Vote your feelings

Why the passage of progressive policies doesn't necessarily mean voters want progressive candidates

Last week, in a referendum, Florida voters approved a $15 minumum wage in the state and, on the exact same ballot, voted against a Presidential candidate who favors a nationwide $15 minimum wage. In 2018, Florida voters approved restoring voting rights to convicted felons; that year, they also elected a governor who did much to undo that referendum, and this year, they re-elected the Republican majority in the state legislature that helped the governor undo it.

This apparent conflict between the policies voters favor and the politicians they support is not just a quirk of the Sunshine State. This past summer, Oklahoma voters approved Medicaid expansion; the Republican governor and the Republican majority those same voters elected to the state legislature oppose it.

If you pay attention to debates on the political left, you will hear people say that the broad public support for progressive policies means the Democratic Party ought to put forward more progressive candidates who will advance those policies. The party’s obstinate commitment to centrism is an electoral liability, on this account. Why not just give people the progressive agenda they want?

This view makes an obvious sort of sense. But as the results in Florida and elsewhere show, it’s not entirely correct. Voters do like progressive policies; they support them in referendums all the time. They just don’t like progressive politicians. And the reason, I think, is that most people just do not vote for candidates based on policy, even when a candidate’s policies would clearly benefit them.

A referendum forces the policy decision: yea or nay. When choosing how to fill a public office, though, you’re deciding on a person, and our views of people don’t boil down to what those people say about issues.

Dorothy Fortenberry recently argued in Commonweal that politics often comes down to feeling. “Politics is no longer the arena in which we solve our collective problems together,” she writes. “It’s the forum where we go to feel our feelings with and at each other.” Donald Trump has benefited from this, Fortenberry claims, because “he makes everything feel bigger.”

I am hardly immune from letting feeling drive my thoughts about candidates. Elizabeth Warren made me feel great. People talk about Trump as an aspirational figure, someone men want to be like. I don’t know if that’s true, but I definitely want to be like Warren: smart, funny, tenured at Harvard. She makes me feel like the nerds would win, like I would be President. Joe Biden was a winning candidate, I think, because while he isn’t very exciting, he stirs up few negative feelings in most people. And in some moments, like when he’s looking straight into a camera at a debate, he can make people feel cared-for, like their pain is understood.

Like Fortenberry, I don’t think this is an ideal scenario for a deliberative democracy. The point, though, is not to blame voters for their picks. Rather, I think human psychology isn’t really set up to respond rationally to policy proposals.

As Louis Menand argued in a 2004 New Yorker essay called “The Unpolitical Animal,” most people vote based on “heuristics,” mental shortcuts that range from feeling to party identification to whether “I am better off now than I was four years ago.” (On that last note, 56% of Americans whom Gallup polled in October said they were better off now, compared to 2016. Only 32% said they were worse off.) Menand remarks that “when people do focus on specific policies they are often unable to distinguish their own interests.”

In We’re Still Here, her book on politics and the working class in the anthracite region of Northeast Pennsylvania, the sociologist Jennifer Silva spoke with many people who opposed generous public benefit programs like food stamps. Some of these very same people were benefting from those programs. Similarly, people quoted in the book expressed positive views toward Bernie Sanders but disapproved of policies Sanders supports, such as a substantially higher minimum wage. In 2012, voters in Minnesota expressed disdain for the very proposals that will materially benefit them.

None of this means the Democratic Party should give up on progressive policies. It does mean, though, that if it wants to get those policies enacted, it is going to have to be realistic about the psychological terrain on which it’s deploying candidates who support those policies. That may mean putting less emphasis on policy and more on the quality of candidates. (A strategy I think Biden basically pursued; his actual policy agenda was fairly progressive, but the election was always going to be an up-or-down vote on Trump.) And progressives within the party probably ought to push for referendums wherever possible.

Just my thoughts. And what do I know? I don’t even have a podcast.

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