would Americans be better off if they used ideology as a heuristic?

(Washington DC) News stories abound these days about Trump voters who are surprised that the president and his party may cut their benefits. For instance, Mae Bilodeau says she voted for Trump “precisely because she thought he would help the poor people of America who need services like [the local Legal Advice and Referral Center]. ‘He seems to be taking away from them more than helping them at this point,’ Bilodeau said.”

A good number of Trump voters even spontaneously announce a preference for a Canadian-style single payer system.

I learned a long time ago to think of US politics on a left/right continuum: pro-state on the left, anti-state on the right. Using that framework, I regarded Obamacare as a modest shift leftward. I assumed that President Obama would wish to move further left but had compromised (wisely, I think; others would say unnecessarily) by enacting the ACA. If I were enrolled in an Obamacare exchange, I would expect a Democrat to reduce my premiums or increase my benefits, simply by spending more money on the program. I would expect a Republican president to do the opposite: defund or repeal the law. My opinion of their positions would depend on my view of the government and the market.

But the Trump supporters quoted in these recent news reports do not use the left/right continuum as a heuristic. And that shouldn’t surprise us.  “Despite the centrality of philosophical concepts like liberalism and conservatism to mainstream political discourse, modern public opinion research has generally concluded that most citizens are unable to effectively use these concepts when making political judgments” (Frederico & Hunt 2013). Instead, at least some of Trump’s voters simply see him as standing on their side, and liberals as their enemies. I overheard two working-class white New England guys recently. One said, “The problem with liberals is they just hate people.” The other laughed. Many seem to have assumed that Trump would lower their premiums or improve their benefits. If Obama wasn’t doing either, that showed that he was a people-hating liberal, or perhaps just less competent than business-wizard Donald J. Trump would be.

This post could end with me tsk-tsking my fellow citizens for not using the ideological heuristic that I learned long ago to decide for whom to vote. And in fact, I believe Americans would be better off (overall) if they at least understood how to think in pro-state versus pro-market terms. That would certainly be far preferable to using race as a heuristic, as some may do.

Yet they may also be right to downplay the left/right spectrum. Consider the Kentuckian whom Sarak Kliff interviewed last December. She is reliant on the ACA, yet she had voted for Trump. She explained, “I guess I thought that, you know, he would not do this, he would not take health insurance away knowing it would affect so many peoples lives. … I mean, what are you to do then if you cannot pay for insurance?”

At the time, I tsk-tsked. But, to my surprise, it now looks fairly unlikely that the Republicans will repeal the ACA. This voter was right, and I was wrong. She saw herself as part of a coalition that won the election and would serve her interests. Ultimately, I believe that heuristic misled her, because she threw her support to anti-government conservatives who want to cut her benefits for ideological reasons, and she joined a coalition dominated by wealthy people who mainly want their taxes cut. But again, I am the one who was surprised to see ACA repeal in such trouble; her prediction was more accurate than mine.

Republicans tend to think that they have an anti-government or pro-market movement behind them. They are likely wrong. (CIRCLE’s research reveals a substantial shift of young white men who define themselves as “moderates,” not “conservatives,” to Trump in 2016.) The Alt-Right believes there’s a majority that is pro-welfare and also white-supremacist. I doubt that constituency is huge. But liberals should also doubt that they can win votes mainly by finding the right point on the left/right spectrum. Their main challenge is trust. As for voters, they may use a range of heuristics to assess candidates, but they would be wise not to ignore left/right ideology completely, because it explains why the GOP is trying to cut their benefits.

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.