The Disconnect Between Policy and Politics

The Disconnect Between Policy and Politics November 7, 2014

One the strangest things on election night was watching the disconnect between referendums and elected officials. States that voted for a higher minimum wage and against personhood amendments by wide margins still elected mostly Republicans, who are strongly against the outcomes of those votes. Amanda Marcotte offers an explanation:

Four separate states voted to raise the minimum wage in their state last night: Alaska, Arkansas, South Dakota and Nebraska. In all four of those states, the Republican trounced the Democrat for the Senate election. This makes no kind of logical sense. Being against minimum wage hikes is the very essence of Republicanism. The whole point of the party, above all other considerations, is suppressing the lower classes to benefit the wealthy. Republicans range on the question of the minimum wage between hell-no-never-raise-it and I-should-be-able-to-pay-people-$1-a-day-if-I-want. A reasonable person might look at this disconnect between the people that the voters support and the policies voters want and wonder if voters really are that stupid.

I wish it were so simple! Then the solution would simply be to educate the voters, perhaps with big signs around the country that say, “Hey stupid, Republicans oppose the minimum wage.” But it’s just way more complex than that. Really, who you vote for relies heavily on the simple question of identity. While, in an ideal world, voting would be a simple act of counting up policies and voting for the ones you like the best, in our world, voting is an expression of identity, much like the clothes you wear or the music you like…

For Republican voters especially, I just don’t think these elections are really about policy but about striking back at the people who you think are “stealing” this country from you: single women, gay people, people of color, immigrants, liberal dudes who will probably wear baby slings when they become fathers…What we’re seeing is white people who think of themselves as “traditional” demanding that this country belongs to them and the rest of us are, at best, interlopers. Things like the minimum wage don’t even rate when identity issues like that, which strike to the core of who you imagine yourself to be, are on the table.

I think this is mostly accurate, though we should bear in mind that in states that are not very strongly conservative or liberal, elections are largely decided by swing voters without a strong party identification. But I think there’s a related factor as well: The power of fear. Fear is an incredibly strong psychological motivation and that translates to politics quite directly. And Republicans have mastered the art of appealing to fear — Ebola, ISIS, the commies are taking over, the Muslims are taking over, and so forth.

Psychological studies show us that conservatives respond far more strongly to fear of perceived threats than liberals do. They’re far less open to new experiences and far more threatened by societal change. When you combine tribalism with appeals to fear, I think this explains why so many people vote against their own interests so often.

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  • outraged

    Something else nobody seems willing to talk about are the damned voting machines. Touch screen voting with no paper trail has been a problem in past elections and with so many elections this cycle showing results so far off from the polling, it could be a factor. I don’t know why the Dem’s fear this topic so much, it hurts them the most, yet they refuse to go there.

    If the Republican’s can get traction from their demands for ID’s at the polls, why can’t the Democrats get the same kind of traction from demanding that it be possible to get accurate and fair recounts when needed? The R’s are constantly making up situations where the ID is a problem, but we have all kinds of situations where the machines have been a problem.

    I suspect that “WE” won’t ever be able to “Take our country back” until we can get fair elections and the machines would be a good place to start.

  • gopiballava

    Doesn’t this post assume that the voters who vote for a minimum wage increase and a republican are probably disagreeing with the republican on other issues as well? I read an interesting article arguing that there aren’t that many moderate voters, but rather voters who have extreme positions that cross party lines.

    If anything, a referendum item that goes against a party platform could enable more people to vote for them: a hypothetical voter who wants more school prayer and a higher minimum wage would be thrilled at the opportunity to vote to raise the minimum wage and to vote republican. The referendum gives this voter the opportunity to force the policy to change, and then the republican they elect can do the *other* policy things that this voter wants.

  • Ethan Myerson

    Honestly, I think there’s a large enough chuck of voters who perceive candidates as spokesmen, or “character leaders”. They vote for the people who match their own identity labels, without any thought as to whether those people will actually act in a way that is consistent with the voters’ own needs and desires.

    Once again we see the harm that comes when people allow themselves to become non-thinkers.

  • dingojack

    Ed – You’re rather assuming that the ‘market’ is rational.


  • Clearly, the Dems lost because they weren’t running far enough to the Right. The only solution is for the remaining Dems (the ones who won) to adopt GOP policies, like the Blue Dog Democrats (who lost) did.


    The whole point of the party, above all other considerations, is suppressing the lower classes to benefit the wealthy.

