the national interest

People Like Us: Why Ohio Rejected GOP Limits on Collective Bargaining

Union supporters make their way into the Ohio Captial building as Gov. John Kasich begins his State of the State address on March 8, 2011 in Columbus, Ohio.
Union supporters protest Ohio Governor John Kasich’s State of the State address in March. Photo: Mike Munden/Getty Images

The most important result of yesterday’s election was the overwhelming defeat in Ohio of a measure to limit collective bargaining by public employees. “They might’ve said it was too much too soon,” sighed nearly contrite Republican governor John Kasich. Other conservatives appear more concerned, but only slightly so. “For whatever reason, it has proven difficult in states like Wisconsin and Ohio to convey the message that limiting collective bargaining is necessary to help local governments manage their budgets,” muses a puzzled John McCormack at the Weekly Standard. “This is not sea change in political philosophy or a rejection of the party in power,” insists Kevin Holtsberry at RedState.

The Ohio result actually reflects a failure of conservative activists to understand what motivates the electorate. The conservative movement holds an ideological and generally principled opposition to government. Most Republican voters don’t share that. They oppose government programs that seem to benefit people other than themselves.

The most relevant piece of work here is a study by Donald Kinder and Cindy Kam, which identified ethnocentrism, or a favoritism for people you identify with racially, culturally, or otherwise, as a driving force of American public opinion. Among whites, ethnocentrism makes you more opposed to welfare and food stamps. That’s conservative, and obviously not very surprising. The surprising thing is that ethnocentric whites are more supportive of Social Security and Medicare. Those are programs for people like themselves.

Republicans successfully mobilized public opposition to health care reform by portraying it as an attempt to take health care away from people like you and give it to the undeserving “them.” Conservatives deliriously interpreted this as a triumph of anti-government ideology asserting itself. But as Republicans discovered when they voted for a budget to slash Medicare, the public remains staunchly opposed to cutting programs for people like themselves.

If you look at the opposition to Issue 2 in Ohio, it struck directly at the ethnocentric sweet-spot:

Voters like their local cops, firefighters, nurses and teachers. In many ways, they idealize these type of positions even if they don’t like the state of education or public safety, etc.  Thus opponents of reform had a very easy and emotionally effective message: Senate Bill 5 is an attack on the “everyday heroes” who protect our communities. 

Cops, firefighters, teachers, nurses — people like us. Conservatives have yet to grasp that their successful attempts to rally opposition to government programs seen as benefiting the Other do not translate into opposition to the vast bulk of the government.

Why Ohio Upheld Collective Bargaining Rights