Group identification, rather than policy, explains the 2016 election

Political activists have a notion that there is something beyond logic and self-interest that drives the choices of average voters.

We know that low-income Whites often vote against their own economic interests. We know that very religious Americans often support unreligious and even immoral candidates. “What’s the Matter with Kansas” is nothing new. And yet we still cite candidates’ policies to explain the 2016 election.

Yes, people who read articles about politics—you and I—tend to pick our candidates based on the policies they trumpet. That’s reasonable because the point of governance is to adopt and enforce a set of policies. But you and I are not average voters.

Average nonpolitical citizens don’t focus on a laundry list of issues. In fact, they know extremely little about the facts of public issues, who in government is responsible, or the process of enacting and implementing legislation. (Walk door-to-door for a candidate or cause and you’ll quickly learn this first hand.)

Rather, when average Americans are considering political candidates, there is one overriding (but vague) question in their minds: “Who is on my side.”

Our messaging book, Voicing Our Values, describes how to use progressive values to place yourself on the side of your audience. But only a minority of Americans can be persuaded about anything important. The majority have chosen their side before you even speak.

Usually, the most important factor to a voter is the group with which s/he identifies. Americans are most often not searching for a candidate who agrees with their issue positions, they’re looking for someone who represents their group.

This is not a recent phenomenon. For most of American history, people in an ethnic group tended to vote for their own, and that wasn’t irrational. In the absence of knowledge about where candidates stood issue-by-issue, it was reasonable to assume a person, if elected, would represent and protect his own group.

Today, group identification is much more complex than Italian, Irish or Jewish citizens voting for their own. The most influential group so far in the 2016 elections has been people whose overriding political concern is grievances against nonwhites: primarily against Latinos, African Americans, and Muslims. As you know, this group provides Donald Trump’s bedrock of support, and it’s not because of the policies Trump professes. These voters know almost nothing about his policies and, let’s be honest, Trump doesn’t really have any in the conventional sense. This identification group supports him because he is one of them—their living, breathing caricature.

Trump expresses his membership in this group, not by listing policies, but by expressing grievances. When Trump says he is going to build a border wall or block entry to Muslims, his group doesn’t care whether or not he means it literally, he is simply saying to them “I’m on your side.”

This is also true of what we call “dog whistle” politics. Trump was the loudest “birther” in America. It has never mattered whether the claim was true, credible, or absurd, it’s about group solidarity. When people in the same group assert that President Obama “is a Muslim,” the truth is irrelevant—it’s a way of shouting that the President is as far from being “one of us” as is possible. These statements are the political equivalent of wearing gang colors.

Trump is not the only candidate to benefit from group identification. A good number of Bernie Sanders’ supporters know little about the legislation he supports. They know he shares their enemy—Wall Street. And many young Sanders’ voters were no doubt affected by peer conformity or peer pressure. At the same time, many Hillary Clinton supporters know little about her policies and voted for her simply because of the idea that, for decades, she has fought for their group.

The point is, just because Trump “won” doesn’t mean that Americans (or even Republicans) want to enact racist policies. Just because Sanders “lost” doesn’t mean that Americans (or Democrats) oppose his progressive ideas. Many of our fellow countrymen picked a political side first and then rationalized at least some of the policies (and failings) of their candidate. The conscious and unconscious cherry-picking of facts to support what we already believe is called “confirmation bias,” which is thoroughly proven science.

Today, both Trump and Clinton need to solidify support from groups that did not favor them in the primaries. For both, it’s more important for them to speak differently, signaling their identification and connecting with these groups, than it is to promote a list of policies that these voters won’t even know exists.

American Culture Is Threatened by Hate Speech

America is not really a nation of laws. Our legislative system governs only the most egregious behavior. The way Americans treat each other day-to-day—attitude and etiquette, willingness or wariness, prejudice or tolerance—is driven mostly by our national culture.

Our culture is a set of beliefs, customs and behaviors accepted by the great majority of citizens, in part because they consider it a matter of right and wrong, and in part because they fear condemnation by society at large.

