In politics, it all comes down to salience.
We often hear about survey research confirming that most Americans believe X or Y (usually, a relatively liberal policy), and then wonder why we can’t get lawmakers to pass X or Y. The usual cynical answer is money–the folks bankrolling the lawmakers–and there is certainly truth to that.
But the most accurate explanation is salience–or more accurately, the lack thereof. How much do the people expressing their approval of policy X or Y actually care about the issue?
I first realized the importance of the answer to that question several years ago, when a commission co-chaired by former Supreme Court Justice Shepard and former Indiana Governor Kernan concluded that Indiana needed to dispense with the 1008 township offices that had once had multiple duties, but for many years had mainly dispensed poor relief and maintained pauper cemeteries. (California, to the best of my recollection, had 59 townships at the time, reinforcing the argument that Indiana’s 1008 were excessive.) The commission noted that, to the extent that township duties still needed to be performed, the counties could easily take over those responsibilities.
Indiana’s townships were created when the ride to the county seat took half a day by horseback. The townships’ poor relief function preceded creation of federal welfare programs; not only was the need for local relief far less, several research projects showed that it cost taxpayers 1.50+ for every dollar of poor relief the townships were dispensing.
In addition, the Commission’s report noted that every one of those townships was paying a salary to the township trustee and a stipend to the five members of a township board. The League of Women Voters published a study showing that a number of Trustees paid rent on offices that were located in their own garages or other accessory buildings, and a number hired and paid family members as office personnel.
It all added up to a big waste of tax dollars, and the Indiana Chamber fielded a survey that found some 80% of Hoosier voters in favor of the change. The problem was, those voters really didn’t care very much. Reforming political subdivisions was way down on their list of pressing concerns.
I bet you can guess who did care–the township trustees, and members of those township boards. They cared a lot, and they descended on the legislature in droves. Indiana still has 1008 townships.
So we come to the moral of my story.
A clear majority of American voters tell survey researchers that they want to protect abortion rights– at least to some extent. An even larger majority wants meaningful gun control and are unlikely to consider the current possible “bipartisan agreement” sufficiently meaningful. Although we don’t have research on the number of voters appalled by what we are learning from the hearings being held by the January 6th Committee, it is likely to be a large number–even larger than the millions of votes cast for Joe Biden in 2020–and we can assume that those voters care about preserving American democracy and punishing the bad guys who tried to overturn it.
However, the critical question is: how much do they care?
The midterms are coming up. Will the millions of Americans who don’t usually bother to cast a ballot go to the polls and send a clear and convincing message to lawmakers? Are these issues salient enough to enough Americans to get them off their couches? Because if the GOP takes over the House or Senate or both, we can kiss goodby to both American democracy and accountability under the rule of law, let alone any glimmer of hope for imposing ethical standards on the Supreme Court, or curtailing the sale of weapons of war to teenagers.
If history is any guide, I’m not optimistic…..