American politics is an endlessly fascinating procession of national and local selfies: little snapshots that tell us a little bit from moment to moment about who we are as a country. And often those snapshots are split-screen, presenting conflicting images of a nation that is not just deeply divided ideologically but also riven by conflicts, paradoxes, and contradictions.
Here’s a case in point. An ultra-conservative Republican governor, Sam Brownback, is running scared for re-election in a deeply conservative state, Kansas. Brownback is unpopular despite his rightwing governance. Or just maybe, because of it. Brownback has cut the income tax in Kansas while schools are suffering. And his little-known, moderate Democratic rival, Paul Davis, is giving him a fight.
Meanwhile, in the same state of Kansas, conservative Republican senator Pat Roberts is also in trouble. He may pull it out, but his moderate independent challenger, Greg Orman, is up in some recent polls and has a chance.
It’s all a mystery to me, though admittedly I don’t follow Kansas politics closely, and mysteries in politics tend to grow in the soil of ignorance. None of it’s inherently or necessarily mysterious. Questions about electorates and public attitudes tend to have answers, if you ask the right questions and ask enough people.
Nevertheless, I have a theory to add to the pile that explain how we vote. And it’s not just about Kansas, but American voters in general. Here goes.
I think we are sometimes more conservative in the voting booth than we are in the safety of their homes. And not just because we vote in November, a month that is not a springtime of hope for the soul. (If you’re a Republican, ask yourself: would you want elections to be held in May?).
What I mean, rather, is that we are more susceptible to conservative messages in the heat of elections than we are conservative in our hearts. A 1999 book called The Sound Bite Society explores the appeal of the “Electronic Right.” I haven’t yet fully recanted its thesis that television and radio are structurally conservative media. But that, too, is a different (but not incompatible) explanation of our rightward tendencies.
Let me put it another way: we like conservative appeals to our individualism and to small government (or if you prefer, to our greed, selfishness, and tribal values) more than we like the way conservatives actually govern. We like small government – this part is well-documented by political science – but we also like the services government offers. We like what we hear from candidates on the right more than we like what they do in office. So our politics is, in some sense, a continuous cycle of buyer’s remorse.
It’s also a matter of record that consistency, intellectual or ideological, isn’t a prerequisite for registering to vote. Thomas Frank’s classic book “What’s the Matter with Kansas?” documented how we often vote against our own self-interest, even when moved by conservative appeals to self-interest. We protect the self-interest of the better-off. Frank is surely right; but that, too, is a different perspective on the outcomes we are trying to explain.
Yet another perspective on our national circus is that elections aren’t about how people vote or what the arguments are. (Again, I’m putting it crudely). They’re about who is motivated to vote. Hence, a big swing can occur not because people’s hearts and minds are changed, but because some of us, in a given cycle, are more driven than others to vote their hearts and minds.
But back to the buyer’s remorse theory. What this means, if I’m right, is that voters (and I’m talking about the wobbly center that is the fulcrum of most of our elections; the rest of us know where we stand, and stay there) like what they hear from conservatives, vote for them, and then, not infrequently (not having thought much about how those messages would translate into governing philosophy, though it’s obvious enough) wish they hadn’t, and throw the bums out.
That seems to be what’s happening in Kansas, where Brownback and Roberts should be coasting to re-election but aren’t. This is not to say that Kansas is turning blue; it isn’t. But maybe we’re all just a little bluer once we’ve voted red and seen the results. Even if sometimes we are color-blind.