Since the end of the “segregation now…segregation forever” era, the open, unapologetic use of bigotry has been suppressed. But now, a presidential candidate is about to become the nominee of a major party in large part because people encourage his use of hate speech and falsehoods. For example:

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Now more than ever, we need to give voice to our progressive values

Americans who avoid politics are far more likely to pay attention in a presidential election year. This is our chance to persuade.

I suspect you may want to talk about single-payer health insurance, a financial transaction tax, the TPP, and the need to reverse Citizens United. But that’s a conversation that only works within the progressive base.

Our non-political neighbors and friends are not particularly interested in listening to a laundry list of policies. But they are willing to hear us describe our progressive values. To these sometime voters, it’s not a question of where we’d like to take our country, it’s a matter of why.

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New poll illustrates confirmation bias, Trump less popular than lice

A just-released Public Policy Polling (PPP) survey found that Donald Trump supporters inhabit an alternate reality. They believe in obvious falsehoods. Why is that and what does it mean for political discourse?

The poll, released on May 10, found that Hillary Clinton leads Donald Trump by a margin of 47 to 41 percent in a head-to-head matchup. That’s just a snapshot and not a very interesting one.

But PPP went further. It found that only 34 percent of voters have a favorable opinion of Donald Trump. Among that group:

  • 65 percent believe that President Obama is a Muslim and only 13 percent think he's a Christian, 22 percent are unsure.
  • 59 percent believe President Obama was not born in the United States and only 23 percent think that he was, 18 percent are unsure.
  • 24 percent believe Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia was murdered while 42 percent think he died naturally, another 34 percent are unsure.

Millions of Americans are living in a political fantasyland. But that’s nothing new. In 2012, fully 63 percent of Republicans still believed that Iraq had “weapons of mass destruction” when the United States invaded in 2003. In a 2013 PPP poll, 58 percent of Republicans believed “global warming is a hoax,” 33 percent of Republicans were still convinced that Saddam Hussein was personally involved in the 9/11 attack, and 20 percent of Republicans said they “believe Obama is the Anti-Christ.”

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Both states and localities can curtail job piracy

Does anybody like job piracy? By that we mean tax breaks and subsidies to a few corporations for the supposed purpose of enticing them to move jobs from another jurisdiction.

As Good Jobs First points out, these subsidies are “wasteful because the costs are high and the benefits are low: a tiny number of companies get huge subsidies but the net impact of interstate job relocations is microscopic. It is [also] incredibly unfair to [all the other local] employers….”

We can curtail job piracy. All it takes is some political will and the Job Piracy Cease Fire Act, which is a binding offer from any state or locality saying, in effect, our jurisdiction won’t steal jobs from yours if you promise the same back to us.

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How to find logical fallacies in opponents’ arguments

Since Aristotle in the 4th century B.C., educated people learned the rules of rhetoric and how to identify opponents’ fallacies. Although Americans don’t often learn the intricacies of rhetoric today, political organizations and individuals routinely employ fallacious arguments.

Let us consider just a few of the many informal logical fallacies—the most common debaters’ tricks that sound convincing but are based on a flaw in logic.

(1) Red Herring Fallacy

Also known as: misdirection, smokescreen, clouding the issue, beside the point, and the Chewbacca defense.

A Red Herring argument is one that changes the subject, distracting the audience from the real issue to focus on something else where the speaker feels more comfortable and confident.

EXAMPLE: It may be true that the minimum wage should be adjusted, but the real solution is to eliminate burdensome government regulations so businesses can grow and are able to pay their employees higher salaries.

Your response should be: It's not an either-or question. Right now we’re debating specific legislation before the legislature/council to increase the minimum wage to $15 per hour. I’m saying it provides hard-working families with income to spend on their basic needs. Let’s focus on that.

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Second Amendment mess demonstrates why we need an honest Supreme Court

On March 21, the United States Supreme Court issued an embarrassing ruling. The Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts had decided that stun guns are not protected by the Second Amendment; after all, they are not firearms and the framers of the Constitution could not possibly have imagined such weapons when the Bill of Rights was adopted.

