December 20, 2013


The Web site. (Jon Elswick/Associated Press)
The Web site. (Jon Elswick/Associated Press)

Great catch by Greg Sargent today, who notes that Republican voters are all for “the part in the 2010 health care law that provides financial help to low- and moderate-income Americans who don’t get health insurance through their jobs to help them purchase coverage” but are strongly against the idea that “providing health coverage for the poor is the responsibility of the federal government.”

Now, the trick to interpreting this correctly isn’t (as liberals would) to decide that Republicans really like big government or (as conservatives would) to decide that Republicans really oppose social spending. Instead, what’s probably going on here is both — and neither.

That is, most voters respond to the liberal and conservative frames on most issues. Not all issues — most of us have a few things we care strongly about, whether it’s guns, abortion, minimum wage, Afghanistan or whatever. Very few of us have a strong belief in a particular “ideology” in the sense of strongly adhering to a particular set of first principles that attentive political actors would recognize as “liberal” or “conservative” (or socialist, libertarian, green or whatever). Instead, most voters seem to appreciate arguments from multiple sides — we might think it sounds right that people should make it on their own and that too much government assistance would make us dependent, but we might also think it sounds right that we should pitch in collectively to help the needy and also that there are things we can do collectively to ensure a fairer chance for all.

In practical terms, believing both of those things might be wildly inconsistent, but it’s also true, in practical terms, that most of us never have to resolve that inconsistency — so we don’t. Not because we’re stupid or even because we’re ill-informed (although it’s the most informed who tend to be the most ideological), but because there’s no reason to.

As Greg suggests, however, the closer questions get to triggering partisanship, the more we’ll give the “correct” ideological answers — that is, ask a Republican about Obamacare, and she’ll know that she hates it (and Democrats will know that they like it). There’s an incentive-based answer to why that happens, too. Picking an ideology, for most of us, doesn’t accomplish anything. Picking a party, however, massively simplifies voting, which is something most of us do, fairly often and most of the time with very little to go on. Not only that, but party is actually a great shortcut — as long as we pick the one that generally lines up with us on the few issues we really do care about, then party “works” to identify the candidate most likely to hold that position.

So, again in practical terms, what Republicans will act on in terms of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) is that they’ll vote for candidates who oppose Obamacare. But, yes, for most of them it’s not because it violates some deeply held principles; it’s because they’re Republicans. Just as most Democrats will vote for candidates who support the ACA because, well, they’re Democrats. And the best thing? That turns out to make for a very effective democracy.