When It REALLY Matters

A few days ago, in a column about Morton Marcus’ recommendations for changes to Indiana’s retrograde legislature, I alluded to a now-forgotten effort–bipartisan, even!–to reduce waste in Indiana’s government.

The Kernan-Shepard Commission, co-chaired by former Democratic Governor Joe Kernan and Republican then-Chief Justice of Indiana’s Supreme Court, Randy Shepard, had issued a report detailing the waste involved in maintaining 1008 townships in the state. The Commission recommended eliminating or consolidating a number of those townships, which–over the years–had been divested of most of the tasks they’d originally been created to perform.

Polling conducted by the Indiana Chamber of Commerce confirmed that a large majority of voters agreed that townships should go–that they wasted tax dollars better used elsewhere.  The problem was that it was a rare individual for whom this was salient–that is, a burning, issue.

It was a burning issue, however, for Township Trustees and the members of their Advisory Boards. Eliminating townships would eliminate the livelihoods of the Trustees (and the relatives too many of them employ). It would eliminate the inflated fees paid to many Advisory Board members for attending three or four meetings a year. The trustees and board members focused like lasers on Indiana’s legislators, bringing in people to testify, hiring lobbyists and calling in political favors.

For them, the issue was critically important–i.e., salient. And so Indiana still has 1008 townships.

In the Indiana Statehouse and in Washington, this same scenario plays out over and over. Most Americans disapprove of a number of decisions our lawmakers make or refuse to make–I consistently see comments disapproving of special tax breaks for the wealthy or fossil fuel companies, and Congressional refusal to even consider Medicare for All. How many of those who complain about the tax code and/or healthcare–or anything else– have written or called their lawmakers about these matters? Spent time or money lobbying for repeal or passage? Very few. On the other hand, the people who benefit from these policies–for whom they are salient– certainly have.

People rally to defend their interests, financial or cultural, and when those with lots of resources focus those resources on derailing or passing a proposed bill, the likely result is that the bill will be derailed or passed. So nothing changes.

On those rare occasions when a legislative issue becomes highly salient to a sizable number of voters, however, it’s possible for the “little guys”–the voters– to win these contests.

And that observation brings me to this year’s elections. For the first time in a long time, several partisan issues are highly salient to large numbers of voters. The most obvious of those is abortion. For many years, when Roe v. Wade protected women’s reproductive autonomy, all the passion–all the salience–was on the (misnamed) “pro-life” side. After Dobbs, that is no longer the case. Reproductive rights are suddenly very important, very salient, to huge numbers of voters, and not all of them are female.

It probably doesn’t rival abortion as a vote motivator, but thanks to the daily drumbeat of gun violence, gun safety is another issue that has become important/salient to large numbers of citizens. Several other issue speak forcefully to specific constituencies: the unremitting GOP attacks on trans children (one-half of one percent of American children, and thus a monumental threat) has raised the salience of those issues not just in the gay community but also among its numerous allies. Republican attacks on public schools and universities are deeply resented by educators and a considerable number of parents. Etc.

These issues aren’t just important to lots of people–they have the added benefit of being clear-cut. Tax policy, energy policy, healthcare–these areas give rise to complex and often arcane arguments. A debate about who should get to make reproductive decisions for an individual woman– the government or the woman whose life will be affected–is  far clearer. Whether a man who has been convicted of spousal abuse should be entitled to buy an assault rifle is equally clear.

Call me a Pollyanna, but I am convinced that the dramatically increased salience of these and other issues–together with widespread loathing of  Donald J.Trump and his lunatic cult– will help activists motivate an unprecedented and necessary turnout in November.

I sure hope I’m right….


Why I Don’t Think The Midterms Were An Anomaly

I have a bet with my youngest son. He’s a political pessimist, especially when it comes to the state of Indiana. (The bet involves very expensive dinners…) The bet was triggered by my excitement–and optimism–about Jennifer McCormick’s announcement that she is a candidate for Governor. I think she can win, even in deep Red Indiana; my son has written off the possibility of any Democrat winning statewide office, and has dismissed any predictive value of Obama’s 2008 Hoosier win.