The Supreme Court said, in effect, that Massachusetts’ highest court didn’t understand the SCOTUS’ 2008 ruling on the Second Amendment, District of Columbia v. Heller. The Court’s unanimous unsigned 2-page order directed the Massachusetts court to re-explain why stun guns can be banned.

How is it possible that the Massachusetts court—a distinguished group of lawyers—couldn’t understand Heller? Because the 5-4 majority opinion, written by Justice Antonin Scalia, makes no sense. It is a 64-page mess. It certainly seems as if Scalia was trying to cause as much damage as possible, writing a decision so confusing that it would justify endless lawsuits against existing gun laws. As Dennis Henigan, one of the preeminent attorneys in the field, explained, Heller was “a prototypical misuse of judicial power to advance an ideological agenda.”

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The anti-government theme is getting nowhere in 2016

Are Americans really anti-government? Based on the progress of the 2016 campaign, it doesn't seem like it. Neither Donald Trump nor Ted Cruz are succeeding because of anti-government attacks.

Look at Trump’s successful message. He stands for bigoted authoritarianism. He wants to use government, forcefully, against the groups of people he hates. Trump wants the government to build a gigantic wall between the U.S. and Mexico, deport 12 million residents, torture people suspected of terrorism and kill their wives and children. At the same time he wants the government to give him, and the rest of the ultra-rich, larger tax breaks.

And look at Ted Cruz. He likes to say he's against government but he's winning primaries by riding a wave of white evangelicalism. These voters support him because Cruz wants to (or they think he wants to) use government to outlaw same-sex marriage, discriminate against LGBT citizens, suppress mosques and Muslim beliefs, teach creationism and other fundamentalist Christian religious ideas in public schools, abolish abortion, limit birth control, and require abstinence-only sex education.

Among voters there’s anger aplenty, but it’s not much directed against government. Why?

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Dear Justice Kennedy

As you know, on March 2 the Supreme Court heard arguments on Whole Woman's Health v. Hellerstedt, a case that considers the constitutionality of a Texas anti-abortion law (HB 2).

I write because you are obviously the swing vote. I am familiar with your record and know you love our Constitution. But Justice Kennedy, this is not an average case. It is the result of a constitutional crisis and your ruling will determine whether or not that crisis is resolved. Will states be obliged to obey a fairly clear Supreme Court standard or will they continue to brazenly ignore the Court and the Constitution—and get away with it?

When you wrote the last major Supreme Court decision on abortion, Gonzales v. Carhart, 550 U.S. 124 (2007), you laid out specific constitutional principles, quoting from Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pa. v. Casey505 U.S. 833 (1992):

Before viability, a State “may not prohibit any woman from making the ultimate decision to terminate her pregnancy.” It also may not impose upon this right an undue burden, which exists if a regulation’s “purpose or effect is to place a substantial obstacle in the path of a woman seeking an abortion before the fetus attains viability.” On the other hand, “[r]egulations which do no more than create a structural mechanism by which the State, or the parent or guardian of a minor, may express profound respect for the life of the unborn are permitted, if they are not a substantial obstacle to the woman’s exercise of the right to choose.” (Citations deleted.)

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Winning the Battle between Conservative and Progressive Principles

Most Americans are progressive on most issues. By margins of at least two to one, our fellow citizens: believe corporations and upper-income people are paying too little in federal taxes; oppose repealing the federal estate tax; support the idea that the federal Medicare program should negotiate prescription drug prices directly with pharmaceutical companies; want federal action to address global warming; would require auto manufacturers to make cars more energy efficient; favor licensing and registration of handguns; think labor unions are necessary to protect workers; and do not want the Supreme Court to overturn Roe v. Wade.

That’s the good news. Here’s the bad. Most Americans also support traditional conservative principles—limited government, lower taxes, free markets, and personal responsibility. So right wingers can and do win public debates by asserting that their policies fit these popular principles.

Let me restate that a different way. A large group of Americans simultaneously favor both progressive policy and an idealized (or cartoonish) conservative philosophy. As a result, on any given issue, they may side with or against progressives depending on how a political question is framed.

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