    Balderpucky! Their whole point is to free the lower classes from the chains of government in any way assisting them. You should be thanking the GOP! After all, they’re moving all of those terrible chains on to the backs of the wealthy!


    When you combine tribalism with appeals to fear, I think this explains why so many people vote against their own interests so often.

    To be fair, The Poors taking my money and giving me ebola is pretty scary.

  • Then again, there seem to be too few Democratic candidates who dare to publicly support minimum wage increases or abortion rights. So even if normally Republican-leaning voters might strongly care about these issues, why would they cross party lines and vote for Democrats if they can’t be expected to fight for them either?

  • jd142

    I wonder what the possibility is that the there were some actual thoughtful voters out there who really followed their beliefs. If you believe that the federal government is incredibly limited in its power and that the states have the real power, then the minimum wage votes would make sense at least.

    At the state level, where the right to set a minimum wage rests (or that is their belief), they did want to increase minimum wage. But they sent someone to Washington who thinks there should be no federally mandated minimum wage.

    Of course, the number of voters on either side who actually think through the consequences of their beliefs and vote accordingly is vanishingly small.

  • It’s not complicated: referendums aren’t affected by gerrymandering. Candidates are.

  • jd142

    @breaplum – This.

  • gopiballava

    “I wonder what the possibility is that the there were some actual thoughtful voters out there who really followed their beliefs.”

    I find that highly implausible. It’s hard enough to find people who will merely criticize the right actions performed at the wrong bureaucratic level. I can’t imagine there are many people who’d actually vote for a party who want to do, in the view of the voter, the wrong thing merely because the right thing should be state-based not federal. It seems to me that most supposedly principled arguments I see are by people who actually don’t like the policy.

    (The ability of people to see and understand the principles behind their positions is maddeningly poor. I talked to one guy who was talking about how you shouldn’t limit guns merely because people do stupid things with them. Next sentence, when I ask him what he thinks about legalizing pot, he asks if I’d want a stoned person repairing my airplane. He just did not see the connection…)

    Here’s the article I was referring to earlier:

  • raven

    People keep trying to find explanations for why the party that produced the Iraq war and the Great Recession now controls congress. This fear and identity politics is plausible although I’d like to see more data. I don’t have one myself. But am as dismayed and astounded by it all as anyone can be.

    I’m afraid too, of Oogedy Boogedy xian ignorant idiots and class warfare by the ultra-rich and corporations, which they are decisively winning without even much effort. That is why I donated and voted Democratic.

    Hard to say when it is time to realize a once great nation of 319 million people lemmings just decided to run over a cliff. We are so close. I should just raise a glass of wine or two and start spending more time with the cats.

  • raven

    I’ll toss my 7 cents in here just for fun. So why did the Dems lose?

    *It’s the economy, stupid!!! it’s the economy, stupid!!! It’s the economy, stupid!!! Bill Clinton had it right long ago. While fear and tribal identity might have played a part, it’s clear that our economy had a huge amount to do with it.

    Unemployment is still high. There are way fewer good jobs with living wages available. Jobs come and go more often. Statistics say the middle class is shrinking rapidly and household assets are shrinking faster, on average. The economy is growing but slowly and there is no light in sight at the end of the tunnel. To summarize: Life in the USA is harder now than it was not too long ago.

    So: My list.

    1. The floundering economy particularly for the middle class.

    2. Tribalism, tribal identity politics. The USA is on track to become minority white by 2030-2040 or so. That makes a lot of whites nervous.

    3. Fear.

  • coffeehound

    The economy IS getting better. For large corporations. All indices are that we are in a recovery ,the problem is that the average voter isn’t going to feel it because wages are still stagnating and as the years go by we’ll all still have to work harder to make the same dollar; so has been the progression for the last 20 or more years. Repubs can make an argument that things haven’t gotten better because things don’t feel better. The bitter irony is that Americans then vote in the people who are LESS likely to do jack about income inequality as a matter of their formal platform. People will have to get over their collective stupidity and realize that making a change is not enough, there has to be a change that favors more money in more pockets. When shit hits the skids again because enough people aren’t spending in the local economies the Repubs next move will be to blame the onerous EPA and job killing federal regulations( ignoring the fact that EVERYBODY’S working for chump change); Let’s see if Americans wise the fuck up.

  • Pierce R. Butler

    breaplum @ # 8: … referendums aren’t affected by gerrymandering. Candidates are.

    Except for gubernatorial and US Senate candidates, unless you count state boundaries fixed well over a century ago as gerrymandering.