The Ice Cream Theory of Voting

In my last post I wrote that people who voted Republican were one or a combination of dumb, angry, craven, or corrupt; I should clarify that I meant only when it comes to politics (impossible for me to realize before I made the decision to be a kinder political human).

For one of the most bizarre things about politics is that smart people–friends, family members, people we know to be good and decent human beings–end up making terrible, immoral, or sometimes just plain dumb decisions about who or what they vote for, and I could never understand why that was? Did these people not see Donald Trump make fun of a disabled reporter or hear any number of horrible things he said about minorities and women? Did they not understand at a basic level that he is clearly unfit and unworthy of the office of President? How could this person, whom I know to be good, decent, and highly intelligent, make such an awful decision?

The knee-jerk reaction is to say: oh, they’re just an idiot and/or blindly partisan (see me, three weeks ago). But there’s a dissonance there, because again, you know this person is neither of those things in other facets of their life. So why do they make such bad political choices?

To answer that question, let me ask a different one: do you like ice cream? YES.

What’s your favorite flavor? Mine’s mint-chocolate chip. Maybe yours is Oreo or french silk or cookie dough.


OK, here’s the next question: is there anything I can say that will make you change your mind about liking ice cream? What about your favorite flavor?

Probably not. You’re certainly not going to sway me–I like ice cream and my favorite is chocolate-chip mint. Period. What’s strange is that an awful lot of people feel the same way about voting. Because they’re Republicans, or gun owners, or oppose abortion, they vote Republican.

See, it’s not about what that individual voter thinks Republicans will actually DO in office. It’s not about results at all. It’s an expression of who they are and what they value. Think identity politics, but not: I’m black, I want police reform, and Democrats seems to care about that, therefore I’ll vote for Democrats. No it’s much, much simpler–like answering a survey. It’s more like: I’m black, I’m a Democrat, therefore I vote for Democrats.

Now of course, African Americans have a lot of good reasons to vote for Democrats given the pretty open racism of the Republican Party (hint: the KKK and American Nazi Party are openly celebrating the election of Trump, and it’s not because they expect him to usher in a new era of civil rights and freedoms), not to mention the fact they’ve done everything possible to prevent people of color from voting, and have scapegoated them as abusing welfare and being inherently criminal, not to mention the whole knee-jerk inclination to take the side of the police officer EVERY TIME a black person is killed, along with the rejection of #BLM, etc. The same is true of the white guys in the Midwest who vote Republican because they passionately disagree with efforts to restrict guns and ammunition.


However, just because we can connect the dots for these voters doesn’t necessarily mean they did so themselves. Indeed, that’s my hypothesis: the ice cream theory of voting. It’s essentially that a fairly large number of voters choose their candidates or positions as if submitting answers to a dating sight. Their vote is not about action, it’s about personal identity–an input into their avatar. Or, if it is about action, it’s purely self-interest at the cost of others.

Example: I like mint chocolate-chip, but I know most of the people going to the party prefer chocolate. However, since I’m in charge of buying the ice cream, I’m going to get chocolate chip, because I like it more and it expresses who I am.

And that’s the excuse right? Well, I didn’t like Trump, but Hillary was worse–completely irrational based on the objective evidence–especially if one thinks through what either administration is likely to do in terms of policy. But they didn’t think it through. It was just a simple question of who do I like better or who is the least bad? Hell, how many people either stayed home or cast a protest vote, because, “I just couldn’t bring myself to vote for Clinton”? Answer: a lot. In other words, they viewed voting for Hillary as somehow being personally damning or negative, as if they’d have to literally wear a black mark on their soul for the rest of their days, which is just so, so dumb.


But if we listen closely, they were telling us from the very beginning it wasn’t about policy, reason, or logic. It was about expressing their personal values/opinion. So what’s wrong with that, you might ask?


Because voting isn’t meant to be an expression of one’s personal beliefs and values. Voting is NOT a survey.

