Why Do Americans Vote Against Their Interests?
Guess what? They don't.
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My liberal and left-wing friends continue to puzzle over a single, unanswerable, question as the Democratic party lurches towards the 2022 midterms: why do working-class people vote “against their interests?” Here’s the news: they don’t. When voters defect, perhaps party leadership should honestly assess whether they promote the policies those voters need.
In the waning hours of November 8, 2016, the Democratic party had to grapple with the complicated truth that it had lost the trust of its white, working-class base when the defection of counties in Wisconsin, Ohio, and Pennsylvania, won by Obama in 2012, delivered the presidency to Donald J. Trump. Blame racism and nativism. Blame Jill Stein and Bernie Sanders, blame Hillary Clinton’s failure to campaign sufficiently in the Midwest, blame James Comey, blame Robbie Mook’s insufficient data, blame Facebook. All of these facts are blameworthy.
But when it came down to it, Democratic policies had failed. And we are staring down the barrel of that gun again.
But it doesn’t always take a catastrophic and unexpected loss for a political party to discover something seismic has occurred. Sometimes it is a win that reveals surprising and unwelcome news, and sometimes the answer is in plain sight—but no one will acknowledge it.
This was the case in the early years of the Reagan administration, the dawn of a new era of American conservatism. As records at the Ronald Reagan Presidential library show, in 1981, as euphoria from a victory first strategized in the ashes of Barry Goldwater’s 1964 campaign cooled, GOP analysts detected a yawning, 10-point gap in support for the President between white men and white women. The archetypical “Reagan Democrat” who had created the possibility for reversing the New Deal and the Great Society was a man — and his wife, daughters, and sisters were voting disproportionately Democratic.
Why didn’t white women like Reagan?
One culprit was the elimination of support for gender equality, the Equal Rights Amendment, and reproductive freedom in the GOP platform, and the insertion of family values policy positions promoted by Phyllis Schlafly’s Eagle Forum. These had been Republican policies for decades, and they were now the property of the Democratic party.
Republicans had tried to cover it up. They reaffirmed the party’s “historic commitment to equal rights and equality for women,” but demanded an end to federal efforts to support the passage of the ERA. Similarly, although the platform acknowledged that Republicans differed about the moral legitimacy of abortion, the platform committee asserted the personhood of the fetus as a fact and called for “a constitutional amendment to restore protection of the right to life for unborn children.”
Shockingly, however, the Reagan team and the Republican National Committee had not anticipated that female Republican voters would abandon the party because of these dramatic policy shifts. On July 15, 1981, Reagan pollster and chief White House strategist Richard Wirthlin sent Edwin Meese, the President’s longstanding friend, counselor, and closest advisor, a memorandum outlining exactly how serious the President’s problems with women were. “What is the gender gap?” Wirthlin, the first to coin this phrase, asked. “About ten percentage points on the presidential job rating.”
It was a perception problem the whole party now shared. Young women particularly disliked Reagan and the GOP by 25% more than women over the age of 45. Worse, the working wives of so-called “Reagan Democrats”—registered Democrats who voted Republican in 1980— were even more determinedly liberal.
“Generally, the rank order from the most positive GOP group to the least positive goes married men, non-married men, married women, and non-married women,” Wirthlin summed it up. It was possible, he suggested in perhaps the most useless political analysis of all time, that “a portion of the problem exists just because men are men and women are women.”
White House women begged to disagree. As Congressional elections approached in the summer of 1982, Office of Public Liaison chief Elizabeth Dole warned West Wing aides that sitting on their hands would not make the gender gap go away. Failure to devise actual policies aimed at real women was the only solution to white female voters’ increasing dislike for Reagan. “Much has been written in recent months about the erosion of support for the President and the trend away from Republicanism among women,” Dole wrote. “The media has now picked up on what is now commonly referred to as the ‘gender gap’ and speculates often about its causes and long-range implications.” Reagan could expect to be accused by feminists of being “an enemy of women” because of “the effect of budget cuts on the poor and needy, and the trend of female defection from the President and the Republican Party.”
The only answer, Dole argued, was to go on the offensive and show how the President’s own economic and social policies supported women as well as men. She recommended that the White House immediately develop “a positive counter-offensive strategy” to neutralize these attacks with evidence of his positive accomplishments for women: tax relief, services for the elderly retained despite budget cuts, women appointees, gender equity initiatives, and Reagan’s “plans for peace and arms control.” On the day that ERA ratification expired, Dole argued, the President could schedule a major policy speech that “would serve as a much-needed ‘State of the Union’ for women,” messaging that female surrogates could echo as they campaigned for GOP House candidates in 1982.
