Pundits and political junkies (myself included) would have you believe that the voting behavior of ordinary citizens reflects their ideological predilections. Thus, 2016’s Republican sweep of the presidency, the House, and the Senate are evidence of a decisive turn to the right while 2018’s “Blue Wave” in the House demonstrates burgeoning progressivism across the country.
Pundits’ claims that party switches occur due to aggregate, nationwide ideological shifts are often incorrect. Although most voters can distinguish between the general ideological positions of the two major parties, they struggle when it comes to the specifics. For example, in the 2008 election, the National Annenberg Election Survey found that only 47 percent of respondents knew that McCain supported overturning Roe v. Wade, 30 percent knew that McCain would be more likely to support free trade agreements, and only 8 percent knew that both candidates supported funding for stem cell research. Moreover, polling has found that respondents are more likely to support Obama’s 2010 healthcare plan when it is called the “Affordable Care Act” instead of Obamacare.
Americans understand government in general terms: the president is the one with the power, Congress is the one who never does its job, and the Supreme Court is the one that decides what’s constitutional or not. Democrats are all about lending a hand to the downtrodden and being gentle abroad, while Republicans support tough love and peace through strength.
Per The American Voter Study in 1960 (which was redone in 2000), rather than analyzing the specific policy platforms of political candidates, a plurality of voters vote for whomever they believe will benefit their group the most. A retiree who leans right may vote Democrat because of Social Security while an evangelical Teamster may vote Republican because the Democratic candidate is not sufficiently religious.
Some vote based on the personality or appearance of candidates (“who could I have a beer with?”) while others, known as “nature of the times” voters, vote for the party in power when they believe the country is doing “well” and vote for the opposition when times are bad. The American Voter found that those who vote based on whomever aligns most with their ideology are the least common of the four mentioned groups of voters.
In 2016, voting based on ideology was difficult because neither candidate had an established, specific policy agenda. While Trump distracted from his utter lack of a platform by making repeated outrageous (often racist or sexist) comments, Hillary had little opportunity to advertise her platform with the media’s obsession with her emails.
With racial fear-mongering and a hostility towards facts, Donald Trump made immigration the primary issue of the 2016 election—and because of Trump, it has become close to impossible to have a rational discussion about immigration reform in 2019. Trump’s immigration demagoguery was enticing. MS-13 violence is scary. Illicit narcotics trafficking across the border is scary. Rape is scary. But are any of those things occurring nearly to the extent that Trump claims? Not at all. Regardless, voters’ fears of job-stealers, of rapists, and of the Other, were enough to trump reason.
To fear Central American immigrants, undocumented or not, is irrational. Undocumented immigrants commit crimes at a lower rate than ordinary Americans, communities with the largest MS-13 presence have assured that MS-13 is not a priority, and the notion that immigrants steal jobs is shaky at best.
But to fear increasing hurricane severity, the submersion of coastal cities due to rising sea levels, an uptick in mosquito-borne diseases, global hunger, droughts, or a massive approaching budget deficit, is not irrational. That’s exactly what one of the more conservative (in other words, more rosy) climate change predictions has portended if the world does not prevent a 2° C increase in global temperatures. Grimmer reports claim that the world must prevent a 1.5° C increase to stave off such effects.
Immigration by hardworking Central Americans will not bring rape or violence to the United States. Rather than disrupting the livelihoods of ordinary Americans, it will enrich them by bringing cultural diversity and a young workforce—something we need if we want to keep our current Social Security system intact. Climate change, however, will affect everyone. Fishermen and subsistence farmers may suffer more than accountants and lawyers, but the effects of climate change will reverberate throughout the world.
If American voters are more likely to respond to demagoguery than rational arguments, then politicians must use demagoguery to push for a Green New Deal. They need to paint a dreary picture of the future and use emotional words and dramatic imagery to show voters just how dire their circumstances are.
You play with the cards you’re dealt with, not the cards you want. Rationality has lost in America. Rather than complaining about it, we need to deal with it.
Featured Image via Shutterstock/r.classen