The Power-Effect of the Single-Issue Voter

Well, to continue with the post-modern discussion around here…Please consider this a thought experiment (and, like any experiment, it could be horribly wrong from the get-go).  I want to bring up a subject that hopefully will garner a good deal of debate.  I want to talk about single-issue voters.  But I want to do it by first recasting the terms of the debate – ie, by changing the focus from judging what such a voter is to what such a voter does (the latter of which of course can’t be done without first addressing the former) .   

The whole idea of identities first requires a bit of unpacking, because identities are tricky things.  They’re constantly in flux.  You have a million different identities that exist as they are evoked by contrast – you are a liberal in relation to conservatives.  You are a subordinate in relation to your boss, and a boss to the others operating beneath you.  You define yourself by a sense of othering, by negation, telling who you are by telling who you are not, and the way you do this changes with each context. 

And why do you do this?  Why does it matter who you are?  Each categorical identification has a different strategic advantage in its power effects.  This means that people treat you differently depending on how you present your identity at a specific place and time, and they allow you to treat them differently as they best respond to you in order to maximize their strategic advantage.  The important thing isn’t what your identity is, rather what it does.

An identity is not a thing.  It is a strategy.

And the point of any strategy is to maximize the ability to create a desired reality.  If I believe in the broad sweep of liberal social values, identifying myself as and advocating the democrat cause is the best strategy to create this reality. The opposite can be true for Republicans.   And any social system is made up this multiplicity of strategies in constant opposition. 

But strategies, too, are tricky things because they have more than one side.  There is the phoneme and the morpheme, the sound you make and the sound that is heard, and it is the power-effect of the latter that determines a strategy’s worth.   And how does that of the single-issue voter measure up?   For this, we turn to the system within which this voter is operating, the discourses of power that each attempt to suppress the other in order to confer upon themselves the designation of superior truth.  It is Clausewitz inverted.  It is politics as the continuation of war by other means.

In terms of US politics, this system is cast in terms of binary opposition, of Republicans and Democrats (presumably mediated by something, although you would be hard pressed to find anything resembling a dialectic turn in our future).  One is defined by negation of the other.  And set into this system you can find a multiplicity of identities, including that of the single-issue voter, who falls on either side of this ideological divide of red and blue.  What is his strategy, other than the repetition of a discourse that is a limited version the larger discourse of his party (or, if independent, a party)?  More importantly, who is his audience?  Himself, and others like him.

Take for example pro-lifers.  If an ardent pro-lifer came up to me and started in on their agenda, it would take less than five minutes for me to shut down altogether and start inching towards the door.  It is not an effective strategy to target me with this sort of rhetoric.  Rather, the only people who will listen to pro-lifers are other pro-lifers.  And the best strategy, then, for someone advocating this agenda is to ignore the opposition and rally the like-minded.  There is no reaching across the aisle, no attempt at consensus.  It would be fair to say that the widening political schism in this country is in no small way impacted by these political activists who care about politics not holistically, systemically, but only in so far as they can be manipulated to achieve a singular goal.   And these goals are only met in the short-term because they are pushing towards a zero-sum game. 

This is not to say that single-issue voters don’t have any effect.  If anything, the opposite is true.  They have the capacity to evoke the most change of any political entity out there.  This however has nothing to do with their role as a voter, rather their role as an activist.  A single-issue voter is someone who is willing to pick up the phone and lobby tooth and nail in favor of normalizing a specific social order.  For them, the political system, itself, becomes a strategy rather than an area of focus.  These voters are a transitory part of our political apparatus, and as such they are confined by it, unable to make the long-lasting changes they would like to make, instead only strengthening party antagonisms that make any future collaboration on non-zero-sum issues impossible.  Their identity is based on negation, but so is the rhetoric they use to implement their identity-strategy. They have a single audience and a drum that has been beating so loudly it’s impossible to ignore, impossible not take a side, and issues have lost their shades of grey.

That is power-effect of the single-issue voter.

13 thoughts on “The Power-Effect of the Single-Issue Voter

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  2. Elder Berry

    The idea that a person can only “be” one thing, or vote based on one thing, or seems to find an identity based on only one thing, seems in our time to find more resonance in the Republican Party than the Democratic Party. It could be that more people who self-identify as Democrats are comfortable with ambiguity and complexity.

  3. Epluribusunum

    One thing I didn’t say – but thought might cause misunderstanding – is that when people talk about identity they can be describing different things, or things within a different scope. I’ve been discussing it in the more narrow sense of affiliation, in those discrete moments in which people do articulate their identities in some way, or do actively define others out of existence. Those are real behaviors (and subject to change as well), but only part of what identity means.

