Study: Politicians Think You’re More Conservative Than You Are

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Do you ever feel like the government chosen to represent your interests don’t actually represent your interests at all? And I’m not just talking about the Cheetoh in Chief — obviously Trump is only there to represent the interests of Putin and (other) virulent bigots, and I’m assuming you, the person watching my YouTube video right now, are neither of those. I mean, you, the person I care about. Not the average YouTube bigot who hate-watches me.

Anyway, a recent study suggests that you’re right, at least if you’re liberal — politicians from both major political parties tend to drastically overestimate how conservative their constituents are on our most important hot-button issues, like immigration, gay rights, abortion, and gun control. Gun control was the issue where politicians were worst at understanding their constituents. 84% of people want mandatory background checks on guns, but politicians thought that number was less than 50%.

57% of people want to ban assault rifles, but politicians think that number is more like 39%.

It’s not quite as bad for other issues, but it’s important to note that on nearly every issue polled, the public majority was on one side of the issue when politicians think they’re on the other. So for instance, being off by 7% might not seem like much, but it is a critical amount when 56% of people want same sex marriage and politicians think that only 49% of people do. Or when 55% of people want abortion to always be legal but politicians think that only 46% do. Or when only 38% of the public want the police to question suspected undocumented immigrants but the politicians think 50% want that. Because in general, our government operates by a majority vote, and this research shows that the government is wrong about what the majority of people want on nearly every important issue happening right now.

The researchers posit that this happens because conservatives are more likely to contact their representatives, especially when their reps are GOP but even when they’re Democrat. They’re motivated to do so by a continuous stream of conservative radio hosts and donors who tell them that they have to call their representatives or the liberals are going to take away their guns, or make them gay marry an immigrant. Which, now that I think of it, would be hilarious. When I’m president, all unmarried conservatives will be forced into a green card marriage with a gay immigrant. That should fix things.

I find this study interesting because prior to this, I knew (or suspected) that politicians from both sides of the aisle voted more conservatively than their base, but I assumed that it was primarily due to where they were getting their money. Many of these payoffs are fully legal and public knowledge, like how much various politicians get from the gun lobby and the oil and gas lobby — if those lobbyists are buying a politician, of course that politician will vote in line with their interests, because politicians by and large are disgusting sacks of shit who you cannot trust.

But that doesn’t fully explain why they think their constituents also support those lobbies’ positions. Marco Rubio got a cool million dollars from the NRA for his election, but that doesn’t mean that he thinks Floridians don’t want to ban assault weapons. The researchers also point out that past studies have suggested that politicians will change their votes when they get more accurate information about what their constituents want, so there’s a chance that this is related to conservatives just being more likely to talk to their reps.

On the other hand, I can spitball some other explanations. Maybe politicians don’t want to feel like disgusting sacks of shit who literally cause the deaths of children by taking money from the gun lobby and then doing their bidding and refusing to regulate guns. But boy, do they love that money. So maybe they tell themselves, “Hey, this is what the people want. The people want more assault rifles on our streets and in our schools. I’m just doing what they ask.” I mean, that’s one of the things the human brain is really good at — tricking itself, so that bad people doing bad things can tell themselves they’re really good people in a bad situation, so that they can sleep at night on that very expensive mattress in that mansion that the NRA built them.

It’s hard to say exactly what the truth is here, but a lot of the data does suggest that we’re all better off when we talk to our representatives often about what our viewpoints are. Because hey, they might be listening, and if they’re not, you’ll probably be more motivated to vote them out of office when the time comes.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor. Twitter @rebeccawatson Mastodon Instagram @actuallyrebeccawatson TikTok @actuallyrebeccawatson YouTube @rebeccawatson BlueSky

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  1. “When I’m president, …”

    “all unmarried conservatives will be forced into a green card marriage with a gay immigrant. That should fix things.”

    OH YEAH! Yes yes yes yes yes yes please please please please!

  2. There’s actually another reason for this. It goes back to McGovern’s loss. His campaign manager, Gary Hart, blamed labor for the loss. (As opposed to either the Watergate break-in or speculation about his running mate’s mental health. Yeah, the Democrats had a Sarah Palin, and his name was Thomas Eagleton.) Hart then trained a generation of “Atari Democrats”. (The name was coined in 1984, so, yeah, they were so hip, they named themselves after a company that was already moribund.)

    So, you had Atari Democrats, who had lofty goals…but no real plans to win, and no plans for the day-to-day lives of the majority of Americans.

    Now, keep in mind, I can’t say Hart was completely wrong. McGovern and Hart himself were both done dirty by the party establishment during their respective presidential runs. (Though Hart was unelectable at that point due to an unrelated affair.) But jettisoning unions for what I call “unicorn Dems”: Rich, suburban, white voters. Basically, any aughts sitcom.

    The other ingredient of this toxic stew was a Koch front group known simply as the DLC. And their goal was to win back the South. (So now you can see why Bill Clinton belonged to an all-white country club. It was politically wise if you think the US consists entirely of the South.)

    You want to see why Trump is president? A mix of Atari Dems and DLC Dems were Clinton’s closest advisers.

    And of course, on the other side, they’re happy to exploit this assumption.

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