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.