Political Issues are Like Cookies

The debate about gun control provides a great example of a collision between political issues and public policies. As I describe more below, most “political issues” are labels/shortcuts for describing preferences about multiple specific government policies/laws. The point of this post is that gun control, a political issue, is like a cookie.  How I feel about cookies is not necessarily well-linked with how I feel about the various ingredients in a cookie. For example, I am strongly “pro-cookie.” However, while I am “pro” butter, eggs, and chocolate, I am strongly opposed to vanilla extract, baking soda, and flour.

This culinary digression is actually illustrative of an important point for those who are upset following yesterday’s vote on the Manchin-Toomey background checks amendment.  In particular, while I have already argued that the vote is not necessarily indicative of a failure of democratic institutions,* the point I want to make, and the “math of politics”of this post, is that political issues represent convenient and way to discuss attitudes and goals, but they are very rarely neatly mapped onto, and generally subsume multiple, public policies.

Another way to think of it is that many (but not all) political issues collapse various public policies into something like a “less strict/more strict” dimension.  “Gun control,” “environmental regulation,” and “consumer safety” are each examples of this.

People can respond very differently to the policies that compose a political issue than they do to the issue itself.  Sometimes in paradoxical ways.

The implications of this for the gun control debate are clearly illustrated by first considering the various questions and poll results about public policies in this Pew survey:

Support for Various Gun Policies

And then considering the more general “bundled” question about the political issue reported in this AP-GfK poll.  This poll (conducted this week) asked just over 1000 Americans “Should gun laws in the United States be made more strict, less strict or remain as they are?”  In response to this deceptively straightforward question,

  • 49% responded “be made more strict,”
  • 38% responded “remain as they are,” and
  • 10% responded “be made less strict.”

(You can find a very convenient tally of similar polls here.)  To be clear and slightly provocative, this kind of public support actually makes the Senate look a little aggressive on gun control: 54 Senators out of 100 voted in favor of the Manchin-Toomey background checks amendment (really 55, counting Reid’s “procedural nay” vote as a “yea”).

This is one basis of what social scientists refer to as “framing.”  Incumbents end up running against strategic challengers, and issues like gun control are a potential nightmare.  Accepting for the sake of argument that there is and will remain overwhelming public support for expanded background checks, every Senator cast a tough vote yesterday. (Hell, Reid cast TWO tough votes—ask John Kerry how to explain this kind of thing.  Oh wait, don’t.)  In the words of challengers-to-be, each Senator was either “against expanded background checks” or “for stricter gun laws,” neither of which is a clear electoral winner.  On the other hand, in the words of every Senator-about-to-seek-reelection, he or she was either “for expanded background checks” or “protecting gun rights,” both of which have pretty strong public support, especially on a state-by-state basis (as this excellent Monkey Cage post makes very clear).

As a final (non-strategic) “math of politics” point, before one thinks that this tension between public support on a given issue and public support for the issue’s constituent policies challenges democratic competence, note that this is all easily understood as an implication of Arrow’s theorem or an instantiation of the referendum paradox or the Ostrogorski paradox.

Yeah, I mentioned Arrow’s Theorem again, so I leave you with this.


* Relatedly, I most fervently disagree with the argument that the Senate is antidemocratic. The Senate is explicitly not designed to deliver “one-person-one-vote” representation.  Furthermore, the founders really meant it.  But I’ve been told that political behavior has far broader appeal than political institutions.