A program to cultivate female political leaders, Dole argued, was also necessary. The face of the party needed to be more female, strengthening Reagan Republicanism by training women to run for office at the state and community level. These candidates could be supported by White House policy seminars to “help them complement their own local knowledge with a detailed grasp and understanding of the major initiatives and positions of the administration.”
Finally, Dole advised that wives of men in the administration, “armed with information,” could represent Reagan by publicizing projects they were already engaged in. They could become presidential surrogates at “additional events which would broaden exposure of the Administration’s views.”
Doles plan was ambitious, but it also—in contrast to Wirthlin’s speculation that “women were women,” imagined alienated voters as having needs hungry for knowledge and information rather than bromides.
But White House policy analysts chose bromides. President Reagan, aides insisted, cared deeply about women. This care was so apparent to them that it did not call for policy solutions, but rather public relations campaigns to persuade women how much Ronald Reagan liked them. Of course, as one frustrated speechwriter pointed out, this was a difficult task when any policy issue associated with feminism—such as equal pay, or sexual harassment—could not be discussed. “Without a specific target or occasion, anything of this nature is bound to be fluffy, if not vacuous,” he complained.
But the speechwriter was urged to keep talking to women until he came up with some fluff that worked. “The fluff is unavoidable,” a West Wing aide wrote, underscoring “is” three times. “Pls. try again.”
Stubbornly refusing to acknowledge that the gender gap represented a genuine policy vacuum rather than a public relations problem, a problem of sex, or a mirage created by the persistence of identity politics, as Dole predicted, the Republicans lost the House in 1982, effectively derailing the Reagan Revolution.
The Democratic party finds itself in a similar place as it approaches the 2022 midterm election, one that will decide the fate of the Biden presidency. Similarly, for a party that imagines itself as the champion of the downtrodden, finding out that white workers voted for a grifter Trump was a (perhaps long overdue) punch in the gut for Democrats in 2016: so is Joe Biden’s current dip in popularity as Democrats struggle, with a narrow majority in the Senate, to enact an agenda.
Even capturing Congressional seats that might retain a Democratic House majority does not in itself resolve the problem of the policy struggle that now plagues the Democratic party. Voters are commonly less interested in the long-term, structural policy solutions that Build Back Better promoted than they are in quick fixes; but the failure to actually pass that package, and its disintegration into a patchwork of enhancements to existing policies has made the party look incompetent and uncaring.
Successful governance and addressing the problems of the poor needs to involve implementing quick fixes that temporarily alleviate distress while simultaneously turning the “big ship” of the state to weave quick fixes into permanent changes. The Biden administration has been good at the first, but—for reasons we all understand— not so good at the second. And who is surprised? Before the infrastructure bill, Congress had not passed a major piece of legislation that expanded state activity in private life since the Affordable Care Act in 2010.
Retaining voters is a question of offering them policies you can pass, not dangling big changes that offer a world that a party cannot yet produce: if the Democrats understand this, they have a chance of winning voters back in time for the 2022 election.
Why do many Trump supporters believe the “Big Lie” about the 2020 election—and why do their Republican Senators fail to disabuse them of it? Experts disagree, and it’s a complicated problem—with a different answer for each constituency. As Thomas Edsall argues in the New York Times, it is a way of coping with and putting the brakes on a swiftly changing social and political world. But one thing is sure: “The unwillingness of Republican leaders to challenge Trump’s relentless lies, for whatever reason — for political survival, for mobilization of whites opposed to minorities, to curry favor, to feign populist sympathies — is as or more consequential than actually believing the lie.” (January 19, 2020)
Governor Chris Sununu was on the brink of saying yes to running for Senate against incumbent Democrat Maggie Hassan, but turned tail after talking to other Republicans currently serving in that august body. Why? He found out that they were pretty happy doing…nothing. He asked them why they didn’t do anything in 2017 and 2018 when they had the majority, and he asked what they planned to do if they regained the majority, and the reply was? “Crickets,” he told David M. Drucker of the Washington Examiner. Sununu thinks that doing stuff—and he has done things in New Hampshire—might be a better route to a Presidential nomination in 2024. (January 18, 2024)
Prison abolitionists Angela Davis and Gina Dent discuss their new book, Abolition. Feminism. Now. with Hanna Phifer of Harper’s Bazaar. “We think about the process of getting rid of prisons in conjunction with presenting new modes of justice,” Davis explains. “We cannot continue to have a retributive justice system if we want to imagine new ways of addressing the issues that prisons simply cannot address.” (January 14, 2022)
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