Voters prefer liberal policies, so why do Republicans win?
Obviously, the absolute rout the Democrats experienced last night is going to dominate the news cycle for the rest of the week and probably beyond. There will be a lot of analysis about what happened and why and what could have been different and all that jazz. A lot of it will be important, some will be nonsense. But one fact, I think, should be kept in mind when looking over the results: People may have voted for Republicans, but by and large, they preferred liberal policies.
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. Which isn’t to say that it isn’t meaningful! People talk about identity as if it’s just some throwaway item of no real substance. But considering how the ugliest, most painful political fights are over identity, it’s hard to deny that it is, whether you like it or not, a meaningful thing. It strikes at the core of who we are.
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. There’s a lot of talk about the gender gap, but the marriage gap is even bigger, with 58 percent of married people voting Republican and 56 percent of single people voting for Democrats. Racial gaps are even bigger. 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.
The takeaway from this is, well, it’s hard to say. I do think the everyone-else coalition will win in the long run and I’m skeptical of the efforts to say this is strictly a matter of Democrats or liberals not working hard enough. It’s foolish to underestimate the passion that people who fancy themselves “traditional” bring to defending their sense of entitlement to cultural dominance. The real issue here is that conservative voters aren’t stupid, despite their tendency to get wrapped up in bullshit. They do see the writing on the wall about our changing society and they don’t like it. They aren’t mistaken or misled about it. There really is a meanness there and there’s no quick fix to get away from it.