What better time to talk about the bitter tribal warfare than after the budget brinksmanship of the debt ceiling debate? Politics is made complicated by many theoretical and ideological debates. Is this rational reasoned argumentation to win over the other side? No. Is this post rationalization of prior-held beliefs yes.
How can we simplify the battle lines to better understand the heart of the debate. Let’s start by following the money. For the simple debate about government ; too much or too little, let’s simply look at who benefits.
- Government taxes everybody. People who lose more of their income from the government can be expected to be more and more against it. This is true on a firm level or on an individual level.
- The government creates some jobs. People whose employment depends to a large part on government funding will be more for these program or continued funding. Simplest cases are in the jobs of bureaucrats, but also extends to education institutions which receive federal funds. Public sector workers may also see state or local gov’t as essential for their jobs.
- Government regulations that impede or enable opportunities. For those businesses that feel their freedom to operate is limited by government it makes sense for a negative approach. Think of any incumbent polluting industry, and they will naturally resist environmental regulations. For new competitors that need regulations in order to enter (renewable electricity), it makes sense to favor regulation. Government protection of unions can also be a contentious issue.
- Governments codify social values: For those that obtain personal freedoms through new laws as illustrated by the civil rights movement and gay marriage it makes sense that those liberated by new laws would be for government regulation. For those that do not see their values supported or encourage – in the case of the separation between church and state, may be against these policies.
- Public works: If whatever regional governing body claims eminent domain and takes my land and home to construct a new highway, I will feel negatively towards the government. If I benefit from a public park, police, fire, clean water, trash pickup or prison system then it makes sense for me to be in support of those government functions
- War: Perhaps the most polarizing, or galvanizing is armed conflict. War has united a nation, and also divisive one.
All of these factors add up in the group psyche in the equation of “what has the government done for me lately”. This equation can be performed across multiple group identities of the voter. Our overlapping group affiliations will have us view government as a member of a religion that has freedom to worship, a community that has public services, an employee that can unionize or not, at a firm that can grow or shrink, as an individual taxpayer, and as a citizen whose family members go off to war.
These identities fight each-other in ourselves for interest. The extent to which a voter identifies with each group, and the impact of government policies will influence the overarching preference.