Commentary, National Commentary

The Battle Between Pocketbooks and Principles

By Charles Blow of the New York Times

You are never in the voting booth alone.

You bring with you your hopes and fears, your expectations and your disappointments. Your choice is made through a maze of considerations, but it hinges primarily on how the candidates — their principles and their party — line up with your worldview. Would they, if elected, represent and promote the kind of community and country you want to live in? Are they “on your side,” fighting for you and people like you?

Often, the things that are top of mind as you consider those questions are urgent and imminent, rather than ambient and situational. Issues like the economy, for instance, will almost always take top billing, since they affect the most people most directly.

Anger over abortion can also be potent, and in some races, it may determine the outcome, but it is a narrower issue. First, no person assigned male at birth will ever have to personally wrestle with a choice to have an abortion or deal with health complications from a pregnancy that might necessitate an abortion. So, for half the electorate, the issue is a matter of principle rather than one of their own bodily autonomy.

Furthermore, at the moment, abortion is still legal in most states. Yes, clinics have disappeared completely in 13 of the 50 states, according to the latest data from the Guttmacher Institute, but for millions of American women living in blue states, abortion access hasn’t changed since the Supreme Court handed down its decision in Dobbs.

That is not to diminish the outrage people do and should feel about this right being taken away from them. It doesn’t diminish my personal outrage, nor does it assume that abortion rights are safe in the states that have yet to outlaw the practice.

But I mention it as a way to understand something I’ve seen over and over in the electorate: Incandescent rage, however brightly it burns at the start, has a tendency to dim. People can’t maintain anger for extended periods. It tends to wear on the mind and the body, as everyday issues like gas and rent and inflation push to get back into primary consideration.

I have seen repeatedly how people abandon their principles — whether they be voting rights, transgender issues, gun control, police reform, civil rights, climate change or the protection of our democracy itself — when their pocketbooks suffer. There is a core group of people who will feel singularly passionate about each of these problems, but the rest of the public adjusts itself to the outrage and the trauma, shuffling each issue back into the deck. They still care about these problems as issues in the world, but they don’t necessarily see them as urgent or imminent.

In a New York Times/Siena College poll released this week, voters were asked “What do you think is the MOST important problem facing the country today?”

A plurality, 26%, said the economy, and 18% said inflation or the cost of living. Just 7% said the state of democracy, and 4% said abortion.

After the Supreme Court struck down Roe, Democrats saw a measurable shift in their direction, as voters began to say that they were leaning toward the Democrats in the midterm elections. The anger among many voters was palpable; the offense was fresh. But now, that momentum has stalled, and some see a swing back toward Republicans as we get further out from the ruling and worrisome economic news retakes the headlines.

I still believe that anger over abortion will be felt in the midterms. I believe that taking away such a fundamental right feels like a betrayal that must be avenged. I believe that many parents of daughters are incensed at the idea of those girls inheriting an America where they will have less say over their bodies than their mothers had.

But I also know that energy attrition in the electorate is real. I know that historical trends are on the side of Republicans going into the midterms, and even a minor stalling of momentum and erosion of energy could make the already slim chance that Democrats would hold the House of Representatives an impossibly long shot.

In the closing days of this campaign cycle, Republicans are driving home perennial issues: the economy and crime. Democrats are arguing big issues of policy: abortion and protecting democracy. In this battle of pocketbooks and principles, which will win out?

For those with any sense of political vision and history, the policy side must take precedence. Economic issues are cyclical. They’ll always present themselves. But grand issues like bodily autonomy can define generations. And protecting democracy can define empires.

What is the point of a cheaper tank of gas, if it must be had in a failed democracy that polices people’s most intimate choices about their own bodies?