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Why Social Issues Win Elections

Ditch the social conservatives, say economic conservatives. But they’re dead wrong.

Conventional wisdom on both sides of the aisle has it that if conservatives dropped the social issues, they could win a lot more elections.

But conventional wisdom is dead wrong, says the social science.

As far as it goes, there’s a logic to said conventional wisdom. Social conservatives hold a number of positions that are currently unpopular. They’re often very religious in a time when that evokes images of Westboro Baptists. They don’t support abortion on demand (although in fairness, they're increasingly mainstream there). Worst of all, they don’t share the current unimaginative view that any kind of relationship can be stuffed indiscriminately into the word “marriage” like it’s a Chipotle burrito.

On top of all this, the spokespeople have difficulty expressing their views in a way that resonates with everybody else—and are sometimes all-out national embarrassments. They’re as uncool as it gets. All things considered, many on the right would love to be able to just sweep the whole group under the rug.

And this would be an obvious move, goes the thinking. The big problem in America right now is a colossal, tottering, outdated national government that’s way too expensive, way too suffocating, and way too primitive to have survived the 1960s for so long. At a time when everything in modern life—nonprofits, businesses, education, and especially technology—is geared towards empowering individuals to solve their own problems and achieve their dreams, the government still thinks 300 million people can be micromanaged by a few bureaucrats like it’s 19th century Prussia. So conservatives should sell a message of economic conservatism—government getting out of the way of business, and government being cheaper. The libertarians and Tea Partiers are the good guys, and the conservatives are the dead weight.

Only problem with this theory: it makes no sense.

Don’t misunderstand me—all that stuff about the government has some merit to it, if you’re a policy wonk figuring out how to make things work better. But as far as elections go, the theory assumes things about voters that just aren’t true. It assumes they’re rational. It assumes they vote in their own self-interest. It assumes that the things that make the most sense get the most votes.

But if you’ve ever spent 30 seconds arguing about politics with someone who disagrees with you, or watched a losing election, you know these assumptions are crazy.

So do the social scientists. For a good while, people like Alan Gerber and Donald Green have been studying what makes people vote. Psychologists like Jonathan Haidt have been studying what shapes their beliefs. They’ve been trying to figure out why people often vote in ways that seem contrary (at least to the researchers) to their own self-interest, like a poor person voting for an anti-welfare libertarian or a rich person voting for a Democrat who supports higher taxes.

And as with most good social science, it turns out the answers are pretty intuitive. People’s political beliefs are inescapably moral. They think in terms of stories; of good guys and bad guys, of visions and ideologies. They vote according to who is on their side, not in the sense of a Bill Clinton feeling their pain (although that's not bad either), but in the sense of which person shares their vision of who the good guys and bad guys are and why. It’s not irrational; it just involves more subconscious thinking than most people on the right give people credit for. A lot of decision-making is done long before a person has a conscious thought, so if you’re a “bad guy,” it’s pretty tough for your arguments to break through the wall (if you’ve ever dealt with leftist trolls on Twitter, or tried to convince a libertarian of anything, you know what I’m talking about).

If people work this way, you’d expect issues that have a moral component (“We’ve got to STOP this!!”) would be more powerful than dollars and cents. Sure enough, a 2013 study by the Brookings Institution found that economic conservatives were the smallest group under the tent, and other studies (and elections) have shown their issues have a limited tug on voters’ heartstrings. While a few hyper-ideological politics nerds might get excited about tax policy, most people will get a lot more worked up about poverty or abortion—issues where there are clear moral elements involved.

So right-wingers interested in winning elections shouldn’t ditch the social conservatives (and not just because they’re a very large constituency, or because it’s weird to pretend “social issues” don’t exist). And they shouldn’t build platforms and messages that simply will never have the upper body strength to carry an election.