    No, I agree that it’s not a commodity, and is a process. It is in flux in the sense that who a person “is” is the product of their material being and totality of their experiences within that confluence. Of course that’s always at a different point in time, so people change. I think this sometimes gets misrepresented as an idea in opposition to materialism, though. None of the previous experiences get subtracted, right? So there is always going to be a core, unique identity (as process) of that person. Even as you move through time and shifting margins, you are always you. I’m not sure what you mean by identity as a rigid construct, but I don’t mean more than that by what I’m saying.

    Am I misunderstanding you?

  4. firefly

    Epluribusunum: I think your discomfort with this sense of definition through negation comes from your idea of identity as a rigid construct. It is not something, not some commodity, rather it is a continual process. Imagine yourself as standing at the confluence of unlimited bands or relationships between people…that is what identity is. It is in constant flux, because IT is not really an it (we’re getting a little Faustian here…). And how do you define something that defies a solid definition? At its margins. You cannot define what IT is, but you CAN define what it is not. So it’s not that someone’s identity depends on another’s being negated in the peer-pressure sense that you are actively self-defined by them, rather that it is the only way that processual identity can be understood. And it is a recursive process, so we are all constantly defining ourselves and the other without really realizing we’re doing it.
    Make sense? Again, this is only a theory and one deeply embedded in post-colonial studies. If you want to hear it straight from the horse’s mouth, check out Orientalism. Most of the theories have been debunked in the last years, but this idea of negation lingers on.

  5. Epluribusunum

    Firefly, I think this is what has been bothering me about your post:

    You define yourself by a sense of othering, by negation, telling who you are by telling who you are not

    This statement is a good description of the process of identity formation in children, but it reads here as if it’s the natural state of everyone’s identity. It’s actually the exact thing that needs to be resisted – a mature person understands that their own identity does not depend on someone else’s being negated. The idea that the validity of my identity requires yours to be erased is the mechanism by which fearmongering and scapegoating works, so framing that idea as normative has political utility.

    Barbara raises a good question by asking me whether I define myself by the negation of others (to paraphrase), as if it should be assumed that this is the universal condition. It’s not. Those of us who see it as a dysfunctional and destructive state work very hard to resist it; this would parallel my statement about bigotry, that where there’s bigotry in my thinking – which I’m sure there is – my interest is in looking at it and getting rid of it, not figuring out how to explain that it’s not bigotry. Likewise, to the extent that I’m ever tempted to define who I am as the negation of who someone else is, it’s something I fiercely resist. Being so viscerally on the receiving end of that kind of thinking by others can make one hyper aware of it – although I think it can also work in the opposite direction. What mediates that difference would be another valuable question about identity politics.

    I wonder if, rather than “single issue voter,” what you are trying to get at here is more accurately described as “identity voter.” Phrases like “he’s a rock-solid conservative” used as shorthand is an appeal to identity, not policy; vote for the guy who is like-you, which is defined as not-them. It happens on both ends of the spectrum; I’ve heard people describe themselves as a “genetic Democrat,” whatever the heck that means. You could argue that it’s just shorthand for a set of policy positions, but I don’t think that’s accurate. If it was, the result wouldn’t be the extreme polarization we’re seeing.

    The other reason is that framing it as about “issues” encourages us to think of a lot of different things as issues when they are actually something else, like values or ideas. Issues are matters of policy that are analyzed and debated within the container of the democratic system. When I say that “I’m a single-issue voter, and the issue is human rights,” that’s a hyperbolic use of the meme. Human rights isn’t an “issue,” it’s a foundational value that transcends that container. The rights and liberties that are guaranteed by our Constitution are not an “issue” either; the basic foundation that says everyone has an equal right to fully participate in the life of the nation – not a special one based on religious tradition – is outside the scope of that container. We all share a material universe regardless of what we share spiritually, and policies have to be evidence-based. If anyone disagrees with those three ideas and thinks they should be debated as issues, they should be willing to say so.

  6. Barbara Munsey

    Better, Jonathan.

    The specific candidates you name are pro-life, and you’re a little less sweeping in the extrapolations and projections.

    As there are many different groups that have adopted the phrase “Tea Party” in their differing titles, I’ll let the various ones speak about their varying interpretations of what they hold important.

    There are divisions even within some individual Tea Party groups (most notably locally the larger No Va one that has one prominent member endorsing Ramadan, and another being Jo-Ann Chase herself, as well as including in a titled position one of the anonymous surrogates that worked so hard to manipulate the “Ramadan is a terrorist” meme), so I’ll DEFINITELY let any or all of them fight it out for themselves with you if they disagree with any statements made as inclusive of ALL Tea Party proponents.

