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When polled, the majority of Americans consistently believe in (1) a national health care plan; (2) increased taxes, not fewer taxes, on the wealthy; (3) and more, not less, environmental regulation, particularly on climate change.

How can these politicians get away with opposing the views of the majority on major issues? In other words, why is there not meaningful choice in the political arena in the US?

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    Those 3 views you mentioned are the core Democratic priorities. So it seems like you're really asking why Republicans ignore public opinion. – divibisan Jan 27 at 16:27
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    @DavidSiegel: this q is bad because everyone is going to have an opinion on why politicians are doing this, but few will be supportable with evidence (in particular actually proving causation). The answers below already illustrate the problem. – Fizz Jan 27 at 18:38
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    @Fizz: I didn't think I had to establish common sense. Here are three polls I found in 2 minutes of searching: cbsnews.com/news/… thehill.com/hilltv/what-americas-thinking/… news.gallup.com/poll/232007/… – Beginner Biker Jan 28 at 1:06
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    @Fizz: the 3 issues are only examples of major issues. They are not the question. The question is in the second paragraph. It has a question mark after it. – Beginner Biker Jan 28 at 1:10
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    I'm voting to close as a push question. OP's most recent comment makes it clear that they're fishing for a specific answer that fits their existing world view. – F1Krazy Jan 30 at 17:39
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When polled, the majority of Americans consistently believe in (1) a national health care plan; (2) increased taxes, not fewer taxes, on the wealthy; (3) and more, not less, environmental regulation, particularly on climate change.

A much better way to phrase this: When polled, the majority of Democratic-leaning Americans strongly agree with those three propositions. But when Republican-leaning Americans are polled on these propositions, they strongly disagree with the first and last propositions, and are divided on the tax proposition. The majority of Republican Party donors disagree very strongly with the tax proposition.

These marked divisions in the opinions of party-leaning voters and donors explain the marked division between Democratic and Republican politicians on these issues.

Update: Examples of polling on these propositions

Health care. The Kaiser Family Foundation recently reported on a poll conducted from November 30 to December 8, 2020 regarding health care. One of the questions asked what people would like to see the next presidential administration and Congress do when it comes to the health care law (the Affordable Care Act). The vast majority (74%) of Democratic-leaning respondents wanted to see it expanded, while a majority (59%) of Republican-leaning respondents wanted to see it scaled back or repealed.

Taxing the rich. In a 2019 survey conducted by the Rock Center for Corporate Governance at Stanford University, 53% of Democrat-leaning voters thought that the marginal rate for the top income tax bracket should be higher while 37% of Republican-leaning voters thought it was about right, and 30% thought it should be lower.

Environmental regulation, particularly on climate change. In a 2019 survey conducted by the Pew Research Center, respondents were asked a pair of questions regarding policies aimed at reducing the effects of global climate change:

  • Do such policies do more good than harm, do more harm than good, or make no difference when it comes to the environment? 71% of Democratic-leaning respondents responded do more good than harm while only 34% of Republican-leaning voters made this choice.
  • Do such policies help, hurt, or make no difference when it comes to the economy? 47% of Democratic-leaning respondents responded that such policies would help the economy and only 13% said such policies would hurt the economy), while only 15% of Republican-leaning voters chose "help" and 52% chose "hurt".
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  • Biden does not have a national public health care plan. Neither did Obama. Bernie Sanders did, but he is not a democrat. – Beginner Biker Jan 28 at 1:13
  • This, I think, is the simplest and correct answer. No one in Congress is beholden to the whole nation, only the particular subsets that vote in the elections for their seat. If the majority of voters in one party are against something then you can expect that party to be against it. Doesn't matter that there's an overall national average, as that's not who they (ostensibly) represent and serve. – zibadawa timmy Jan 31 at 2:26
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    @BeginnerBiker I, along with many others, would construe the Affordable Care Act (ACA, aka Obamacare) of 2010 as a type of a national public health care plan. Maybe not a great one; it is what it is, and it is what was feasible at the time. President Biden has explicitly called out for expanding the ACA. On the other hand, many Republicans rejected the core concepts of the ACA a decade ago, and many still want to repeal the ACA to this day. The support for / rejection of the ACA is consistent with the opinions of those who consistently vote Democratic / consistently vote Republican. – David Hammen Jan 31 at 10:08
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    @BeginnerBiker If you are of the opinion that a single payer healthcare plan is the one true "national healthcare plan", then not even a majority of Democratic-leaning voters would agree with you. Most voters (left or right) see the Affordable Care Act as a kind of a national healthcare plan. Some voters, most of whom are left-leaning voters, don't see the ACA as going nearly far enough. Other voters, most of whom are right-leaning voters, see it as going far too far. In the middle, many moderate voters see it as just about right. – David Hammen Jan 31 at 10:23
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Because polling is often inaccurate due to a number of factors. Merely changing the wording slightly can often have drastic effects on the outcome of the poll. Like take gun control for example. If you had a poll asking if people wanted to ban all semi-automatic guns, it would be more popular than a poll which asked the same thing but also explained that most rifles and nearly every pistol are semi-automatic. They can also be inaccurate due to sampling errors; you'll get a much different result on the same question if you run the same poll in NYC and in the woods in Missouri.

