How politicians determine how they vote

As Democrats direct their angst toward Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), or Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) or whatever apostate in their party is getting in the way of President Biden’s agenda today, some think that the correct way to address their “sins” is to punish them. Others seek to persuade them to change their minds. But neither approach is how politics works. Instead, people who want to change the votes of a particular politician ought to convince the people who matter to that politician: their voters.

Some people think that political change happens by convincing enough lawmakers to support a policy. In a strict sense, this is true — political change often requires lawmakers to pass laws. But persuading lawmakers to vote for something is difficult for a particular reason: Elected officials vote based on their sentiments more than on ideas, arguments and evidence.

That is, when presented with an issue or a bill, a politician supports or opposes it based on his or her feelings. “Who does it help, and do I like those people? Do my supporters like them or the idea? Will my voters like me if I support this?”

That is, politicians typically do not form their opinions after considering the evidence, understanding the expected effects of the policy, or applying a principled framework to determine their position.

They rarely ask whether the proposal advances a proper role of government, consistent with a conservative framework. They rarely ask whether it siphons money from the poor to the well-off, a concern of a progressive framework. They may be a little more sensitive to those questions if there’s an election coming up, but otherwise, they usually let their sentiments drive their responses, rather than any ideas about what policy should do.

Though I couldn’t validate the quote’s authenticity, the Progressive-era populist politician William Jennings Bryan is alleged to have said: “I don’t know anything about free silver. The people of Nebraska are for free silver and I am for free silver. I will look up the arguments later.”

This means that people can sit with lawmakers and present the best case they can. They can bring strong evidence, have a compelling message, make a persuasive case and address all problems that the lawmaker might have with their issue. But if their idea conflicts with the politician’s sentiments, there’s little they can do.

This limits an advocate’s ability to be effective by appealing to elected officials. You can’t sell lab-grown meat to cattle ranchers. Lawmakers’ ability to be persuaded with evidence and arguments is limited to issues that don’t affect their voters or the people they like. Alternatively, their sentiments might be changed by demonstrating that an issue affects a lot of their voters or the people they like.

Not every elected official is immune to argumentation, however. There are even some lawmakers who will take unpopular stances when principles are at stake. Yet, as former Michigan state legislator Leon Drolet said, “There’s a name for these types of lawmakers. And that name is ‘losers of elections.’ That’s because the Overton Window doesn’t care about your principles.”

This point may sound like a complaint, but it reflects a sound reality. Elected officials know that they are accountable to voters if they want to stay in office. Their accountability is not to principles or party, but to the people who vote for them.

For people who want to make a difference, this fact should inform their strategy. Politicians are the last people to enact political change, but change starts by making an idea broadly popular. The rule for the advocate becomes this: Convince people, and politicians follow.

This is to say that, in a democratic society, persuasion is a potent political tool. But persuasion ought to be directed at citizens and their own understanding and thoughts about policy, rather than to elected officials.

Too often, political debates sound like a contest of one side trying to trounce the other. Yet, whatever happens in an election, the winners cannot pass whatever legislation they like. They are bound by what is popular, or at least their understanding of it. Lasting political change comes from persuading fellow citizens, rather than overcoming them.

James M. Hohman is the director of fiscal policy at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and educational institute in Midland, Mich. Follow him on Twitter @JamesHohman.