Liberal Policies Win; Liberal Candidates Lose

By
Republican U.S. Senate candidate Dan Sullivan, center, greets supporters on election night, Tuesday, Nov. 4, 2014, in Anchorage Alaska. Sullivan is challenging U.S. Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska. At left is Sullivan's wife Julie Sullivan, and at right is his daughter Meghan. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)
Dissonance abounds! On Tuesday, Alaska voters likely elected to the Senate Republican Dan Sullivan, who opposes the marijuana legalization initiative they just approved. Photo: Ted S. Warren/AP/Corbis

On Tuesday, liberals lost at the polls. Republicans picked up at least seven seats in the Senate and more than a dozen in the House, along with a handful of governor’s mansions — including in the deep-blue states of Maryland and Massachusetts. All the intensity was with Republican voters and for Republican candidates. Democrats’ turnout collapsed, particularly among the young.

But on Tuesday, liberal policies won at the polls. Voters rejected fetal personhood ballot measures in North Dakota and Colorado. They approved marijuana legalization in two states and the District of Columbia. And voters in four states and three cities passed ballot initiatives hiking the minimum wage for an estimated 609,000 workers — with the potential for that number to swell to 1.7 million if states that adopted non-binding measures go ahead and lift their wage floors.

Many of those blue ballot initiatives happened in red states, no less. Alaska voted for pot. North Dakota turned down fetal personhood. Arkansas, Nebraska, and South Dakota voted to give their lowest-wage workers a raise. Voters, in other words, found it easy to vote for liberal policies even as they rejected liberal politicians. 

What explains the dissonance? Simple ignorance probably accounts for some of it: Americans are often unsure of which party controls what parts of government and who stands for what. For instance, one recent survey found that only 38 percent of Americans knew that Republicans have the majority in the House, and only 38 percent knew that Democrats have the majority in the Senate. 

That lack of knowledge — combined with the fact that the parties change their opinions on individual policy measures all the time — means that Americans often hold profoundly muddled political views. The proportion of Americans with consistent political opinions has doubled in the past two decades, according to a major Pew study of political polarization released this year. But even so, just 21 percent of Americans are ideologically consistent.

Four in five are likely to believe, for instance, both that “stricter environmental laws and regulations are worth the cost” and “government regulation of business usually does more harm than good,” or that “racial discrimination is the main reason why many black people can’t get ahead these days” and that “poor people today have it easy because they can get government benefits without doing anything in return.”

There’s evidence for voters’ contradictory beliefs everywhere you look in the polls. Voters hate the Affordable Care Act but like its major provisions. They disapprove of Barack Obama but are onboard with most of his major policy proposals. They vote to hike the minimum wage at the same time they vote in politicians opposed to hiking it. They tell their local representatives to “keep your government hands off my Medicare!”

Granted, active, invested political junkies tend to be more ideologically consistent than average Americans. But even among engaged Republicans, just 33 percent have consistent conservative views, up from 23 percent in 1994, in the midst of the “Republican Revolution,” Pew found. And it is those active, engaged Republicans who tended to show up at the polls on Tuesday — armed less with a clear ideological mandate than a deep distaste for Democrats, and especially Barack Obama.