The appeal of baser instincts in politics: The California story and why progress is gradual


Credit: Biden-Harris transition. Twitter.

On the historic night that Barack Obama won the presidency, voters in my home state of California passed Proposition 8, a statewide ballot initiative to amend our state Constitution to outlaw same-sex marriage. Prop 8, which overturned a state Supreme Court decision that year that had held that the right to marry is fundamental under the California Constitution and therefore could not be denied to two consenting adults, whatever their respective genders, received over 7 million votes in favor, or 52% of the vote.

And during the same historic election that saw Joe Biden become the first presidential candidate ever to garner over 80 million votes, during the same election that sent one of our own to be the first woman and first person of color to become vice president, the blue bastion of California once again showed its resistance to progressive policies at the ballot box. Voters in California defeated ballot proposition after ballot proposition meant to advance criminal justice reform, racial equality, health care, workers' rights, and higher taxes for the wealthy.

Californians rejected the repeal of cash bail as Prop 25 failed by a double digit margin (44-56). The California Legislature and Gov. Newsom had already ended cash bail in the state, but the proposition, in the form of a referendum, nullified the action of the Legislature. A proposition to bring back affirmative action failed by an even bigger margin, 43-57. Another ballot initiative, Proposition 16, to decouple commercial property from residential for the sake of property tax purposes and enable the Legislature to increase taxes on commercial property went down by a closer, 48-52, margin. An initiative to ensure that private dialysis clinics had to keep a doctor on site and could not turn away patients on Medicaid went down 38-62.

Voters in the state also decided that Uber, Lyft, Doordash and other app-based drivers did not deserve full worker protections, proper mileage reimbursements, or health benefits by passing the industry-sponsored Prop 22 by a lopsided 59-41 margin.

All of this happened in a state that has Joe Biden beating Donald Trump by nearly 30 points, a state that has no Republicans in a statewide elected position, and a state in which Democrats control both houses of the state legislature with veto-proof majorities. Even the city and county of San Francisco voted in favor of allowing dialysis clinics to discriminate against poor people.

Before we get too ahead of ourselves, much of this regression by ballot initiative is a result of the absurd amounts of money that was poured into these initiatives by corporate interests. Ride share and food delivery behemoths spent $200 million to pass Prop 22. Over $100 million was spent by dialysis companies to keep the poor out. All in all, the amount of money spent on the ballot initiatives battle in California rivaled the presidential race, topping $700 million.

For now, the Supreme Court holds that spending money is a form of free speech, and for the foreseeable future, we have to live with it. Even if Congress somehow got around to enacting a massive public financing program for federal elections, no state, not even California, has enough money in our coffers to replicate that on a state level.

But it is also important to acknowledge that money wasn't the only reason California - a state Bernie Sanders won in the Democratic primary - came down on the wrong side of so many progressive issues on the ballot. The plain fact of the matter is that voters are never as progressive as they seem on issue polling, and are very, very persuadable to a position that can be made to appear in their selfish interest. We all know "progressives" who care about the plight of the less fortunate only so long as it doesn't affect their wallets.

The simplest explanation for why Proposition 22 passed is that people were told, and believed, that treating app-based drivers as full employees would raise the cost of their Uber rides or Doordash delivery. The simplest explanation about why Prop 23, the measure that would have outlawed discrimination in dialysis clinics against people on Medicaid, passed is that people didn't want "their" clinics to have to be burdened by patients who don't pay as much. The most obvious reason reason affirmative action was turned away was because significant swaths of white and Asian parents believed it would hurt their kids' chances of getting into UCLA or UC Berkeley. Voters rejected cash bail because they were afraid too many criminals - the kind who can't afford bail now - would get out and hang out in their neighborhoods. And they took down the ability tax commercial property differently because they were afraid their homes would be next.

Occam's Razor. Let's call a spade a spade.

It's also why national polling on issues and the liberal slant of those results is almost always an illusion. People only have to be confronted with the possibility of losing even a small convenience to turn against them. Let's look at a few issues leftists like to tout as proof that their views are popular, and how easy it would be destroy that supposed support in the public sphere. For the purposes of the following, I'll put aside my personal views on some of these policies on the merits.

Single payer healthcare? Do you really want those people going to the same clinics you go to?!? Worse yet, do you want to pay for those people to crowd your hospital? You worked hard for your health care!

End fossil fuel? Even if that meant you could be retrained - and you don't know that you can - for something else, you shouldn't have to be! They're trying to tell you that you are part of a dying industry; don't you let them!

End cash bail? Criminals will run through your neighborhood!

Free college? Why would you pay for something your kid probably will never use (only about a third of Americans have a college degree).

I could go on, but one gets the point. In politics, we underestimate the appeal of the baser instincts in humans - selfishness, perceived self-preservation, and ego - at our peril. If 2020 taught us one thing, it's this: Not only are there 74 million voters who did not see Trump's appeal to instincts so base that they are better characterized as gutter instincts objectionable enough to vote against him, there are a good number of people who voted against Trump, and even a good number of those who self-identify as progressives and liberals, who are just as privy to an appeal to these base instincts, even if they need it communicated at a more civilized plane.

This is why change has to be gradual. Leapfrogging rarely works in politics, even less often in a divided democracy. The base instincts are not going away, and political factions that appeal to them are here to stay. So people have to be constantly convinced that that the immediate change is not so big that their perceived self-preservation instincts feel threatened and yet progress is still made.

For example, the expansion of already familiar systems of health care - private insurance purchased with public subsidy, Medicaid, and Medicare - bit by bit so that more people can be part of the system without anyone feeling threatened that "their" health care is changing for the worse.

For example, making college and technical training free for middle class families. This not only allows everyone to participate, it allows everyone to envision a place for their own children in postsecondary education.

For example, investing in clean energy without shutting down fracking. Americans like even the illusion of more 'choices', and they hate being told something they know needs to go away.

Gradual change also provides the benefit of constant evaluation and small course corrections as needed, rather than having to navigate an entirely new world. This is not to say that baser instincts can never be overcome, or that leapfrog progress is never possible. But overcoming enough of the baser instincts on every issue all at once, with a highly effective opposition still appealing to those baser instincts, is a virtual impossibility.

And this is why, if the progressive movement actually wants progress in the next four years, it must avoid the mistake it made with President Obama by failing to support him. This is why the progressive movement must have Joe Biden and Kamala Harris's backs as they navigate the currents to make gradual changes that significantly improve the lives of many.