We Are the Majority
Nothing's the matter with Kansas edition
Shortly after the Supreme Court threw out Roe v. Wade in late June, a buddy of mine suggested I write a post along the lines of “we are the majority.” He didn’t just have abortion in mind, but in light of last night’s resounding victory for abortion rights in Kansas, now seems like as good a time as any to get this down on “paper.”
Starting with Kansas. Anti-abortion state legislators thought they were pulling a fast one when, earlier this year, they decided to push a ballot measure that would allow a reconsideration of Kansas’ constitutional guarantee of abortion rights. The plan was to put this proposed amendment on the ballot on a sleepy primary night in early August when, because of the other contested races Kansans would be deciding, a low turnout race should have had a decidedly Republican tilt in this already Republican-dominated state.
But after the Dobbs decision, the tide shifted. Among other things, a tremendous organizing effort registered a slew of new voters. According to one initial tally, 70% of those new voters were women. And in an unanticipated turnout tidal wave, the proposed constitutional amendment went down to crushing defeat. When the final votes are tallied, the margin is likely to be more than ten points, an astounding romp given the state and the anticipated composition of the electorate to which this amendment was geared.
The outcome in Kansas reflects strong national disapproval of the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision. According to a recent CNN poll, nearly two thirds of Americans disapprove of Dobbs, and an eye-popping 51% “strongly disapprove.” Whatever ambivalence Americans have had about choice and abortion over the years, the current GOP’s extremism on the issue is clearly and dramatically out of step with the mainstream of American public opinion.
The Kansas vote reflects something else, though. I’ve written before about what political scientists describe as symbolic vs. operational ideology. In plain English, voters might prefer one party for symbolic reasons, including because of perceived alignment of worldviews between themselves and the party they’re loyal to (see my previous books on the subject :)). But their policy preferences might diverge substantially from those symbolic attachments. For example, on election night, 2020, Donald Trump beat Joe Biden in Florida by four points. On that same night, a ballot measure calling for an eventual increase in the Florida minimum wage to $15 an hour, a measure Republican officeholders almost universally oppose, won easy passage. Numerous bright red states have, every time they’ve been given the chance, voted in favor of Medicaid expansion, sometimes by overwhelming margins, and usually over the strong objections of their state Republican leaders. Even for all the years Obamacare itself polled poorly (and now it enjoys majority support), almost every one of its specific provisions was broadly popular. It was the “Obama” part, not the “care” part that many people objected to.
Democrats are now trying to pass a reconciliation bill that will allocate some $350 billion over ten years to various climate initiatives. If it passes, it will do so only if all 50 caucusing Democratic Senators vote aye. That’s because every single Republican will vote nay. Does that reflect public opinion? No, it does not. By wide margins, Americans believe that climate change is a serious problem requiring more determined government action. Only Republicans have doubled down on their denialism in recent years - Democrats and Independents support significant government intervention on the issue. In fact, besides climate change, on issue after issue, including increasing access to affordable health care, taxing the wealthy, expanding gun safety measures, supporting same-sex marriage and more, solid majorities prefer the mainstream liberal/Democratic position. One way this basic fact gets obscured is the nature of how public opinion tends to be reported and discussed, which is in partisan terms.
Let me elaborate on this.
I hear friends all the time say that we can’t do anything about X because “half the country” believes Y. What they mean is that most Republicans believe Y, even though that doesn’t represent half the country. This slippage appears frequently in reporting on public opinion, which tends to conflate a split between Democrats and Republicans on an issue with the proposition that the country is evenly or intractably divided. To be clear, the fact that Republicans oppose something, even if a clear majority of all Americans support it, as on climate action, is relevant and critical, given the nature of our political system. But it can muddy the reality animating this post - that *we* are the majority - and contribute to a self-perpetuating pessimism about our future
Even on transgender issues, which many Democratic strategists insist is hurting the party with middle-of-the-road voters, public opinion is not clear cut. In fact, almost two-thirds of Americans believe that transgender folks should be protected from discrimination in jobs, housing, and public spaces, according to a recent Pew poll. A majority say they should be allowed to use whichever public bathroom aligns with their identity. About some transgender debates, public opinion does not support the more progressive view. For example, a majority “would require that trans athletes compete on teams that match the sex they were assigned at birth.” But the larger point is that on this particularly contentious topic, one that has typically been deemed damaging to Democrats, public opinion is ambivalent, at worst.
None of this means that Democrats can or will win big majorities in most places, most of the time. They haven’t, obviously, and they won’t. People with different attitudes and worldviews are not evenly distributed across all states and legislative districts. Further, people’s ultimate vote choices are not, as is all too clear, merely the sum of their individual issue preferences. Who we vote for reflects a complicated mix of interests and identities. And for a variety of reasons, Republicans tend to outperform their (general lack of) popularity on issues. Our political institutions only amplify that overperformance.
The last couple of weeks have brought some better news for Democratic partisans. The January 6 hearings have clearly gotten traction and coverage beyond the most optimistic predictions, which has created some dissension within Republican ranks. Democrats have recently achieved some significant legislative victories, and may be on the cusp of more. Gas prices are starting to fall. I mention all this because my friend’s request, at the end of the disastrous Supreme Court term, came during a period of particular demoralization among Democrats/liberals/progressives. Then, it felt like the tide of history was turning decisively and perhaps irretrievably in a reactionary and ultimately authoritarian direction. And it still might be, the momentary vicissitudes of political fortune notwithstanding. The midterms will remain an uphill climb for Democrats, though the forecast is improving.1
The larger point is that, as perilous as the political waters ahead remain, it’s important to stay anchored in the reality that a broad center/left vision for the country is not a fringe one. Indeed, it’s fair to argue that it’s very mainstream. Translating that into sustained political success, at the ballot box and in organizing more broadly, is a whole ‘nother matter, of course. But that larger context is good to be reminded of, as last night’s result in Kansas did emphatically.
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And yes, I am very aware of how some forecasts have fared in recent years.