This doesn’t mean, of course, that conservatives should ignore economic issues, or that they should engage social issues in the same way they have for the last couple decades. On the contrary, they need to be willing to frame a new vision of conservatism (including the social components AND the economic components) in moral terms that resonate with other people’s values; other people’s narratives; other people’s visions of the good guys and bad guys. (Example here.) You wouldn’t know this to listen to current social conservative leaders, but Americans still share a lot of those in common.

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Why Social Issues Win Elections

Ditch the social conservatives, say economic conservatives. But they’re dead wrong.

Conventional wisdom on both sides of the aisle has it that if conservatives dropped the social issues, they could win a lot more elections.

But conventional wisdom is dead wrong, says the social science.

As far as it goes, there’s a logic to said conventional wisdom. Social conservatives hold a number of positions that are currently unpopular. They’re often very religious in a time when that evokes images of Westboro Baptists. They don’t support abortion on demand (although in fairness, they're increasingly mainstream there). Worst of all, they don’t share the current unimaginative view that any kind of relationship can be stuffed indiscriminately into the word “marriage” like it’s a Chipotle burrito.

On top of all this, the spokespeople have difficulty expressing their views in a way that resonates with everybody else—and are sometimes all-out national embarrassments. They’re as uncool as it gets. All things considered, many on the right would love to be able to just sweep the whole group under the rug.

And this would be an obvious move, goes the thinking. The big problem in America right now is a colossal, tottering, outdated national government that’s way too expensive, way too suffocating, and way too primitive to have survived the 1960s for so long. At a time when everything in modern life—nonprofits, businesses, education, and especially technology—is geared towards empowering individuals to solve their own problems and achieve their dreams, the government still thinks 300 million people can be micromanaged by a few bureaucrats like it’s 19th century Prussia. So conservatives should sell a message of economic conservatism—government getting out of the way of business, and government being cheaper. The libertarians and Tea Partiers are the good guys, and the conservatives are the dead weight.

Only problem with this theory: it makes no sense.

Don’t misunderstand me—all that stuff about the government has some merit to it, if you’re a policy wonk figuring out how to make things work better. But as far as elections go, the theory assumes things about voters that just aren’t true. It assumes they’re rational. It assumes they vote in their own self-interest. It assumes that the things that make the most sense get the most votes.

But if you’ve ever spent 30 seconds arguing about politics with someone who disagrees with you, or watched a losing election, you know these assumptions are crazy.

So do the social scientists. For a good while, people like Alan Gerber and Donald Green have been studying what makes people vote. Psychologists like Jonathan Haidt have been studying what shapes their beliefs. They’ve been trying to figure out why people often vote in ways that seem contrary (at least to the researchers) to their own self-interest, like a poor person voting for an anti-welfare libertarian or a rich person voting for a Democrat who supports higher taxes.

And as with most good social science, it turns out the answers are pretty intuitive. People’s political beliefs are inescapably moral. They think in terms of stories; of good guys and bad guys, of visions and ideologies. They vote according to who is on their side, not in the sense of a Bill Clinton feeling their pain (although that's not bad either), but in the sense of which person shares their vision of who the good guys and bad guys are and why. It’s not irrational; it just involves more subconscious thinking than most people on the right give people credit for. A lot of decision-making is done long before a person has a conscious thought, so if you’re a “bad guy,” it’s pretty tough for your arguments to break through the wall (if you’ve ever dealt with leftist trolls on Twitter, or tried to convince a libertarian of anything, you know what I’m talking about).

If people work this way, you’d expect issues that have a moral component (“We’ve got to STOP this!!”) would be more powerful than dollars and cents. Sure enough, a 2013 study by the Brookings Institution found that economic conservatives were the smallest group under the tent, and other studies (and elections) have shown their issues have a limited tug on voters’ heartstrings. While a few hyper-ideological politics nerds might get excited about tax policy, most people will get a lot more worked up about poverty or abortion—issues where there are clear moral elements involved.

