As the heat of our divisions approaches the boiling point, we’d be wise to remember what unites us – politics. That’s right, Americans are solidly united on almost all of the major political issues of our time.
Americans consistently support the following policies:
– Public funding for Planned Parenthood (75%)
– A carbon tax to fight climate change (57%)
– Stricter environmental regulations (59%)
– Mandatory gun registration (70%)
*that figure includes 48% of gun owners.
– Raising taxes on the wealthy (78%)
– The right to same sex marriage (64%)
– Paid maternal leave (82%)
– Increasing SNAP benefits (81%)
– Tuition-free college (63%)
*includes a plurality of Republicans
– Allowing DREAMers to stay in the US (87%)
– A $15/hour minimum wage (73%)
– Marijuana legalization (64%)
– Access to abortion in some or all circumstances (82%)
– A plurality of Americans support a universal basic income (43%), and only a quarter are opposed.
– Even single-payer healthcare (51%)
Here are some policies that Americans oppose:
– Decreasing immigration (65% opposed)
– Building a border wall (60% opposed)
– The GOP tax plan (50% opposed). Think about that. Republicans can’t get broad public support for giving away free money.
What’s going on here? If public support on this slate of issues is so clear, why are candidates even in the Democratic Party so reluctant to embrace this entire platform? More to the point, why haven’t these polices become law?
Part of the problem is messaging. Take a look at polling on immigration, where Americans are overwhelmingly aligned in favor in principle. Depending on how the subject is presented to them, specifically which metaphors are used (like “open borders”), poll results shift radically. You can see this clearly in polling on Trump’s Muslim travel ban. Across roughly the same time period in 2017, 53% opposed the travel ban while 60% supported it. The difference was mostly in wording. In other “words, ” the public mandate on many of these issues is not as clear as polling might make it appear.
A sorting problem further complicates the matter. Each of those individual issues may have majority support, but a platform containing all of them might not. Certain “blocking issues” may prevent some voters from endorsing a platform containing certain other planks they support. One of those prominent blocking issues is the 20-week abortion ban. More than 80% of voters support abortion rights in some or all cases, but they are evenly divided on the 20-week ban. A lot of the same people who would like to see a gun registry and paternal leave may care far more about banning late term abortion, inspiring them to vote for politicians who prioritize abortion.
Some of the division we see rises from the fine details of policy implementation. Voters may favor single-payer healthcare in the abstract. However, once confronted with the details it becomes tougher to hold a coalition together. When an issue moves from being a single question, do you support this, to the realities of the drafting phase support becomes muddy. At the drafting phase, a matter like single payer with majority support descends into a question of implementing perhaps 15,000 or so individual policies, any one of which might draw ire. As with the ACA or even last year’s GOP tax cuts, that drafting phase introduces endless opportunities for “death panel” style demagoguery and misinformation that can drain support.
Building a large, complex new policy program in our system is like trying to fly a commercial airliner by letting passengers vote on every decision. Polls will show that passengers overwhelmingly oppose any plan to crash the plane, but they’ll do it anyway.
Contours of our own system, engineered to grant overwhelming power to rural voters, further blunts popular will. When most Americans lived on farms, the anti-democratic influence of this model wasn’t so pronounced. Since the late 19th century, only two Presidents have assumed office after losing the popular vote, they were our last two Republicans.
Barring some massive shift back toward rural life in the next two decades, by 2040 70% of Americans will be ruled by a Senate elected by the other 30%. Republicans earned only 49% of the total popular vote in 2016 Congressional races. That tiny margin netted them a massive Congressional majority. Between the manipulation of district boundaries and the geographic concentration of Democrats in a few densely packed cities, the rules of our system grant enormously disproportionate weight to rural voters, who tend to be white, less educated, and elderly.
Finally, at the end of the day, the disorganized, atomized will of individual voters simply doesn’t matter much. Smart, successful politicians, the ones who manage to stay in office, choose policies based on feedback from the following sources:
– Major donors.
– Direction from party leaders in their body (House, Senate, City Council, etc.).
– Noisy interest groups with a following in their districts (PP, NRA, etc.).
– National party positions.
– Advice from staff.
– Feedback from county party chairmen, precinct leaders, etc. in their district.
– Positioning by other officeholders in their party who might challenge them.
– Comments from family and friends (seriously, this happens).
– Static from the district on an issue in the form of phone calls, mail, emails.
– Lastly, preferences of voters in the district.
An elected official who sticks with this feedback model can expect to remain in office as long as they want. Individual voters make their opinions matter by organizing into interest groups and coordinating their activities. That might even include forming alternative political parties, as long as they are smart about organizing those parties’ activities toward a policy goal.
Voting is the least powerful thing we do in a democracy. On the other hand, coordinating our voting behavior with others, backing that coordination with financial donations, and expressing our preferences with actual work in the streets converts that small influence into something potent. Perhaps the most important reason that this popular agenda seems so far from becoming reality is that personal engagement in politics has been in steep decline. Turn that around, and it may be possible to change the country for the better.