07 November 2013

Virginia, and why politics is often about things people tell you it is.


I brought this up in a debate forum recently.

Basically the point is this: abortion is, for all intents and purposes, an irrelevant political topic in most elections. Republicans' problem with abortion has been they have recently run a disproportionate number of unskilled political figures who have said things on the subject, or tangentially related subjects like female anatomy and rape, that are well outside the political mainstream and treated harshly by voters (as they rightly should be). But their fundamental position on abortion, while disagreeable and in my view wrong, isn't a dead weight anchor that prevents them from winning or causes defeat in elections by annoying women in particular. They will not need to adjust it to "win back women" or to win elections overall. They will mostly need to shut up about it.

A closer case can be made for how Republican candidates talk about women (binders full of them!, or Romney's equally repulsive and stupid subsequent claim that women were bought off with free birth control) or have taken positions such as invasive ultrasounds being mandated for abortion procedures which are unpopular. But these issues are likely unpopular with men as well given that abortion politics are basically the same across gender, and at times that men have even evinced higher levels of pro-choice attitudes than women. In the superficial way in which most people, regardless of gender, consume political information and news, gaffes and extreme views are likely to attract attention and perhaps sway opinion when they are inevitably highlighted by press coverage and negative advertising. We could probably say that Cuccinelli's views on invasive ultrasounds or statements and record on sodomy and so on through the sexual panoply of political footballs for him to fumble created an overall attitude and perspective which a) annoyed many putative donors to his campaign and prevented him from raising money and enthusiasm outside of his base, b) annoyed a significant portion of voters into voting against him without regard for the opponent and c) allowed for easier attack advertising by his opponent by using his own words and record to attack him. Allowing a candidate to win an election without really providing a significant platform because they draw large numbers of voters who "hate you" instead should be a cardinal sin in politics. One can argue this is sort of what Obama did in 2008 by running against the Bush legacy and providing a lot of insubstantial promises about a proposed agenda, and that it is also what Romney attempted to do in 2012 but was far less skilled politically and charismatically to pull it off (and/or had poor political views). But the point is that saying dumb things or having a bad or unpopular record on a few issues is a bad idea if winning the election matters as it places a big handicap on your potential vote. This is true regardless of whether the subject is women, abortion, the environment (another issue that annoyed donors), homosexuals, or more simply, the damn roads and traffic.

Back to the abortion point.

There are several reasons it is irrelevant politically.
- Most people do not care, or hold relatively vague positions (that sometimes contradict each other). This is why I consider many Democrats to be effectively pro-life/anti-choice simply because they end up not opposing or even backing many restrictions on accessibility which to the uninterested or uninformed voter seem "reasonable", but which offer limited utility at best (and are unambiguously dumb in most cases). The vast majority of the public holds these squishy mentalities about abortion, with it existing in an uncomfortable moral and political space that they would rather pretend isn't there. When most people do not want to care about an issue in the first place, it is easy to ignore it altogether or say as little as possible or necessary about it and move on.
- The people who do care already have their minds made up, and are generally informed activists who vote on the issue in a more concerted way. They will enter an election cycle already knowing who they will vote for or against based on party heuristics or actual political attention and knowledge. Even extreme statements are unlikely to move their positions because those statements will simply confirm what they already know about the candidates.
- Political opinion on abortion isn't moving or trending significantly and doesn't demonstrate many demographic splits moving forward from age and generational shift. This distinguishes it from other social issues like the drug war (sort of) or gay marriage, where there are huge generational gaps politically that political figures must address or navigate, and requires some amount of attention in more elections because the shifts overall are large and positive in one direction (or another I suppose if one is less favorable to either than I am).
- Extreme statements are rare, that's why they are "newsworthy". Most politicians know not to say that they might consider rape/incest exemptions to be a problem. I personally consider these politicians who violate this third rail commandment of politics to be at least morally consistent, though I disagree with their moral basis and would oppose them for reason #2. Most voters do not and will not give them this credit. Most politicians know which abortion restrictions can be presented with some level of acceptability to a given population (parental notification, sometimes waiting periods, late term restrictions or bans), and which cannot (invasive ultrasounds, complete bans shuttering all or many abortion clinics). Polling data on these issues is readily available and has been relatively consistent for a couple of decades now. Political figures who wish to advance among conservatives can advertise their pro-life concerns but know they can accomplish nothing. This is what the previous GOP gubernatorial candidate in Virginia did (McDonnell), and what various candidates did not do (Cuccinelli, Akin, Mourdock, etc).
- If an extreme statement is not made, abortion will probably not surface as a political issue in any given election. It will surface if it is on a ballot, or if there have been more extreme laws passed (and usually overturned in courts), but it will probably not rise above more serious voter concerns like the economy, health care, crime, war, etc. I do not recall abortion being a serious issue in 2012 for example.
- My general contention would be to agree with a thesis that any actual success in overturning Roe-Wade by conservatives would be a death knell to their position. I think the political/policy elite knows this and knows that they benefit far more in activism and funding from being perceived as a somewhat extreme position that can be more vaguely expressed as "abortion is bad" rather than having to defend other positions like "these women are bad for needing/wanting abortions", or more likely "these women are dead, or suffered some other lesser grievous injustice, from an inability to get a safe and legal abortion", arguments on which the general public does not share the pro-life attitude, or opposes it openly. This means that the general Republican party attitude is to express public support for pro-life causes, perhaps pass a few laws that can restrict access without much opposition, or perhaps pass a few token harsher laws to be overturned in court, complain loudly about the courts and their activism either way, and move on to other things leaving this issue in more or less the status quo that it has been in since the Clinton years.

I find the general thesis that women are motivated to vote on the basis of "lady parts" to be rather disturbing and incorrect. Or it at least should suggest there's some plausible theory that men are voting based on their penis, which seems more likely honestly. Women are just as likely, if not more so, to be confronted with economic challenges in a mixed economy such as finding a job, holding a job, or even starting a business, and likely have grave concerns about the quality of education for children (or themselves), the safety and accessibility of public roads, and so on. To assess the probability of voting on the basis of abortion alone as a significant "women's issue" is first to fail to recognize that women are not distinguished in their views on abortion and the accompanying moral and legal frameworks we have from men, and second to demean women as incapable of having significant political views on a broad range of issues.

At the state level, these politics on abortion are somewhat more or less aggressive, but Virginia is a pretty moderate state thanks to expanding DC suburbs, relative to say, South Dakota or Nebraska or Kansas or Texas or Mississippi. We could say that in this case, Republicans ran someone who offended this status quo, and women perhaps correctly recognized this and voted accordingly, and good for them. Or we could also point out that there were a bunch of transportation and economic issues in the state (along with health care) that still overshadowed public opinion on abortion, and that on these issues, Cuccinelli also seemed out of step to his state's voters. Which is not altogether unlikely either since women still identified these as more pressing issues for their vote.

And this is also not altogether unlikely since Republicans have had a great deal of trouble articulating their economic views or plans for development of infrastructure, or in general a governing philosophy rather than a rhetorical opposition to governing in the first place. I consider this their far greater problem for women and for all voters; that they don't relate on economic grounds what their proposed policies would do or could do for voters at a personal level. Obama, of all people the supposed socialist by their reckoning, was far better at this than Romney at explaining how markets could work for example in a practical way. It's far too much "we need to keep taxes low" without recognizing that for most Americans, taxes are quite low historically (and the main exception is people near the poverty line who can have incredibly high marginal rates on increased earnings). And voters in their infinite wisdom, reject this as an insufficient platform and an insufficient solution to their problems.
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