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 The big problem in America right now is a colossal, tottering, outdated national government that’s way too expensive, way too suffocating, and way too primitive to have survived the 1960s for so long.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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