What is the Most Important Political Issue in the United States?
This question was tossed around in the days leading up to the mid-term elections this week and continues to evade even the savviest political minds. Is it immigration, the economy, terrorism, biological security, etc.?
The question is flawed as it lacks the definition of “important.” I am sure that in a conversation with any reasonable person, he or she would come to the conclusion that security, liberty, or economic prosperity all could be important issues that influence their political leanings. However, my take on “important” is an issue that is so compelling to a person that it necessarily motivates action by that person. Put another way, for an issue to be “important” it must be one that is compelling enough for a person to act in furtherance of it. A basic life example is leaving work early to pick up a sick child from school. In this example the importance of the issue of the child overrides the otherwise compelling necessity to complete a workday.
Applied to a political perspective, this “importance” can be seen in two degrees. The first degree is compelling a person to come to the polls to vote. The second degree is the individual at the polls being motivated enough to vote beyond mere party.
Now, I don’t mean to imply that every voter who is motivated by an important issue will necessarily vote against his party or for a bipartisan slate. However, in a case like Maryland, where registered Democrats outnumber registered Republicans by an oft-cited 2-to-1 spread, the election of a Republican to state-wide office necessarily contemplates voters being motivated away from party-line voting. This is important to realize as party is, at its core, a method of self-identification. Therefore, in voting for members of an alternate party, one is making a statement that the individual from his or her party on the ballot does not represent the motivating values of the voter.
However, focusing on the issue of “importance,” we need to circle back to the first degree of evaluating importance: motivation to vote. Complacency is a clear enemy to democratic self-governance. Though there are those who make the case that apathy allows for a more discerning electorate (only those who care vote and thus representation reflects thoughtful decisions), real-life examples of individual voters being mobilized for causes would undermine that theory. Rather, a competing thought springs to mind: rather than a discerning, thoughtful electorate moving beyond its apathy through compulsion of individual will and patriotism, the likely reality is that the majority of voters will overcome apathy by calculated spikes of motivation on individual issues. A compelling example of this is the history-making election of Barack Obama in 2008 that drove high minority turnout. In what was rhetorically the culmination of the civil rights movement, the election of President Obama “spiked” the issue in the minds of voters that they could become part of history. While not all such motivation spikes are so pronounced, issues like gay marriage and other social issues have been seen in the past to also motivate turnout (as was the case in the 2004 reelection of George W. Bush where bans on gay marriage on the ballots of swing states motivated conservatives to turn out to vote).
So, what are these “first degree” motivations?
Typically, they exhibit themselves as things that can be conveyed through low-information, high inflammation. What I mean by this are issues whose meanings (while practically nuanced) are facially evident and viscerally concerning. Examples like: Candidate X voted against gay marriage; Candidate Y voted for partial birth abortion; Candidate Z says we shouldn’t quarantine Ebola patients. Regardless of the nuance of the underlying issue, the reality on “both” sides of the political spectrum is that such issues cut to the core of personal belief and act to define a candidate in the mind of a voter: I’m going to oppose Candidate X because he’s against the freedom to marry; I’m going to vote against Candidate Y because he wants to kill children; I’m going to vote against Candidate Z because he is recklessly exposing this nation to a foreign disease.
You notice how in each of those examples, the hypothetical voter was not motivated to come out in favor of the opponent of each candidate, but rather was motivated by their disgust of the position supported by the candidate. The reality here is that the motivation for voting is, rather than affirming the position of a candidate, preventing the perceived danger of the other.
Assuming our voter has passed the threshold of interest to make it to the polls; we can assume that he or she has enough motivation on one or more issues to overcome his or her apathy. However, as voter registration, like we’ve already discussed, is a method of self-definition, why are some voters breaking rank and voting for another party? This answer could be far more nuanced than what breaks a voter out of his or her apathy. At this point, we would normally assume that the social issues that tend to draw clear boundaries between parties are not encouraging the break from party ideology. Rather, such issues must, necessarily, be blunted in the mind of the voter so as to make the gulf between the two parties seem smaller. So, we are left with wondering: what really is the “important” issue that causes the break with self-defined ideology? The most likely answer is whatever issue is most closely related to an individual’s self-preservation or prosperity. In most elections this appears as “it’s the economy, stupid.” Other issues regarding regulations or particular legislation can also be seen as powerful motivators determining breaks away from candidates.
In the end the answer to the “most important” issue question is a bit of a cop-out: it’s whatever you feel is the most important. However, this answer isn’t as much of a vanilla anticlimax as it seems. Being able to read what will, first, cause someone to break free of apathy or discontent with the system and then to make an informed decision based on that overcoming is an extremely important ability. In the era of global terrorism, economic stagnation, and an increase in Federal power, the ability to project ill-defined “threats” onto an individual’s mind and motivate him to vote a particular way is power.
In a system where your vote is a commodity, the control of that resource is immensely profitable. Remember that when you decide to exercise that right.
Note that in the Maryland gubernatorial race, over $24 million was spent on campaigns. Approximately 1.75 million people voted in the election. That averages out to about $13.72 per vote.
So, what is the most important issue in American politics: you decide.