The Rationalist Papers (2): three ways to look at the election


How do you decide who to vote for? I see three ways people are deciding: policy, team loyalty, and trust.

Just a reminder: these posts are for the group I call the deciders: conservatives, moderates, undecided, and third-party voters considering their choices in the 2020 US Presidential election.

Choosing based on policy

In a traditional election, policy is the deciding factor. Voters determine who they feel will be a better choice for the economy, health care, taxes, foreign policy, and the like.

This is what was behind the James Carville 1992 quote suggesting that the election between Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush was about “the economy, stupid.” His perspective was that voters who felt the country was doing well would vote for Bush, and those who felt it was doing poorly would vote for a change: that is, for Bill Clinton.

If you are a policy voter, then you may be choosing based on, for example, who will better manage the COVID-19 epidemic, immigration policy, climate change, and the need to get the American economy and its hard-hit small businesses back on their feet. Like everyone else, I have an opinion on which candidate would do better, but I won’t be arguing that in this post.

In an emotional election such as this one, when the country is hurting, policy arguments don’t tend to be very persuasive with voters like you, the deciders. Those who love Democratic policies are probably voting for Biden; those who love Republican policies are probably voting against him. We’ll get into those in future posts.

But let’s look at two other ways that people are deciding to vote, ways that are far more persuasive in this election.

Choosing based on team loyalty

The 2020 election is the culmination of the “us vs. them” rhetoric that increasingly characterizes American political dialogue.

It many ways it is no different from loyalties in sports. I may be a Red Sox fan and you are a Yankee fan — you think I and my team are awful and your team is awesome. Or maybe you love the Cowboys and despise the Forty-Niners, or you root for the Clippers and hate the Heat.

Once you define your loyalties based on being on a team, it’s extremely easy to overlook the flaws in your own side, and magnify the flaws of the other side.

In this characterization, Trump is a flawed candidate (I think even his backers would acknowledge this), but one who has rallied a group of loyal voters behind him. These voters often feel that he articulates their perspective in a relatable way, and they have been ignored before this. Such voters identify with Trump.

There are, of course, many voters who vote Democrat and will seize on what is most admirable about their candidate and what is lacking in their opponent.

Now we even have media outlets that reinforce our team loyalties. Fox News is for Trump, just as the YES Network is for the Yankees. It’s not an unbiased source, but it’s a great way to immerse yourself in the cheerleading.

If you are ready to cheer for your political team no matter what, I’d urge you to stop a second and think. It is an excellent shortcut for voters, since it means they can make a choice without thinking that hard about current events. But the purpose of the Trump campaign is to win and retain power. The purpose of the Democratic Party is to win and perpetuate its own power. That’s how they work.

At some point, you may decide that there is more to the choice in front of us than picking a team. Advance yourself to that point to right now. Even as both teams are shouting about how they need your support, you should become suspicious. What will they actually do in the next four years? That’s a lot more important than whether you identify with the Red team or the Blue team.

Choosing based on trust

In my opinion, this is the fundamental deciding issue in the 2020 election: who can you trust? Which of the two major party candidates is more likely to behave in a way that preserves the American system of government and the nation we share?

In many elections, trust is not the deciding factor. Obama and McCain were both politicians who behaved in line with the ideals they put forth. So was Mitt Romney. So were John Kerry and George W. Bush and Al Gore. In these elections, we were able to choose based on policy.

But both Biden and Trump have been in office long enough that we can decide whether they behave in a way that we can trust.

Biden has been quite consistent. While he’s made decisions that, years later, feel out of step with current Democratic ideals, he does not have a history of inconsistency or lying at anywhere near the level that Trump does. You can certainly ask whether he behaved with integrity regarding his son’s activities in the Ukraine, but the latest government report from Republican Senators only goes so far as to show it was “problematic,” not corrupt.

Trump, on the other hand, has a serious trust problem. His misrepresentations happen daily. Just this week, he retweeted a doctored video of Biden to make it appear that Biden played the song “Fuck Tha Police” at an event (he didn’t). He routinely exaggerates and invents government statistics. And he consistently describes events that didn’t actually happen, like that the “Entire city [of Portland] is ablaze.

He concealed all the details of his private meeting with Vladimir Putin, even from members of his own diplomatic team. He has refused to release his tax returns (even after promising to do so), so we don’t know what conflicts of interest he has with his business and his government job.

The most troubling aspect of all of this is the way in which, in his government, the distinction between Trump the man, Trump the head of government, and Trump the candidate has been erased. Why has the Trump Justice Department taken a position in a lawsuit alleging Trump raped a woman in the 1990s, long before he was President? Why has his administration removed five inspector generals, officials whose job is to identify corruption in government departments?

Even in a world where trust in politicians is low, this pattern of untrustworthy behavior is consistent and troubling.

Consider the impact of your vote on the next four years. If Trump continues and extends his pattern of lying and behaving in contempt of the public trust, there is no further check on him. He will no longer need to run for reelection. He can do pretty much whatever he wants, and with the loyalty of his Attorney General, conceal everything that he does.

If you vote for Biden, you will get a politician with a reputation for trust, and one for which the usual safeguards of government will apply.

But if you vote for Trump, or for a third-party candidate, or if you fail to vote, and Trump wins, then there may no longer be any way to block the merging of Trump’s personal interests and the operation of government. Trust will be gone — permanently.

This is the reason that so many prominent Republicans are backing Biden (including, today, John McCain’s widow). They are concerned about our ability to trust government if Trump wins, and for them, trust is more important than policy differences.

The impact of this change goes beyond the next four years. Whoever takes over after eight years of Trump will be able to control all the levers of government, just as he has attempted to do. That’s pretty scary.

A vote for Joe Biden is a vote to step back to a day when we could feel, at least most of the time, that government was actually operating in our own best interest, not in the interest of the President. That’s the real thing that made America great. And it’s why, arguably, that a vote for Biden is the best way to make America great once again.

Feel free to post comments. However, I will delete comments that insult or demean me, other commenters, or groups, or state supposed facts without evidence. Vacuous cheerleading and catcalling is also prohibited; this is not a sporting event. No one persuades anyone by creating a hostile environment.

For the origin of the Rationalist Papers, see this. All Rationalist Papers posts available here.

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  1. Using the team metaphor, I’ll simply add that for those of us who’ve tended towards center/right, I’m uncomfortable having Donald Trump wear and forever tarnish our uniform. The ends don’t justify the means.

    And Go Celtics!

  2. For me, a policy focus has evolved into a sort of inverse trust process. Through the last 3.5 years Pres. Trump has sp consistently taken the opposite positions on issues that I do that I have come to trust that he will come down on what i consider the wrong side of any question.