Partisanship Is Making Americans Vote For Things They Don’t Actually Want

Why Americans vote against their interests, and why it's just going to get worse.
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Miami Shores voters fill in their ballots at the C. Lawton McCall Community Center on Election Day, November 3, 2020.
Emily Michot/Miami Herald/Tribune News Service via Getty Images

Last week’s election was, as usual, utterly baffling. 

Voters in Florida decisively passed a ballot initiative to raise the minimum wage, but also decisively favored Donald Trump, a candidate who believes the minimum wage is just fine where it is. Deep-red Montana, Mississippi and South Dakota liberalized marijuana laws. Bright-blue California and Illinois rejected rent control and income taxes, respectively. 

This is nothing new. Every election is a fresh demonstration that the United States is a nation of individuals, not groups, and that those individuals have beliefs that don’t fall neatly along partisan lines.

“Most people aren’t ideological in the way journalists, political scientists and talking heads are,” said Christopher Witko, a professor at Pennsylvania State University who researches inequality and American elections. “If you’re someone who follows politics closely, knowing your position on the minimum wage makes it pretty easy to predict your position on taxes and abortion. But that’s not how it works for most of the public.”

Most Americans, Witko said, have political beliefs that are less consistent than those of the politicians they vote for. They want better health care but lower taxes; a smaller government but a bigger military; higher wages but cheaper products. In a 2014 study, researchers found that most so-called “moderate voters” were, in fact, people who hold extreme positions from both the political right and the political left. 

As opposed to party platforms, which at least hint at ideological consistency, most voters’ opinions are all over the map. 

“You’ve got voters who say they want single-payer health care and they also want abortion criminalized,” said Chris Ellis, a political science professor at Bucknell University. “That person doesn’t exist in Congress, but they do exist in the population in large numbers.”

Partisanship Is Becoming An Identity

Despite these confounding political views, Americans’ voting behavior is remarkably consistent. Only around 7% of Americans regularly switch parties.

The explanation for this mismatch of voters’ inconsistent beliefs and their strikingly consistent voting patterns is the influence of political parties. Over the last 40 years, partisanship has become a kind of social identity, a way of signaling to other people that you hold a distinct set of views about values, economics and social issues.

“I always chuckle when people say, ‘I’m tired of identity politics,’” said Andrea Benjamin, a University of Oklahoma professor who studies race and voting behavior. “What do you think ‘Democrat’ or ‘Republican’ mean? For a lot of people, that is an identity.”

“Most elections are decided by people who don’t follow politics very closely.”

- Christopher Witko, Pennsylvania State University political scientist

The benefit of ballot initiatives is that they appear as independent ideas free from the influence of partisanship. Over the last 10 years, proposals to raise the minimum wage, legalize marijuana and tax the wealthy pass nearly every time they appear on ballots, even in places where voters reject progressive politicians.

“Candidates run on partisan platforms, and people already know how they feel about the parties,” Benjamin said. “But when it comes to ballot initiatives, voters have to engage and consider where they stand on the issue.”

This trend may be good for passing liberal ballot initiatives, but it is alarming for American democracy. As partisanship becomes a defining schism in our social lives, politicians will struggle to convince voters to assess their policy ideas.

According to Ellis, political identities are already beginning to resemble sports fandom or other group memberships. They have less to do with political ideals and more to do with unspoken cultural values and a sense of belonging to a group. 

“When we ask people whether they’re conservative or liberal, they’re not talking about the minimum wage or Obamacare,” Ellis said. “They’re talking about things like respecting tradition, eating dinner with the family every night and asking Dad’s permission before proposing to his daughter. It’s about things that express people’s cultural values and give them self-esteem.” 

What Does This Mean For American Politics?

This incoherence creates a paradox for politicians. Americans generally favor a set of policies more liberal than any president has endorsed since Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal: universal health care, strict gun control and progressive taxation all enjoy majority support. And yet they also overwhelmingly identify as conservative or moderate.

“Most people are conservative in their values but liberal in their ideas,” Witko said. “They don’t like liberal candidates, but they like their policies, and vice-versa.”

The coming decades could make this disparity worse. As partisanship becomes a more important aspect of identity, voters are becoming more rigid in their beliefs. So-called “split-ticket” voting — ticking the box for, say, a Democratic president and a Republican senator — has fallen to its lowest level in decades.

“The reason the vote totals change each election isn’t primarily that people are changing their minds, it’s that the electorate changes,” Witko said. “People move from state to state or you get different turnout rates.”

Even as votes are still being counted, the 2020 election has already broken turnout records, largely due to the expansion of early voting and mail-in ballots. Texas and Florida are gaining population; Illinois and New Jersey are shedding it. Young adults are fleeing New York and (before the pandemic anyway) arriving in Seattle. All this flux means counties could have “flipped” from one party to the other without anyone changing their political preferences. 

In the future, Witko said, political campaigns could become even more devoid of policy debates. Parties will continue to shift from persuading swing voters to boosting turnout. Local politics, until now relatively free from national-level partisan battles, could become more polarized.

“The fact is, most elections are decided by people who don’t follow politics very closely,” Witko said. “People with a coherent ideology are by far a minority.”

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