Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


What Makes Us Politic

arizona-capitol

The Arizona State Capitol in Phoenix. (Photo: Sue Stokes/Shutterstock)

Understanding a Politician’s Motives: Why Did Jan Brewer Veto SB 1062 in Arizona?

• March 03, 2014 • 12:00 PM

The Arizona State Capitol in Phoenix. (Photo: Sue Stokes/Shutterstock)

A politician’s true ideological position, however unknowable that may be for an outsider, is an important consideration when attempting to determine motive. But it’s not the only consideration.

Last week, Arizona Governor Jan Brewer vetoed SB 1062, which would have permitted business owners in Arizona to discriminate against gay and lesbian couples on the basis of religious belief. The Internet lost no time in trying to parse Brewer’s motives for the veto.

For some, it was a simple economic motivation: Brewer was worried the law would have caused tourists to go elsewhere or the NFL to move the next Super Bowl to another state. To others, she was sensibly rejecting an overly vague and likely unconstitutional bill, avoiding unnecessary legal complications for her state. Still others saw her as bowing to pressure from national Republican leaders concerned about their party’s brand name. For yet others, this veto was a statement of Brewer’s own true ideological preferences, which don’t necessarily line up with those of other Republicans in her state.

Of course a politician’s actions are motivated by politics. Indeed, we want our politicians to be motivated by politics.

What’s the true motive for her veto? It doesn’t matter. More importantly, we’ll never know, because there is never one true motive for any political decision.

This is an issue for political scientists who study legislatures, particularly Congress. Many of these researchers rely upon estimates of elected officials’ “ideal points,” or ideological positions, which are drawn from those members’ roll call votes. We rely upon these measures to study things like party polarization and representation. The assumption made in calculating them, though, is that how an elected official votes is, on average, a good indicator of what she believes.

This assumption has been scrutinized in several studies. Some note that Congress, like virtually all legislatures, employs some aspect of agenda control. That is, not every bill that every member cares about reaches the floor for a vote. The minority party, for one, often has a hard time getting its bills to a full vote, and majorities are often good at sidelining bills they think would be embarrassing for their party. So it’s certainly possible that we’re getting a biased view of members’ ideologies by focusing just on those bills that made it to the floor. But the general consensus is that this isn’t a huge problem.

But what’s important to recognize is that many things inform a legislator’s vote or a governor’s (or president’s) veto. The politician’s true ideological position, however unknowable that may be for an outsider, is an important consideration. But legislators do not always vote their true preferences. Sometimes, they’ll swap votes with another legislator in a log roll on issues they both care about. Sometimes they’ll vote against their own wishes to avoid antagonizing voters or powerful interest groups in their districts. Sometimes they’ll vote how their party leaders ask them to in order to help their party more broadly. There’s even evidence that they’ll sometimes vote how the legislator sitting next to them voted, just because. There are almost always multiple influences operating on politicians at any given time.

One of the silliest criticisms of a politician’s vote or veto, though, is that they were motivated by politics. Of course a politician’s actions are motivated by politics. Indeed, we want our politicians to be motivated by politics. That means they’re concerned about things like representing voters and not embarrassing their party or their government. That’s part of representative democracy. It’s the politicians who aren’t motivated by politics who are potentially dangerous. Luckily, they tend not to have long careers.

So, what motivated Brewer’s veto: personal beliefs, business concerns, legal concerns, or political calculation? Yes.

Seth Masket
Seth Masket is a political scientist at the University of Denver, specializing in political parties, state legislatures, campaigns and elections, and social networks. He is the author of No Middle Ground: How Informal Party Organizations Control Nominations and Polarize Legislatures (University of Michigan Press, 2009). Follow him on Twitter @smotus.

More From Seth Masket

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

October 24 • 4:00 PM

We Need to Normalize Drug Use in Our Society

After the disastrous misconceptions of the 20th century, we’re returning to the idea that drugs are an ordinary part of life experience and no more cause addiction than do other behaviors. This is rational and welcome.


October 24 • 2:00 PM

A Letter to the Next Attorney General: Fix Presidential Pardons

More than two years ago, a series showed that white applicants were far more likely to receive clemency than comparable applicants who were black. Since then, the government has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on a study, but the pardons system remains unchanged.


October 24 • 12:00 PM

What Makes You So Smart, Middle School Math Teacher?

Noah Davis talks to Vern Williams about what makes middle school—yes, middle school—so great.


October 24 • 10:00 AM

Why DNA Is One of Humanity’s Greatest Inventions

How we’ve co-opted our genetic material to change our world.


