Politics & Policy

It’s Not Just The Wallet, Stupid!

What gets people out to vote.

What’s wrong with you people? Liberal academics and journalists have been asking this question in various forms a lot lately. And it seems that, as John Kerry’s campaign continues to flounder, they’re asking it more and more bluntly.

In the August 30 issue of The New Yorker, Pulitzer Prize winner Louis Menand tries to figure out why on earth voters vote the way they do, particularly why they don’t vote liberal. The depressing conclusion, for Menand, is that huge numbers of Americans have no good reason to vote at all. He quotes one recent study that asserts “‘2.8 million people voted against Al Gore in 2000 because their states were too dry or too wet’ as a consequence of that year’s weather patterns.”

The most comprehensive presentation of this thesis comes from Thomas Frank, a left-wing journalist and author of the bestseller What’s the Matter with Kansas? Frank argues that conservatives have been duping lower- and middle-class voters into voting Republican, when any moron can see that these people should vote their class interests–that is, vote Democrat. “The preeminent issue of our day,” Frank writes, is “people getting their interests wrong.”

He cites, for example, the Piss Christ controversy, which, well, I’ll let him describe it: “Because some artist decides to shock the hicks by dunking Jesus in urine, the entire planet must remake itself along the lines preferred by the Republican Party, U.S.A.”

If the word “hick” didn’t clue you in, Frank is very condescending to those who vote on that broad array of issues we generally put under the rubric “values.”

We’ll come back to that point in a moment. Another major voice in the voters-are-stupid chorus is Princeton economist Larry Bartels (he’s the one who came up with that blame-it-on-the-weather explanation of Gore’s loss). In numerous studies Bartels has sought to show that voters are inherently irrational in their electoral choices. Voters often profess to believe one thing, he argues, while at the same time they do quite another. Their votes often contradict their beliefs and interests, in other words–at least as political scientists define these things.

In the June issue of The American Prospect, Bartels summarizes his study “Homer Gets a Tax Cut.” Here’s the gist: Americans believe, by huge majorities, that income inequality is a problem that is getting worse. Yet by equally large majorities they support George Bush’s effort to repeal the estate tax, even though it only affects estates worth more than $1 million. The fools!

Bartels says these voters are operating on “unenlightened self-interest.” Hence the reference to The Simpsons. Homer thinks his taxes are too high, so he supports a tax cut for super-rich Mr. Burns. As a Simpsons-o-phile, I salute the reference. And I think Bartels’s data are often very interesting, especially since I’m the sort of curmudgeon who thinks voting should be more difficult and there should be less of it. (That’s a column for another day.) But, all in all, this whole thing strikes me a huge steaming pile of…well, let’s just call it nonsense.

Let me try to peel the onion a bit. First of all, the assumption behind all of this is that liberal economic policies are, in fact, in the average Joe’s economic self-interest. This needs to be proven, not asserted. In an age when average Joes are in the stock market and own homes at unprecedented rates, it is not obvious to me that Republican policies are contrary to their bottom lines. Moreover, many of these people hope to be rich one day. Or they hope their children will be.

Which gets us to the next point. People vote–or at least should vote–based upon the kind of country they want their kids to live in. And that means they vote on more issues than narrow economic interest, however defined. Most people–liberals and conservatives–don’t see the government as the source of a welfare check and therefore don’t vote for the party that promises to put the most zeros on that check. Most see government more as a protector than a nanny. And some people see the government as a reflection of, and influence on, the society in general. And so asking them to subsidize soaking Jesus in urine offends them not because they’re “hicks” but because they don’t think that’s the sort of society they want to raise kids in.

Besides, what an enormous crock it is to say that Democrats or liberals only believe in voting their economic interests. A great many environmental issues hurt working-class voters. For example, the Arctic Wildlife Refuge would be open for drilling if working-class interests were the sine qua non of liberalism. Indeed, why do most liberals oppose the death penalty? Or favor gay marriage? They would cite justice more than self-interest. Unless, that is, I missed the news that most liberals are murderous homosexuals eager to tie the knot before they get the electric chair.

Copyright (c) 2004 Tribune Media Services


The Latest