[First published on skepolitical.com on 5/22/12]
On May 15, Virginia’s House voted down the nomination of a well-qualified judicial candidate. The legislators knew their votes on this nomination would potentially become a campaign issue, so most of them abstained from voting. Abstention is effectively a “No” vote, but won’t get the representative in as much trouble in case there is any backlash come election time. Voting “Yes” is especially risky, assuming your constituency is particularly religious. Those with secular constituencies have a much easier time voting “Yes.”
Commenters who accuse the politicians of bigotry might be right, but they are missing the point. Their interpretation implies that the representatives vote based on their principles and beliefs. They think: since the politician voted for bigotry, the politician must be a bigot. The problem is, that’s not how the majority of politicians operate. When deciding on a vote, the relevant factors for most politicians include how their decisions will affect their fund-raising and (secondarily) what their constituents will think. Perhaps a few representatives in Virginia’s House voted “No” based on their own genuine Anti-Gay sentiments, political consequences be damned, but most of the “No” votes, whether official votes or abstentions, do not really reflect the bigotry of the representatives themselves. Instead, they reflect the perceived wishes of Virginia’s electorate and campaign fund-raisers.
In a democracy, it’s silly to get upset with our politicians for their decisions. That they are willing to make bigoted decisions due to partisanship and concerns for job-preservation is certainly callous and despicable, but that’s the nature of our democracy. Politicians do what helps them get elected. The responsibility ultimately lies at the feet of the electorate.
The solution to the problem of bad decision-making by our representatives ultimately lies in social movements and cultural shifts, which then get reflected in the behavior of our politicians. If we want those cultural shifts to be in the right direction, the first step is to empower the people with skepticism. A good second step might be to agree to stop voting for craven decision-makers (something I already try to do), but let’s sort that out after we’re all on the same page with the skepticism. Without that, people will keep on believing whatever they want to believe regardless of the soundness of our arguments. (316)