My optimism about McCormick’s campaign is partially due to candidate quality (both hers and that of her likely opponent, the odious Mike Braun) but it is also based on what I see as a national trend: from top to bottom, the GOP is running truly horrible candidates.

At the very top of the Republican ticket, we are almost certain to get either Donald Trump or Ron DeSantis. American voters soundly rejected Trump in 2020, and he gets more certifiable as his legal woes mount. DeSantis appears to be basing his campaign on an “anti-woke” platform. Not only is DeSantis most definitely not a guy you’d like to have a beer with, his evident belief that a majority of Americans want to return to the 1950s, when “men were men” (and in charge), women were in the kitchen barefoot and pregnant, no one had ever heard the word transgender, and schools dutifully imparted White Christian propaganda, is simply delusional.

In a recent issue of his daily newsletter, Robert Hubbell noted that Democratic over-performance hasn’t abated since the midterms, when that predicted Red wave failed to materialize. He pointed to subsequent elections in Colorado Springs, Colorado, where voters selected the first non-Republican mayor since 1979 by a margin of 15 points;
a Pennsylvania special election to the state assembly where the Democrat won by 20 points and maintained Democratic control despite the fact that, going into the 2022 midterms, Republicans had held a 113-90 advantage; and a New Hampshire assembly race where the Democrat won by 43 percentage points, “eclipsing Biden’s 27-point margin in 2020.”

Hubbell quoted one analyst for the observation that

Democrats have overperformed the 2020 presidential results by an average of six points across 18 state legislative races this year. . . . They’ve also beaten their 2016 margins by an average of 10 points.

He quotes another analyst who focused in on the underlying reasons for that over-performance: abortion extremism, ongoing GOP-encouraged gun violence, extremist MAGA candidates, and a (finally!) fired-up Democratic grassroots.

In the run-up to the midterms, Republicans confidently pointed to Joe Biden’s disappointing approval ratings as a sign that they would sweep their gerrymandered House districts and retake control of the Senate. As we now know, despite the extreme gerrymandering and the vote suppression efforts, those victories eluded them.

As Morton Marcus and I argued in our recent book, the loss of Roe v. Wade was a major reason for that outcome. Women’s progress toward civic equality requires autonomy, control over one’s own reproduction, and most women who vote understand that. Republicans running for office in 2024 will have to “thread the needle” between primary voters who are rigidly anti-abortion and a general election electorate that is lopsidedly pro-choice.

Good luck with that…

Add to the abortion wars the daily gun carnage that feckless Republicans keep trying to blame on mental health–despite the fact that large majorities of voters, even majorities of NRA members, attribute the mayhem to the lack of responsible gun regulations.

Voters who aren’t part of the White Nationalist Cult that is today’s GOP look at Congress–at Republicans protecting George Santos, hiring Neo-Nazi staffers, threatening to ruin the economy if they aren’t allowed to deprive poor people of food and mistreat veterans...and a not-insignificant number of them are echoing the immortal words of Howard Beale in the classic movie Network:“I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this any more!”

It’s true that the GOP can count on its cult members coming to the polls. There are more of those sorry creatures than most nice people want to believe, and they absolutely pose a danger to all of us–but they are a distinct minority of Americans. We need to see them for what they are, and recognize the threat they pose to the America the rest of us inhabit, but they can’t win in the absence of majority apathy.

Democratic candidates, on the other hand, appeal to voters who (like Indiana’s McCormick) support public education and academic freedom, who believe in separation of church and state, in women’s equality, in civility and compassion and inclusion–in all those qualities that our parents taught us were admirable, but the GOP disdains as “woke.”

There’s a lot to be concerned about, but like Hubbell, I’m hopeful.