    Personally, I think the valid basic principles of the grassroots movement focused on reducing tax burden through a more efficient government (that stays out of personal matters) has been quite damaged by those who place above that profession of any certain creed, or primacy of specific social issues.

    It has allowed demonization by a media terrified by that grassroots swell, and has perhaps diminished a broaderparticipation by those who came together to get the government and thus our taxes under control.

    But any large movement runs the risk of being nibbled at by someone who sees a trend, and thus an opportunity.

  7. Pariahdog

    [take 2]

    Thanks for the thought provoking article. I think you hit it spot on.

    Single issue voting is so powerful that I’ve adopted it in hopes of reversing that trend. I’m a single-issue voter myself. But I’m not the hypocrite that is Loudoun’s new crop of Republican House and Senate candidates (Ramadan, Minchew and Black). These Republican candidates all believe that “human life begins at the moment of conception”. The natural consequence of this belief is its enshrinement in the constitution as the “Human Life Amdendment”. Congressman Wolf voted in favor of this amendment twice and his influence on state-level candidates is not small.

    A simple thought experiment shows how ridiculous this position is. The Tea party says that the 14th amendment grants a fetus full personhood legal status. They also believe that the 14th amendment does not grant babies born to undocumented immigrants “birthright citizenship”. This puts them in the awkward position of awarding full citizenship rights to the fetus, and then taking away those rights at birth. Go figure.

    Well, there they go again. You can’t figure this out because no logic is involved in the thought process. The Tea party uses fear to get people to vote for single issues that are really designed to control other people, not to increase the voter’s liberty through some zero-sum game, i.e., “Take away their liberty and increase your own”.

    Not all single issue voters fall into that category. Some are single issue over a positive declaration of their own liberty interests. I’m not single-issue over an abstraction. I’m single-issue over my family and I make a very simple declaration.

    I’m married to another man and my family is just as good as any other.

    Any candidate who supports that declaration gets my vote. Any candidate who opposes it, loses my vote and gains my opposition.

  8. Barbara Munsey

    Just curious Jonathan, have you spoken to “all” “Republicans” to confirm that they do in fact believe everything you ascribe to them?

  9. Pariahdog


    Thanks for the thought provoking article. I think you hit it spot on. Single issue voting is extremely powerful in modern American two-party politics. It’s also a one-way street. It veers towards corporatism.

    It’s so powerful, that I’ve adopted it in hopes of reversing the trend from corporatism to individual liberty. I’m a single-issue voter myself. But I’m not the type of hypocrite that the current Republican crop of candidates as produced. The Republicans all believe that “human life begins at the moment of conception” and “America needs a Human Life Amendment to the constitution”. Ironically, they also believe that babies born in America to undocumented mothers are not citizens. This puts them in the awkward position of awarding full citizenship rights to the fetus, and then taking away those rights at birth. Go figure.

    No, I’m not single-issue over an abstraction. I’m single-issue over my family and I make a very simple declaration.

    I’m married to another man and my family is just as good as any other.

    Any candidate who supports that declaration gets my vote. Any candidate who opposes it, loses my vote and gains my opposition.

  10. Barbara Munsey

    David, I have a question for you: do you ever feel that YOU personally define yourself or your issues by what they are not, define others by what they are not, or assume bad faith on the part of those with whom you say you’d like to engage?

    (btw, I admire the fact that you chose to control the dialogue re generalities vs. specifics (as needed) by closing comments on the other thread. You “win”! lol)

  11. Epluribusunum

    This seems to me to also go directly to the problem of confusing values with beliefs. The ardent pro-lifer in your example could very well share your basic values, and the potential conversation about those shared values could be the basis for finding a common policy goal – say, eliminating most unplanned pregnancies – without either party changing the other’s beliefs at all. It requires both honesty, and trust in the other party’s honesty – in this case, that the person’s goal is actually to reduce the incidence of abortion, and not some other goal left unacknowledged.

    I think a lot of damage is deliberately done to that potential trust by manipulating the tendency (the way that our brains seem to be wired to categorize in mutually exclusive binaries) to define oneself by what one is not. We can’t ignore the fact that there are people who engage in bad faith, but we don’t want to be part of the problem by assuming bad faith, either. I’m not sure what the best approach is, and I don’t have time to go deeper now, but thanks for starting (or continuing) this conversation.

    To add another question, what does behavior reflect – beliefs or values?

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