So right-wingers interested in winning elections shouldn’t ditch the social conservatives (and not just because they’re a very large constituency, or because it’s weird to pretend “social issues” don’t exist). And they shouldn’t build platforms and messages that simply will never have the upper body strength to carry an election.

This doesn’t mean, of course, that conservatives should ignore economic issues, or that they should engage social issues in the same way they have for the last couple decades. On the contrary, they need to be willing to frame a new vision of conservatism (including the social components AND the economic components) in moral terms that resonate with other people’s values; other people’s narratives; other people’s visions of the good guys and bad guys. (Example here.) You wouldn’t know this to listen to current social conservative leaders, but Americans still share a lot of those in common.

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Why the GOP’s New Gadgets Aren’t Enough

The Republican Party is working to catch up with Obama's campaign machine technologically. But there's a gaping hole in this approach.

This piece last week in the Washington Examiner chronicled Republican Party claims that their get-out-the-vote machine is improving. After getting walloped in two straight presidential elections by the groundbreaking program Obama for America (OFA) built before 2008 and improved by 2012, the GOP promised to get better.

The results, according to the article, can be sampled in a recent win in Florida. So far, they include an app, better database syncing, better email marketing, more complex and detailed voter scoring, and other technological upgrades that are helping the GOP get past America’s up-till-recently archaic voter records systems.

Basically, they have better tech infrastructure, as Dina Fraioli chronicled in more detail a few weeks ago.

I don’t know what conversations go on at the top levels of the RNC. Maybe they have more up their sleeve than they’ve shown so far (though experience makes me skeptical). But I do know that Obama didn’t wipe the floor with the 2004 GOP voting strategies just because of technology. If conservatives are looking to build the next big election machine, they have to make a philosophical shift that surpasses the one David Plouffe’s team made in 2008.

What is voting?

This is a blog post, not an essay, so I won’t go into the details of last generation’s election mentalities or how deeply entrenched they are in the big right-wing consulting firms and yes, the RNC. Suffice it to say that yesterday’s strategies and tactics focused on voter turnout. Tomorrow’s need focus on voter development, or rather citizen development.

Voting isn’t an isolated deed we do every few years. According to Todd Rogers (a behavioral scientist at Harvard), it’s “self-expressive social behavior.” In other words, it’s not a temporary condition that switches on for Election Day; it’s a long-term form of identity crucial to self-consciousness and heavily influenced by social forces.

If that still sounds too technical, think of it this way: people who vote on Election Day do so because of who they are the rest of the time. People tend to do what they think “people like me” do. And their perception of what that is, what they are supposed to do, is shaped by their firsthand experience—with their co-workers, their Facebook friends, that guy in their group who watches the news every morning, etc. When people think they are an above-average citizen, they vote at a higher rate. When they are reminded that their friends can find out if they really voted, they vote at a higher rate. The GOP strategists know these things.

But what they know is messaging tweaks; November Nudges. Rather than using psych nudges to get someone to simulate a good citizen for a day, the GOP should consider how to build him for real. It should recognize the long-term nature of a voter’s political identity and the nature of the forces that can be influenced to shape that identity. Winning isn’t just about infrastructure. The objective should be regular batting practice, not just a new baseball bat.

Obama’s team knew this. Its strategy tapped into long-term identities to drive turnout, and it shaped the identity for new people who hadn’t voted before by creating new social norms that changed the game for demographics like the African American one. It created a movement of previous non-voters who believed in the cause. But ultimately, it was still just a campaign strategy. It wasn’t real political change attached to real political institutions—it was excellent for voter turnout, and it tried to be a long-term organization, but really, it was still a machine using people to get out votes for a stunningly archaic, bureaucratic model of government that listens to nobody without a Harvard Ph.D. Some people had figured that out by the second time around, which is partly why Obama’s numbers were down among Millennials.

