The issue with issues
Freelance writer Christopher Hayes spent the last seven weeks of the campaign talking to undecided voters in Wisconsin. He recounts his experiences in The New Republic (requires registration), and it is simply fascinating. And a little depressing. Most conventional wisdom about undecided voters is wrong, he says.In the context of the ongoing discussion about how to make the environment resonate with voters as an issue, I found the following bit particularly eye-opening:
Undecided voters don’t think in terms of issues. Perhaps the greatest myth about undecided voters is that they are undecided because of the “issues.” That is, while they might favor Kerry on the economy, they favor Bush on terrorism; or while they are anti-gay marriage, they also support social welfare programs. Occasionally I did encounter undecided voters who were genuinely cross-pressured–a couple who was fiercely pro-life, antiwar, and pro-environment for example–but such cases were exceedingly rare. More often than not, when I asked undecided voters what issues they would pay attention to as they made up their minds I was met with a blank stare, as if I’d just asked them to name their favorite prime number.
He goes on to say that virtually no undecided voter he talked to could name any issues, period — they seemed uncertain what issues qualified as political at all. His conclusion is food for thought:
In this context, Bush’s victory, particularly on the strength of those voters who listed “values” as their number one issue, makes perfect sense. Kerry ran a campaign that was about politics: He parsed the world into political categories and offered political solutions. Bush did this too, but it wasn’t the main thrust of his campaign. Instead, the president ran on broad themes, like “character” and “morals.” Everyone feels an immediate and intuitive expertise on morals and values–we all know what’s right and wrong. But how can undecided voters evaluate a candidate on issues if they don’t even grasp what issues are?
Liberals like to point out that majorities of Americans agree with the Democratic Party on the issues, so Republicans are forced to run on character and values in order to win. … But polls that ask people about issues presuppose a basic familiarity with the concept of issues–a familiarity that may not exist.
As far as I can tell, this leaves Democrats with two options: either abandon “issues” as the lynchpin of political campaigns and adopt the language of values, morals, and character as many have suggested; or begin the long-term and arduous task of rebuilding a popular, accessible political vocabulary–of convincing undecided voters to believe once again in the importance of issues.
To me, this just emphasizes the dire need to drag environmentalism away from any hint of wonkiness and aggressively connect it to the immediate, intimate context in which voters live. “My community should be clean” should be right up there with “people in my community ought to behave decently.” Neither requires any knowledge of or interest in politics.