How Politicians Form Opinions

A monkey looks pensive.
That old familiar feeling when you're not sure how you feel. Photo by Juan Rumimpunu / Unsplash

By the time Carol Barr's heart gave out one June 16, her husband had left for work. Her coworkers saw her collapse on Zoom. Mitral valve prolapse, her obituary would say. Carol had been diagnosed with it in seventh grade. It's not a big deal, the doctors said. Which was true. Until it wasn't.

Carol's husband was a guy named Andy, who happened to be a Congressman. And the Congressman whose heart was broken by a broken heart valve poured some of that despair into legislative problem solving.

He introduced the Cardiovascular Advances in Research and Opportunities Legacy (CAROL) Act, which invests in valvular heart disease research. And in a Congress that passes 2% of bills, CAROL's Act got to President Biden's desk, where the Commander in Chief signed it into law on December 20, two and a half years after Carol's death.

Brutal lived experience formed Congressman Barr's opinion. It's one of the most profound ways politicians step into a belief.

Or a constituent's brutal lived experience. Maine State Representative Margaret Craven introduced a waiting period bill after a constituent's 18-year-old son bought a gun and ended his life with it hours later.

While folks often think the party shapes a politician's point of view, I'd say it's more nuanced than that. I knew a Republican who voted pro-choice because that's what the majority of his constituents (and he) wanted. I knew a Democrat who voted against every pro-choice bill he could because that's what the majority of his constituents (and he) wanted.

Constituents, especially primary voters and major employers in the district, have a strong hand in shaping a politician's worldview.

Which is a GREAT reminder that the more of us who make a habit of voting in primaries, the stronger our democracy will be.

If it's an issue the politician doesn't have a personal connection to (patent policy, say) or constituents aren't really weighing in on (semiconductors, say) or doesn't have major district implications (sanctions, say), the politician may just go along with the party and buy themselves some goodwill for when they need to buck party leadership later on.

Or they may wait and see how their buddies are voting; politicians can be herd animals.

Or they may vote as a thank you to a member who helped them out or to curry favor with a member whose vote they may need in the future.

There are issues we can't change a politician's mind on. But there are also issues where their mind isn't made up. Or it could be made by a compelling constituent story.

Politicians trade in the currency of stories. Their bios and speeches are littered with them. "I grew up the son of a plumber and teacher" or "As a carpenter, I know what it's like to make a living with your hands." These stories shape their worldview - which shapes their policy positions. Our stories could help do the same.

The key is to make it specific. Carol Barr didn't die from some general heart issue; she died from a valvular heart condition. And CAROL's Act tackles just that. Representative Craven's constituent didn't ask for a bill to end all suicide - though if that bill existed, I'd bang down every door to make it law - it was a bill to interrupt the specific situation that led to her son's death.

A story about surprise medical billing is easier to act on than a story about our broken healthcare system. A story about ending testing on beagles is easier to act on than a story about ending animal testing. Quoth Michael Jordan, "Focus like a laser, not a flashlight."

So if it's an area the legislator doesn't have a clearly defined stance on and if we can tell our specific story about it, we could help form - or at least inform - their position.

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