A Better Way to Look at Most Every Political Issue

Americans would be less alienated from one another and solve problems more easily if they recognized one little-noticed distinction in policy debates.

Toru Hanai / Reuters

We sometimes think of political issues in binary terms. Is someone pro-life or pro-choice? But most individuals hold views that are more complicated than a binary can capture.

An alternative is to describe a given position on a spectrum. On abortion, an outright ban sits at one extreme; at the other is the elimination of all restrictions on the procedure. In between are a staggering array of coherently distinguishable positions.

Politicians seeking to win votes express their stances either in terms of a binary or as a spot on a spectrum, depending on where they see the greatest advantage. Though their beliefs don’t change, how they frame them makes a political difference.

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There’s a different set of frames, though, that are as relevant as binaries and spectrums, though they are less familiar and less discussed: equilibriums and limits.

Most political stances can be understood in terms of an equilibrium. For instance, some people might believe that access to abortion in a conservative state is too restricted under the status quo, and favor relaxing the rules regulating abortion clinics. That is, they might favor shifting the equilibrium in a “pro-choice” direction.

But ask those same voters, "Should there be any limits on legal abortion?" and they might declare that the procedure should be banned in the last trimester of pregnancy unless the mother's health is threatened. Insofar as the abortion debate is framed around the equilibrium, they will align with the pro-choice movement; but insofar as it is framed around limits, they will align with the pro-life movement.

On abortion and scores of other political issues, there are people who tend to focus on equilibriums, other people who tend to focus on limits, and still others who vary in their focus. A single question put to the public cannot reveal the majority position of the polity on such issues, because there are at least two different majority coalitions: One forms around the position that a majority holds on the best equilibrium; the other forms around the position a majority holds on the appropriate limit. The winning coalition turns in part on what frame is more prominent at any particular moment.

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Now imagine two individuals who appear to be on opposite sides of a different matter. One aligns herself with what she calls the #MeToo movement; the other declares herself a critic of #MeToo. Yet digging deeper into their views on sexual harassment, it turns out that they are identical. They both believe workplaces ought to adopt policies that more effectively protect women from sexual harassment, and that there should be robust due process protections to guard against false accusations. They even agree on the language of their optimal policies.

What might explain their different postures toward #MeToo?

The first is focused on equilibriums. She believes that the status quo in American workplaces doesn’t adequately protect female workers, and that #MeToo is likely to improve things by shifting the equilibrium, making it marginally more friendly to working women. In contrast, the second is focused on limits. She frets that #MeToo is ending careers without adequate due process and enabling big injustices at the extremes. She worries that, left unchecked by opposition, it will spiral out of control.

Some Americans would feel less polarized and alienated from their fellow citizens if they recognized that some of the people fighting on “the other side” of a polarizing issue actually hold values and beliefs that are strikingly similar to their own.

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Now think of campus politics.

The campus left wants the free-speech debate to be focused on limits. What if an invited speaker is a neo-Nazi or wants to say the N-word or deny the Holocaust? In contrast, the campus right fares better when the debate is focused around the equilibrium. Across partisan and racial divides, large majorities agree that colleges are not doing enough to teach young Americans about the value of free speech and not doing enough to ensure students are exposed to a variety of viewpoints. In surveys, they express antagonism toward threats of violence and racial slurs even while insisting that, on the whole, campuses should be less politically correct.

So why don’t people who want to shift the equilibrium away from political correctness try to broaden their coalition by simultaneously agreeing to ban “hate speech”? In this case, as in others, the “equilibrium majority” is reluctant to make concessions to the “limit majority” because they are concerned about slippery slopes. A refusal to concede limits can be necessary if one means to defend the merits of an absolutist position (like “torture should always be illegal”) or when one believes that an absolutist position allows bad behavior, but that anything short of it guarantees a slide to an inferior outcome, like lots of speech being suppressed.

But there are lots of other issues where equilibrium majorities seem foolish if they decline to grow their numbers at the expense of limit majorities, whether by focusing their efforts narrowly or reassuring persuadable voters by granting some limits.

On drug policy, a libertarian could easily narrow his focus and rally a majority behind a ballot initiative to legalize marijuana; but if that libertarian instead backed a ballot initiative calling for the total elimination of all drug prohibitions, voters would likely reject it, because they are more averse to legal heroin than to illegal  marijuana—in such cases, the limit is a stronger motivator than the equilibrium.

Or take immigration policy. Democrats prefer to focus on the equilibrium. That’s because a majority of voters align with Democrats on the question of whether or not so-called “Dreamers” should get to stay in the United States or be deported; whereas a “limit majority” is more comfortable with Republicans who express the view that open borders would be disastrous than with Democrats who are reluctant to declare themselves against any specific hard limit on future immigration.

The GOP wants the country focused on the limits of immigration policy.

Yet on an issue like immigration, most Democratic politicians don’t actually believe that America should have open borders or that limits on immigration would put us on a slippery slope to no immigration at all; and most Republican politicians don’t actually believe that America should deport all illegal immigrants or that something like the Dream Act would put us on a slippery slope to open borders. Rather, Democrats are reluctant to articulate limits on immigration that they regard as sensible, because doing so is taboo in their coalition; and Republicans are reluctant to articulate limits on deportation that they regard as sensible, because doing so is presently taboo in their coalition as well. In both cases, there is a pernicious heuristic at work, where the mere act of conceding limits is conflated with lack of principle or with weakness and disloyalty, even though neither open borders nor deporting all illegal immigrants will ever happen. (A governing coalition that tried to blow past either limit would be destroyed.)

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America’s two-party system frequently forces binary choices on voters, and locating oneself on a left-right political spectrum can be a useful exercise. But I’d like to see more political analysis that recognizes the difference between equilibriums and limits and examines the coalitions that form around them. Seeing those frameworks more clearly would reveal instances when differences between Americans are not as sharp as they might seem, and enable marginal improvements to policy on issues where slippery slopes are unlikely and the main obstacle holding back reform is the fear of a limit that almost no one wants to cross.