A re-examination of why so many Americans vote "against their interests" | Jonathan Weiler | Indy Week
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A re-examination of why so many Americans vote "against their interests" 

A friend recently asked what has become a standard question on the left: Why do so many Americans vote against their interests? Thomas Frank's 2004 best-seller, What's the Matter With Kansas?, provided one answer to that question. In a widely cited passage, Frank wrote:

"The trick never ages; the illusion never wears off. Vote to stop abortion; receive a rollback in capital gains taxes ... Vote to screw those politically correct college professors; receive electricity deregulation ... vote to stand tall against the terrorists; receive Social Security privatization. Vote to strike a blow against elitism; receive a social order in which wealth is more concentrated than ever before in our lifetimes, in which workers have been stripped of power and CEOs are rewarded in a manner beyond imagining."

In other words, according to Frank, working-class voters, particularly white working-class voters, have voted Republican because of the right's "values" agenda, only to get economic policies that make them worse off.

Not everybody liked Frank's answer. One common criticism was that he was arrogant to presume that people didn't know their own interests and were easily duped. What about a so-called blue-collar worker who'd busted it for 30 years, owned his own home, put his kids through college and cared most about the declining moral fabric of America including, for example, the permissive culture that allowed unborn children to be murdered in large numbers? Surely, critics of Frank argued, it was reasonable to view that issue as more important in determining whom to vote for than, say, tax rates, especially if that voter was living pretty decently.

One problem with asking why people vote against their interests is the premise that people must be wrong to vote based on something other than economic concerns. The angry populism that propelled many "values voters" to pull the lever for the GOP over the past generation might indeed be a legitimate expression of populist resentment against out-of-touch and morally indifferent elites, even if it didn't fit historical left-wing conceptions of what should motivate angry populism.

In the past couple of years, Frank's formulation, and criticisms of it, have been turned on their head. In the wake of a financial and economic crisis that has displaced millions from their jobs and homes, a new/ old populism has emerged, one based primarily on economic anxieties and resentments, particularly in the form of the broad movement known as the tea party. And in 2010, it was the GOP that managed to appeal to that presumably economically motivated populism, scoring massive victories, both on the national level—winning more than 60 seats in the House—and in governorships and state houses around the country. Three notable GOP gubernatorial wins took place in Midwestern industrial states with strong labor traditions: Michigan, Ohio and Wisconsin. In each, voters elected Republican governors who promised, in so many words, to rein in out-of-control spending, reduce individuals' tax burdens and get government off people's backs so they could once again resume their pursuit of the American dream.

All three have, in the space of a few months, tanked in the polls. Ohio's John Kasich, who won a close election in November, is now viewed unfavorably by a majority of Ohioans, according to recent polls, with only 30–35 percent expressing approval. In Michigan and Wisconsin, respectively, Rick Snyder and the notorious Scott Walker have faced similar precipitous declines in their approval ratings. Voters may have wanted lower taxes and fiscal prudence (however contradictory those aims might be). But there is no evidence that they elected governors Walker of Wisconsin and Kasich of Ohio, for instance, to go to war against public sector unions.

And large numbers of Michiganders are telling pollsters that Snyder's budget proposals don't call for "shared sacrifice." It's easy enough for liberals to smack their heads and say "duh?!" Of course, Governor Snyder, once in office, wasn't going to balance Michigan's budgets on the backs of the wealthy. After all, today's Republican leaders largely share the views of the billionaire Koch brothers that, despite record corporate profits and a 50 percent increase in the Dow Jones average since he took office, President Obama is an anti-business socialist bent on a radical redistribution of wealth.

I personally don't see a reason to sugarcoat the transparent dishonesty of the bulk of the GOP leadership nowadays, as I have written previously with respect to deficit reduction, for instance. And what we've seen in the past couple of years does beg a re-airing of the question: Why do so many people vote against their interests? After all, it's one thing to pose the question when the "values" agenda is so prominent in our political discourse. But when economic issues are front and center, and when those who voted Republican—presumably on that basis—are finding themselves so quickly dissatisfied with the result, one does have to wonder what's going on.

"Ours is a political system of the 1 percent, by the 1 percent, for the 1 percent."
But it won't do to dismiss as stupid such voters. There is a deeper problem with our political system than that facile response. The policy-making apparatus at all levels of government has been captured, to a significant degree, by economic elites whose interests are at odds with those of ordinary Americans. Numerous studies show what Nobel Prize economist Joseph Stiglitz has put in stark terms—that ours is a political system of the 1 percent, by the 1 percent, for the 1 percent.

Additionally, the information environment in which Americans learn about the issues is, to put it charitably, deeply flawed and compromised by media whose most prominent talking heads much more closely share the class interests of the well-off than they do the typical individual. In other words, blaming ordinary voters for policy outcomes that they don't like is, at best, only part of the story.

In general, Americans pay only sporadic attention to politics (and this is especially true of independents, and it's they—not Republicans or Democrats—who have changed their minds so quickly about messrs. Walker, Kasich and Snyder). Partly as a result, appealing to people on the basis of wonkish policy positions is a dubious strategy for winning elections and influencing people. Issues have symbolic content in addition to practical or policy content, and this can be as true of economic as so-called cultural issues. If some people say taxes are too high, maybe they really want marginal rates dropped by a few percentage points so that they can pay less in taxes every year. But maybe there is something more visceral at work: a sense that it's a struggle to make ends meet and it's damn frustrating to get nothing obvious in return for that chunk of cash that gets taken out of the paycheck every two weeks.

It's long been noted that Republicans have spoken more effectively to people's symbolic concerns than have Democrats. Candidate Obama appealed very well to people's symbolic concerns (and hopes). But President Obama has done less well in that regard. For example, during the health care reform debate, a commonly touted benefit of reform was that it would "bend the cost curve." Whatever the plan's cost-cutting merits, that phrase could not have had much appeal outside of a convention of health economists. Perhaps the president would have been better off repeating over and over again that health care reform would "save lives and save money." Some might dislike the idea of "dumbing down" issues. But there's obvious potency in speaking with clarity and directness about what many Americans value.

Whether the two major parties are equally responsible for the current state of affairs (they're not) is really beside the point. For many people, life is getting harder, and it doesn't seem to matter who's in charge. That governors Snyder, Walker and Kasich already are so unpopular is evidence not so much that Americans are "stupid" for voting against their "interests." (The fact that many Americans are not well-informed about politics is a different issue.) Rather, it's evidence that an increasingly unrepresentative political system is failing to alleviate the burdens facing ordinary Americans, and—whoever is in charge—there ought to be hell to pay.

  • Ours is a political system of the 1 percent, by the 1 percent, for the 1 percent.

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