Polls are also ignored because many politicians are elected by jurisdictions that don't neatly match the national average. Imagine you're running for Congress in a district where almost every job is in the oil industry. How many votes do you think you'll get if you vote for heavy carbon taxes? It doesn't matter that those taxes may be popular with the rest of the country, your constituents will hate them.

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    Any proof that polling is inaccurate and other methods that are more accurate? After all, countless polls indicate what I've stated. – Beginner Biker Jan 27 at 21:16
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The needs of the voter are beset by the needs of those who fund candidates.

Campaigns are largely financed by wealthy individuals who don't share the opinions of national audiences. When both side's financers are in agreement about an issue there's little chance of a politician taking the opposite stance, no matter how broadly popular it is.

In a way this harkens back to an original and legitimate debate around the country's founding. That is, who should control the government: those who own the country or those who live in it. Universal suffrage tends towards the latter, but modern campaign finance tends towards the owners.

If campaigns were publicly financed, politician's stances would more closely mirror public opinion.

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  • I agree. This is what we call a corporatocracy, not a democracy. – Beginner Biker Jan 31 at 3:32
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Because it seldom works this way anywhere else. Studies on the linkage between issue polling and political action find that it works like that maybe a third of the time.

As noted in that paper more qunatitatively, politicians find various reasons to ignore public opinion at large:

  • issue salience: not getting voted out of office for it (David Siegel's answer)
  • they want to act on their own ideology (i.e. base/core appeal -- David Hammen's answer)
  • they think the public may be poorly informed (Ryan's answer, sort of)
  • lobbying from narrow interests groups does counter the wider option to some extent (dandavis's answer)

In many instances, the above are not mutually exclusive explanations.

And to save my answer from trivially repeating the rest... because the US is "not a democracy", by which here I mean that the US Senate can substantially over-represent minority positions (aka malapportionment).

Regarding the malapportionment aspect... interestingly enough there's (worldwide) correlation established with [lower] taxes in a paper:

Because over-represented districts tend to be dominated by parties aligned with the elite, these groups can block legislative attempts to introduce progressive taxes. Using a sample of more than 50 countries (including 17 across Latin America) between 1990 and 2007, this paper finds that i) countries with historically more unequal distributions of wealth and income systematically present higher levels of legislative malapportionment, and ii) higher levels of malapportionment are associated with lower shares of personal income taxes in GDP.

More generally, mallapotionment works against (other) liberal/progresive policies in other countries (too), as long as the population mostly in favor of such measures is concentrated in cities. (And yeah, I realize I've not even [explicitly] talked about issue polls on this mallapotionment angle.)

But to actually touch on the latter, on top of that (and for somewhat more obscure reasons at least in part related to lobbying contacts) US Congresspersons tend to overestimate the conservatism of their own district on a range of issues like universal healthcare or minimum wage. (I guess a "standard" Republican answer to this is to say that the polls are wrong for various reasons, as seen in Ryan's answer.)

A more benign explanation is that party elites (including Congress' staffers) are more polarized than the average constituent. But this explanation doesn't uniformly hold across all domains, in terms of its explanatory power/strength e.g.

we examined the role of staffers’ personal opinions. [...] We found the clearest case for egocentric bias in health policy. On average, staffers who supported the ACA repeal overestimated constituent support for repeal while staffers who opposed repeal underestimated constituent support for repeal. By contrast, all staffers underestimated their constituents’ support for climate regulations, infrastructure spending, boosting the minimum wage, and gun background checks, although this dynamic was significantly moderated by staffers’ own beliefs. [...] Our evidence suggests that, despite any political incentives that may exist to reward unbiased estimation of constituent beliefs, staffers do not transcend common egocentric bias.

Somewhat more obviously, staffers who had more contacts with business lobbying groups were reporting estimates of constituents' positions closer to the business groups' view (against climate regs, against raising minimum wage, etc.)

Basically the [weights of the] explanatory factors are not uniform across issues, which makes answering this questions rather difficult in an abstract setting (besides an enumeration of a host of possible reasons).

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Quite aside from the question of the accuracy of polls, and the degree to which national opinion may not be the same as opinion within any one state or district, few votes will choose to vote against an incumbent that they would have otherwise supported because of that incumbent's position on any single issue. Many will support the candidate of their party, whatever specific stands that legislator has taken. Many will support the incumbent if things are generally perceived as "going well" whatever that means to a particular voter. Some will condition support on some one particular issue, and ignore stands on other issues.

