Over at Hullabaloo this morning, Tom Sullivan wrote, Thank You for Not Voting Your Best Interests. He made a excellent and important point, but I think there is quite a bit more to it. His primary argument is that we liberals should stop saying that the working class “vote against their best interests.” He noted that this is an Ayn Randian, social Darwinian framing of voting. He asked, “Is that who we are? Is that the kind of country we want? Does that reflect our values?”
I have to admit to being guilty of occasionally using this language. And it has long bothered me that it goes against what I believe. I actually have a certain fondness for the fact that many Christians vote against their best economic interests in the name of what they think is their religious faith. That’s noble. And I often vote against my own best interests. But the statement doesn’t mean we are talking about the best interests of the working class — as in low skilled workers as opposed to its literal meaning of roughly 99% of the population that makes most of its money for work.
If we are talking about non-college educated whites, then he is most definitely right that “You’re voting against your best interests” is just a dog whistle for, “You’re a stupid hick.” But let’s remember: in general, it is not the poor who are voting for the Republicans. I discussed this in, It’s the Poor, Stupid. Poor voters in every state in the deep south voted for Kerry in 2004. The middle income voters are more inclined toward the Republicans and upper income voters go with the Republicans everywhere but California, New York, Massachusetts, and Connecticut.
The issue is that the poorer voters tend not to vote at all — not that they vote against their interests. But I’ve always been careful not to blame them for this. There are a few things going on. The first is that our country goes out of its way to make voting hard. For example: why is it is necessary to register to vote? We all have social security numbers. Why isn’t that enough? Then, when you move, you must register again. And who moves a lot? The poor. But the problem is far deeper than that. Consider a working class family where both parents work — perhaps even multiple jobs. They are paid by the hour. They have children they must care for. People in that situation have to be very dedicated to vote. Compare that to a family where just the man works at a salaried job where his boss will be just fine that he comes in an hour late because, “The line to vote was terrible!” (Of course, the line to vote will not be terrible — that is reserved for where the poor vote.)
When it comes to what I care most about — economics — almost everyone who votes for the Republicans is voting against their best interests. The only people who are not are those people who get special benefits from the Republican Party. Otherwise, everyone does better under the Democrats — and that most definitely includes the owning class. And why do they vote against their own best interests? Well, Sullivan nails that:
[P]eople don’t vote their interests. They vote their identities. This is standard [George] Lakoff stuff. People vote for candidates they believe share their social views, not necessarily their economics. People vote for candidates they feel they can trust. People wanted to have a beer with recovering alcoholic, George W Bush, for godssakes.
This is why Wall Street turned against Obama in such a big way. He’s surrounded himself with Wall Street hacks. He’s done everything that Wall Street could hope for. But they hate him for one reason: he called them fat cats. Those people probably would have done worse under a McCain administration, but at least he would have played along and never countered their self-images as the brilliant and beneficent Masters of the Universe that they see themselves as.
So the question really is why so many people — rich people mostly — vote against the best interests of the country. There are lots of reasons for this. The one that seems primary to me is the Ayn Rand and Milton Friedman idea that making as much money as possible is doing what is in the best interests of your country. As a result, the rich have come to think that just by being rich they are being patriotic. And the rest of the nation has largely gone along with it, even though it really doesn’t have much of a historical legacy. In the past, the rich at least gave lip service to noblesse oblige; now they act like gods — deserving of both their privilege and worship.
We as liberals do need to be careful about the language we use. The “own interests” lament does sound like we are calling for selfishness. But I think it is deeper than this. A more accurate question would be, “We do they vote against our best interests?” But it is not a question for the lower classes. It is a question for the upper classes. And we shouldn’t be asking ourselves the question. We should be asking them, “Why do you vote against our shared interests?” I don’t think they have an answer for that.