October 30, 2022
by Stephen Stofka
This week’s letter is a detour into political branding and public opinion. In interviews with voters, I often hear “I am a [‘Democrat’ or ‘Republican’ or ‘Independent’ here].” It is not unusual to hear the same association with a religion as in “I am a Lutheran” or “I am a Catholic.” These identifications begin when we are young, extending the reach of our sense of self outside the family (Miller & Shanks, 1996, 120). These party affiliations are not mental straitjackets by any means. As we come of age, we form a unique set of values and group identifications and may adopt a party affiliation different from our parents. This can make for some uncomfortable conversation at the Thanksgiving dinner table.
We may self-identify with a party because we are not like those people in that other party. Political and cultural scientists have a term for this process of stereotyping people – othering. We might identify as an Independent voter because we are not a crowd follower like those Democrats and Republicans. We are discerning voters who study the issues and candidates before we vote. That is also a form of othering.
Magleby et al. (2011, 247) found that many self-identified Independents are leaners, leaning toward one party or the other, and are more engaged in political issues. In Presidential elections from 1952 to 2008, Republican leaning Independents voted almost 78% of the time, about the same as Weakly Partisan Republicans. Democrat leaning Independents showed the same behavior. Truly Independent voters who are not leaners have less interest in politics and voted only 63% of the time. In recent years, that percentage has dropped to 53%.
Our party system treats people as though they were computer switches – on or off, left or right. Many of us have graduated value systems that cannot be simplified like a logic gate on a circuit board. Citizen initiated ballot measures reveal that complexity. Many states have citizen initiatives, allowing interest groups to put legislative proposals on the ballot after collecting a number of verified signatures. A voter might be for a proposal to provide free lunches for all students but does not like the way the program is funded and votes NO. The ballots contain only the two choices – YES or NO. Consider a ballot that allowed a voter to represent their actual opinion. A neutral position would be 0. A voter could vote for the proposal on a scale from 1 to 5, or against the proposal on a scale of -1 to -5. We have the technology. Why don’t we have the ballots?
Despite evidence to the contrary, some Republicans voice distrust with voting machines and want to return to the days when paper ballots were counted by hand. They ignore the extensive testing procedures that their own Republican state legislatures conduct (NCSL, 2021). Republican voters who say they doubt the integrity of the vote are, in effect, doubting the honesty of their own party’s legislators whom Republican voters elected. The story is so illogical that Democrats have been unable to tell a narrative that would replace the Republican fairy tale. That is the genius of the Republican political narrative.
In Colorado, a Republican candidate for governor is one of more than a dozen Republican candidates around the country who have been telling outlandish stories that the schools are teaching children to identify as cats and use litter boxes (Klamann, 2022). If the illogical story with the voting machines caught fire with some voters, particularly Q-Anon believers, why not adopt the same strategy and try other bizarre stories? The stories are political hornets, designed to keep Democrats occupied by reminding people of actual facts. In the early 1950s, Republican Senator Joe McCarthy kept Democrats preoccupied with tall tales of Communists lurking behind every bush in Washington and Hollywood. Alex Jones emulates that McCarthyite cruelty and craziness.
Some Republican candidates celebrate othering and continue to build the Republican party on bias and exclusiveness. Southern Democrats successfully employed that strategy for 100 years after the Civil War. Former First Lady Michele Obama encouraged people to take the “high road” and not give into hate rhetoric. Lies, wild accusations of socialism and staged Tea Party rallies contributed to a historic loss of Democratic House seats in the 2010 midterms. In our winner-take-all electoral system, there is only one road to victory and political power. It is neither high nor low.
Democracy thrives on open distrust, on bold lies and the histrionics of political candidates and their supporters. Few Chinese dare to voice distrust with their leader, Xi Jinping. At the gathering of the CCP Congress this month, there was no wild gesticulating or shouting like there is at American political conventions and sometimes at State of the Union addresses. Americans treat politics like a rodeo, swooping and hollering. Chinese leaders look profoundly serious. In both countries, people are getting hurt, jailed and isolated but the American system is entertaining.
Photo by Nelson Ndongala on Unsplash
Klamann, Seth. 2022. “‘Incredibly Frustrating’: Colorado Schools Reject Ganahl’s Claims That Students Identify as Cats.” The Denver Post. https://www.denverpost.com/2022/10/04/colorado-schools-heidi-ganahl-students-cat-claims/ (October 28, 2022).
Magleby, David B, Candice J. Nelson, and Mark C. Westlye. 2011. “The Myth of the Independent Voter Revisited.” In Facing the Challenge of Democracy: Explorations in the Analysis of Public Opinion and Political Participation, eds. Benjamin Highton and Paul M. Sniderman. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. essay, 238–64.
Miller, Warren Edward, and J. Merrill Shanks. 1996. The New American Voter. Cambridge (Mass.): Harvard University Press.
NCSL: National Conference of State Legislatures. 2021. “Voting System Standards, Testing and Certification.” National Conference of State Legislatures. https://www.ncsl.org/research/elections-and-campaigns/voting-system-standards-testing-and-certification.aspx (October 28, 2022).