October 24 • 8:00 AM

What Do Clowns Think of Clowns?

Three major players weigh in on the current state of the clown.


October 24 • 7:13 AM

There Is No Surge in Illegal Immigration

The overall rate of illegal immigration has actually decreased significantly in the last 10 years. The time is ripe for immigration reform.


October 24 • 6:15 AM

Politicians Really Aren’t Better Decision Makers

Politicians took part in a classic choice experiment but failed to do better than the rest of us.


October 24 • 5:00 AM

Why We Gossip: It’s Really All About Ourselves

New research from the Netherlands finds stories we hear about others help us determine how we’re doing.


October 24 • 2:00 AM

Congratulations, Your City Is Dying!

Don’t take population numbers at face value.


October 23 • 4:00 PM

Of Course Marijuana Addiction Exists

The polarized legalization debate leads to exaggerated claims and denials about pot’s potential harms. The truth lies somewhere in between.


October 23 • 2:00 PM

American Companies Are Getting Way Too Cozy With the National Security Agency

Newly released documents describe “contractual relationships” between the NSA and U.S. companies, as well as undercover operatives.


October 23 • 12:00 PM

The Man Who’s Quantifying New York City

Noah Davis talks to the proprietor of I Quant NY. His methodology: a little something called “addition.”


October 23 • 11:02 AM

Earliest High-Altitude Settlements Found in Peru

Discovery suggests humans adapted to high altitude faster than previously thought.


October 23 • 10:00 AM

The Psychology of Bribery and Corruption

An FBI agent offered up confidential information about a political operative’s enemy in exchange for cash—and they both got caught. What were they thinking?


October 23 • 8:00 AM

Ebola News Gives Me a Guilty Thrill. Am I Crazy?

What it means to feel a little excited about the prospect of a horrific event.


October 23 • 7:04 AM

Why Don’t Men Read Romance Novels?

A lot of men just don’t read fiction, and if they do, structural misogyny drives them away from the genre.


October 23 • 6:00 AM

Why Do Americans Pray?

It depends on how you ask.


October 23 • 4:00 AM

Musicians Are Better Multitaskers

New research from Canada finds trained musicians more efficiently switch from one mental task to another.


October 22 • 4:00 PM

The Last Thing the Women’s Movement Needs Is a Heroic Male Takeover

Is the United Nations’ #HeForShe campaign helping feminism?


October 22 • 2:00 PM

Turning Public Education Into Private Profits

Baker Mitchell is a politically connected North Carolina businessman who celebrates the power of the free market. Every year, millions of public education dollars flow through Mitchell’s chain of four non-profit charter schools to for-profit companies he controls.


October 22 • 12:00 PM

Will the End of a Tax Loophole Kill Off Irish Business and Force Google and Apple to Pay Up?

U.S. technology giants have constructed international offices in Dublin in order to take advantage of favorable tax policies that are now changing. But Ireland might have enough other draws to keep them there even when costs climb.


October 22 • 10:00 AM

Veterans in the Ivory Tower

Why there aren’t enough veterans at America’s top schools—and what some people are trying to do to change that.


October 22 • 8:00 AM

Our Language Prejudices Don’t Make No Sense

We should embrace the fact that there’s no single recipe for English. Making fun of people for replacing “ask” with “aks,” or for frequently using double negatives just makes you look like the unsophisticated one.


October 22 • 7:04 AM

My Politicians Are Better Looking Than Yours

A new study finds we judge the cover by the book—or at least the party.


October 22 • 6:00 AM

How We Form Our Routines

Whether it’s a morning cup of coffee or a glass of warm milk before bed, we all have our habitual processions. The way they become engrained, though, varies from person to person.


Follow us


Politicians Really Aren’t Better Decision Makers

Politicians took part in a classic choice experiment but failed to do better than the rest of us.

Earliest High-Altitude Settlements Found in Peru

Discovery suggests humans adapted to high altitude faster than previously thought.

My Politicians Are Better Looking Than Yours

A new study finds we judge the cover by the book—or at least the party.

That Cigarette Would Make a Great Water Filter

Clean out the ashtray, add some aluminum oxide, and you've (almost) got yourself a low-cost way to remove arsenic from drinking water.

Love and Hate in Israel and Palestine

Psychologists find that parties to a conflict think they're motivated by love while their enemies are motivated by hate.

The Big One

One company, Amazon, controls 67 percent of the e-book market in the United States—down from 90 percent five years ago. September/October 2014 new-big-one-5

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.