It is rare for a vote or even a series of votes on a particular issue by a Representative or Senator will change his or her constituents previous support to opposition in the next election that the legislator faces.

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1) national health care plan

First, it's not surprising that people want "some kind of health care". The system is a mess and gobbles up tons of money, including government spending.

Taking the OP's cited poll:

A majority of Americans agree with many of the Democratic presidential candidates in favoring some type of national health insurance plan, though most Americans still like the health insurance they currently have and do not want private insurance to be replaced by a public option.

Meanwhile, more Americans today approve than disapprove of the 2010 Affordable Care Act, though many — including most Democrats — now think the law didn't go far enough.

As a Canadian, I agree, Obamacare did not go far enough. But if you read the poll, "most Democrats" does not equal "most Americans". And 48-49% of American voters, in 2012, voted for a platform specifically wanting to repeal Obamacare.

Second, there were significant forces against going much further, including on the Democrat side of things. Workers that are unionized, civil servants or work for big companies often have pretty good health plans already. It was not appealing to them to ditch their plans for a nationwide system.

On the Republican side, many label any single-payer plans as Socialism, by which they really mean Communism. Never mind that US government spending is on par with other countries running a real national plan. So it really does get a lot of grass roots pushback, including from people who would benefit. Substance? No. Image. Yes.

In psychology, it is common to privilege aversion to loss over hope of gain. The US system is so messed up but also so impactful to individuals and so costly that many people will resist change in case it makes things worse.

Finally, the OP has a lot more ambition for their health care plan than the poll they cite: Biden does not have a national public health care plan. Neither did Obama. Bernie Sanders did, but he is not a democrat. – Beginner Biker.

(2) increased taxes, not fewer taxes, on the wealthy;

A new poll is finding broad support for an annual wealth tax on people with assets of at least $50 million, underlining support for taxing the rich.

That's pretty much what one would call both a softball and two wolves and a sheep voting for dinner.

Is this typically the kind of tax increase that usually gets proposed? No. One Obama tax increase proposal started dinging up people from $250K on up. Not $50M. There the resistance towards tax increases becomes much more pronounced.

This particular poll might pass. Would it solve budgetary problems? Well, likely wouldn't hurt (but keep in mind France's impot sur les grandes fortunes / special-rich-tax never made much money).

Ideally, a broader tax increase would be sought, not just on the very, very wealth, but on the reasonably wealthy. And maybe tax capital gains more aggressively while you are at it.

That's the kind of tax plan that gets pushed backed, not rose-colored ones like this poll.

(3) and more, not less, environmental regulation, particularly on climate change.

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- The majority of Americans say protection of the environment should be a priority, even at the risk of curbing economic growth, and believe the U.S. government is not doing enough to protect the environment. About three-quarters support spending more government money on solar and wind power, and support higher emissions and pollution standards for industry.

Over Six in 10 Say Government Doing Too Little on the Environment

Sixty-two percent of Americans currently say the government is doing too little to protect the environment, the highest in 12 years and well above the low point of 46% measured in 2010. The only time when the "too little" percentage was higher than 62% came in 1992, when Gallup first asked the question.

This is, again, a rather softball poll. "We ought to do something" seems to be the idea.

I am going to counter with Washington state's rejection of a carbon tax. This is a largely Democratic state, with little fossil fuel interest.

When push came to shove and it came time to vote, people voted against a $15/CO2 ton.

We are hitting the limits of this kind of poll here. While people may want to "protect the environment" in the abstract, they most certainly also have an aversion to paying for it. Or to modify their consumption habits.

This is not a particularly novel problem

Any democracy can have a majority of people who feel "somewhat for" issue X. This will show up in polls.

However, if a minority of people feel "strongly against" issue X, they can influence the vote by lobbying, funding. And they are more likely to treat this vote as single-issue and vote for whoever is against it.

Even in the corporate world that holds true. A number of corporations have indicated they'd prefer better, predictable, climate change regulations. But the ones really at risk, like the coal mining companies, will fight it much more than the somewhat-support camp.

In the US, there is no better example of this strong aversion vs moderate support imbalance than gun control. Any concrete proposal to limit guns is going to be fought tooth and nail by the pro-gun supporters but will only be one of many policies guncontrol-supporters will evaluate while casting their votes.

It would be ridiculous to argue that it's only corporate gun interest that are keeping the US gun laws as they are.

A small-ish minority of very committed voters beats a diffuse majority of "we ought to do somethings", especially when they can can exploit US ideological fault lines to do so.

And a politician ignoring this would not get elected.

Last, governing by polls - the gist of the question - is not a particularly great recipe for good government.

In fact, I would myself be for all 3, but I don't confuse my preferences with the capacity of a government to get elected and effect policy on such a platform, not without considerable negotiation and finesse.

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