Voting is a long-term, self-expressive, social identity. OFA laid the groundwork for a massive new civic engagement model, but it didn’t use it that way, because it hadn’t made a philosophical shift quite big enough. It made a big fuss about empowering citizens, but it didn’t actually do it.

What should the GOP be doing?

This has left a huge opening for somebody else to step in and do what OFA promised to do. Technology, like apps or social media, provide good infrastructure. But how will that infrastructure be used? And can it be connected to political relationships and institutions rather than just get-out-the-vote machines?

I’m sure the Republicans will use common-knowledge triggers to drive turnout—door-to-door visitation, social media that capitalizes on short-term emotions like enthusiasm and anger to drive sharing, and so on. The problem is those things are all voter turnout strategies; short-term strategies. They don’t treat voting like self-expressive social behavior, so they don’t create long-term interest. They can be useful in small doses within the context of a more stable, social, practical identity but they are no substitute for one. A sane person will only tolerate the Skyfall strategy so many times (“donate now or the sky will fall”); on the other hand, an aspirational identity like the one OFA built can have legs—if there’s a stabilizing force to ground it for the long term.

A long-term identity not only makes certain people vote year after year, but also volunteer week after week, stay involved in local politics, and more. It doesn’t look the same today as it did 50 years ago (for example, with regards to strict party loyalty), but it still has the same three foundations it always has. (And I do mean always—Stanford political scientist Josiah Ober noted them as core elements of what made Athenian democracy work thousands of years ago, and they are increasingly vindicated by moral psychologists and social network analysis experts.) The GOP should be cultivating long-term identities using these principles:

  • The first is relationships, and the obligations they entail. The Obama machine simulated them by sending campaign emails from the names of regional directors, and capitalized on them for voter turnout in the form of social media and network-based phone banking. But the only anchor for those relationships was the campaign machine—as I’ve written elsewhere, something that’ll be here tomorrow after you vote is a good deal more valuable.
  • The second is tangible significance. The Athenians gave their democracy this significance by making everything a wellspring of local political institutions (the “deme”), so you could see the effects of what you did; see that you were making a difference—precisely what OFA promised people they could do, only it turned out that just voting didn’t do empower them the way they expected.
  • The third is practical experience. Again, the local politics element is crucial. Replacing an experiential reality with a centrally administered “cause” people are supposed to support, as Georgetown political theorist Joshua Mitchell has observed, destroys the site where practical experience can be nurtured. And causes without these three core elements fade, leading to apathy, civic skepticism, and distrust of parties.

Republicans don’t run campaigns this way. Talk to any local party leader who interacted with the Romney campaign. They’ll tell you that when Romney was focusing on their state, the central party people descended on the state and started bossing the locals around—or even told them to step aside. In doing so, they lost the local knowledge that could have been valuable for the election, but they also provided a nice case study of how campaigns have been run for a good while now: basically a machine for using people to get what the elites want.

If Republicans want to not only win that big election, but build a long-term civic infrastructure for influencing citizens, developing leaders, winning many elections, and oh by the way, actually accomplishing something conservative in Washington, involvement has to provide practical and emotional satisfaction. It has to have visible norms to people can see that “people like me” do this. The GOP should focus on making membership in their cause something social, something local, something tangible.

There’s a lot more to it than that, of course; a lot more that can be done—platform improvements, colossal messaging improvements, and yes, the infrastructure is vital. But even with all those things, as long as the GOP is just using people, it won’t match what the current president accomplished.

Fun further reading (anything citable I didn’t link to above generally came from here):

Sasha Issenberg, "The Victory Lab: The Secret Science of Winning Campaigns" (New York: Broadway Books, 2013)

Brook Manville and Josiah Ober, "A Company of Citizens: What the World's First Democracy Teaches Leaders About Creating Great Organizations" (Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 2003)

Jonathan Haidt, "The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion" (New York: Vintage Books, 2012)

Joshua Mitchell, “The Fragility of Freedom: Tocqueville on Religion, Democracy, and the American Future” (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995)

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