Single Issue Voters: Beavers in the Stream of Life

When we’re sitting around and trying to figure out why compromise is so difficult to achieve, we often claim that the increased polarization of the country is driven by the increasingly radical positions taken by the right or the left (depending on our own politics.) And to an extent that seems true. But I would like to suggest that an even bigger impediment to cooperation and compromise among the varying political views is caused by single issue voters. I think of them as beavers in the stream of life building dams and clogging up our system.

As the last election cycle is finally winding down and we’re settling into a couple of months of relative calm, this seems like a good time to call out the single issue voters and to ask them to dismantle the dams so that our region, our state, and our nation can move forward.

Please note that I am not singling out any particular issue. There are passionate single-issue voters who support a woman’s right to choose. Equally or even more passionate are the anti-abortion voters. The NRA devotees make up another group of beavers as do the animal rights advocates on the other side of the political spectrum. Every voter who decides where to cast their vote based on one issue is doing our democracy a great disservice.

When I was teaching Civics in high school, I would run a voter-preference game to show students how very difficult it could be to decide how to vote. In the end, in many ways, it was simpler for them to play the game if they could focus on one issue and drown out the rest.

The game started out with me placing various items on three different tables. (As much as I think we’re stuck with our two-party system for the foreseeable future, a man can dream can’t he?) After selecting a few volunteers, I would walk from table to table laying out various items. On one table I’d put a bag of Swedish Fish, on another, a paper clip, and on a third a bag of Jalapeno Tuna Mix. I’d ask the volunteer students to go stand by the table that had the item they wanted most. Then I’d add a second item. I’d put an old sock with the Swedish Fish, a candy bar with the paper clip, and a box of Oreos with the tuna. Students could then switch tables if they’d like.

I’d keep adding items and asking students to think carefully about their choice and move to their favorite table after each round. By the time there were 7 or 8 items on each table, most students wouldn’t or couldn’t do the calculations they needed to make an informed choice. Generally they stuck to the table that had their single favorite item, or was the table at which their friend was standing, or didn’t have the grossest thing. (It’s hard to beat Jalapeno Tuna Mix in that category, by the way.)

Once there was no more movement, I’d stop the game and ask the students to describe their decisions. I would not let them simply say “This table has the best items,” or some such similar simple explanation. I would challenge them to describe what went through their mind when they moved from one table to the other. “Was the dirty sock so bad that you were willing to give up the Swedish fish?” “Are Oreos so important to you that you’d accept Jalapeno Tuna Mix?”

As I continued to press for answers, many students would get increasingly uncomfortable. They were reluctant to genuinely discuss what made up their decision criteria. What came out of the exercise more often than not, however, is that a single item was so attractive, or conversely so gross, that the student was willing to put up with anything to keep that item in the first case, or sacrifice a lot of good things to avoid the one bad thing in the other.

The students would take their seats and I would clear the tables. This time, the entire class took part. Instead of items, I would move around the table dropping slips of papers that had the positions of various candidates on them. I would tell the students that they were random and that no single table represented any single candidate.

So I would read positions on abortion, gun rights, foreign policy, welfare, campaign finance, tax policy, etc. As you might have guessed, once I put the abortion slips on the table, a relatively large group of students rarely moved. Another relatively large group coalesced around the gun-rights statements while others couldn’t be budged from capital punishment stands.

Once I had gotten through 30 or 40 slips, I’d stop the exercise and confess to my lie. The tables actually did represent the positions of individual candidates. I asked the students to identify at which table they thought they were standing. It might not surprise you to know that students were almost always wrong matching the candidates to the positions. Some of the most interesting reactions happened when I announced which table belonged to which candidate.

Once, when I said this table belongs to Hillary Clinton, one young man switched tables (a move not allowed by the rules of the game.) When I asked him about it, he declared his “hate” for her. When I pointed out that he clearly agreed with more of her positions than the other candidates, he said it really didn’t matter. Most of the uncomfortable moments came when I identified the Barack Obama table. Some students were openly mocked by others for “liking the black guy.”

I learned a lot about voter identification in those exercises over the several years I ran them, but what I learned the most about was single issue voters. The actions of many of my students are mirrored in today’s actual political decision making. When a voter decides that no matter what other positions a candidate has, that they will either NEVER vote for him/her, or will NEVER NOT vote for him/her, then the very foundations of our democracy are soundly shaken.

There is no single issue important enough to dominate all of our politics. When we let a person’s stand on abortion give them a free pass into the Legislature or conversely to block them from serving, we are severely weakening the potential pool of candidates. This is especially true in races that can have little or no impact on abortion law. It really doesn’t matter how many anti-abortion bills are passed in a state legislature, federal protection of a woman’s right to choose cannot be overturned at the state level. In the meantime, anti-abortion zealots in our legislatures may be completely unprepared AND uncommitted to do the real work of state government.

The same holds true on the other side. If the Pro-Choice radicals won’t support a candidate based solely on his/her abortion stand, we’re likely blocking some very talented people from serving. It really doesn’t matter what the issue is: guns, animal rights, abortion, religion in schools, whatever. Talented people are being prevented from serving while single-issue zealots sit in our legislatures unable or unwilling to keep the stream of progress flowing. (And I don’t mean “progress” to mean the progressive agenda. I simply mean movement on the issues that challenge us.)

We all have choices as voters. When we decide to be beavers, we are giving up one of our most precious rights and responsibilities as we build our dams. Democracy is far more complicated than any single issue. Surely we most advocate for candidates who we think will make our state and country better, but if all we care about is their stand on a single issue, we are abrogating our responsibility to ourselves and our country.

As the next election cycle heats up, it just might be time to make beaver trapping legal again. As responsible voters, we need to challenge our single-issue friends and invite them to come downstream where the water is clear and the swimming is great.


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