It’s a game that has real life consequences and results, and every vote is an input into that game. The only negative consequence associated with voting is if the person/party who wins enacts policy that affects one in a negative way–and it’s pretty clear what Trump and the Republicans are planning to do will be negative for most Americans.

Hillary Clinton wasn’t going to repeal Obamacare and replace it with some mysterious plan we know almost nothing about, or privatize Medicare and Social Security, or use the office of President as a source of profit, or appoint racists to her cabinet, or appoint a billionaire Secretary of Education who’s never spent a day in her life working in a school and wants to privatize the whole system for profit so rich people can make a buck. So the people who voted for Trump because they liked him better/disliked him less, stayed home, or cast a protest vote for Stein or Johnson may not have to admit voting for Clinton… but they may lose their healthcare, among other things.

That’s bad.


Another example of this just happened in Oregon. Measure 97, a 2.5% tax on C corporations’ revenue over $25 million, the purpose of which was to better fund schools and other government services, failed almost 60-40%. On the other hand, Measure 98, which requires schools to fund drop-out prevention and career and college readiness programs ($800 per student), passed 65-35%.

Now at first glance, that may seem perfectly fine–clearly, voters felt the tax was too much, but alternately, wanted schools to fund the programs mentioned above.

Problem is, Oregon’s schools don’t have any money. In fact, Oregon schools will face some portion of a $1.4 billion deficit over the next two years. So implementing 98, which requires $300 million in additional spending, is going to be awfully tricky given that every school district in the state will have to cut teachers and school days, before even thinking about how to enact a new spending mandate.


In other words, a large percentage of Oregon voters did something deeply contradictory and dumb. They voted against funding for education while voting for programs that require schools to have more funding. And it was well known to every Oregonian not living under a rock that Oregon’s schools were badly underfunded. So why did so many Oregonians make that irrational choice (including major newspapers, like the Oregonian, that endorsed No on 97; Yes on 98. By the way I don’t subscribe and I don’t recommend doing so–the Oregonian is a lousy conservative tabloid; a far-cry from what it used to be–my preferences on media here).

Ice cream. Voting No on 97 was anti-education, but voting YES on 98 felt like it cancelled that vote out–or even, “hey, I’m for education–just not this particular measure (97).” In a sense, voters were given permission to vote against 97 by voting for 98. Additionally, 98 sounds really good… unless you think through the fact that Oregon’s schools are chronically underfunded and it’s going to require more money.

The other thing I’d add is that 97 was a tax measure, and taxes scare people. Yes, some people probably thought it through and genuinely decided they couldn’t support it or bought into the NO side’s apocalyptic vision of how it might affect businesses and the economy in the future–but I’d also argue a lot of people ice cream voted on that one too: I’m against taxes. This is a tax. Therefore: NO on 97.


Oh, right. But our kids get less days, larger classes, and enjoy lower graduation rates because we don’t have any money. We’re shorting an entire generation of kids their right to a quality education. And for what? Because we’re pissed off about PERS? Because we’re afraid of what might happen if we even ask that corporations contribute to our society a little more? Last time I checked, neither of those things were the kids’ fault.

Sorry I’ll get off my soapbox.

Point is, the results, consequences, and implications of our votes are what matters–if you read this blog you get that–but there’s a huge swath of voters out there that don’t think about their decisions that way. For them, voting is about expressing deeply personal views or emotions, not results–it’s a survey–and one only need to look as far as voters in Florida, Kentucky, and elsewhere regretting their decision to vote for Trump now that they might lose their healthcare as a result (Republicans are expected to repeal Obamacare and privatize Medicare by the end of 2017).

Not that this is some mind blowing epiphany, but for those of us who want voters to “bend the arc of history toward justice” (credit: Jefferson Smith), it’s something we have to take into consideration. How do we convince people that who or what they vote for isn’t a personal reflection on their values/opinions, but an input into a game that’s being played on a large scale?

It’s a question I’m not prepared yet to answer, but certainly something to think about as we move forward as a nation.

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About The Author: Jay Scott


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