of Chicago aldermen.

We are witnessing the common, psychologically explicable but often misleading, phenomenon of shifting a frame of reference.  Our conception of what is normal gets moved--in this case downward--and we then judge subsequent news as good or bad in comparison with the new reference point.  It's a little like executives at a corporation whose stock has dropped getting the strike price of their stock options lowered so that they can still profit if the stock goes back up (even though ordinary long-term shareholders do not wind up ahead at all).

The problem with such frame-shifting is that realities often don't shift as easily.  In many cases absolutes still matter more than gains or losses relative to a reference point that already has built in low expectations.  And so in some of these cases, Afghanistan included, we set ourselves up for feeling reassured about things going relatively well even though, by the standards that matter most, things aren't going well at all.