a blog about philosophy in public affairs

How do people vote against their own interests?

I spend a disproportionate amount of my free time following the ins and outs of American politics. And one of the most interesting/baffling things about the nominations for the 2016 presidential election is the sheer capacity of the average Republican voter to stomach policy proposals that seem tailor-made to benefit the tiny minority of the wealthiest at the expense of everybody else. For example, all of the Republican front-runners have come out with some form of tax plan that cuts taxes on the wealthiest 1% by hundreds of thousands of dollars. Yet this doesn’t scare away nearly as many voters as you’d expect — in fact, the race is wide open, and some pundits even suggest the GOP are favourites at this stage. Voting against your own interests is, arguably, a global phenomenon – I’m sure many in the UK will say it happened in the elections in May – but it does seem to be particularly prevalent in the US, perhaps because one of the parties has moved so far to the right on social and economic issues that there is not yet any equivalent in Europe.

So why do so many people vote for policies that are likely to make them worse off? In the Southern US context, Wayne Flynt argues in his book Poor But Proud that Republicans have managed to paint a picture of Democrats that puts them at odds with the fundamental beliefs of ordinary (white) working-class people: that they are all godless, pro-abortion, pro-birth control, pro-gay rights, anti-prayer in school, and so on. Against these fundamental cultural issues, economic concerns take second priority. Others argue that good stories, such as Reagan’s “welfare queens” or the idea that families must live within their means and so must the government, are simply more effective at convincing voters, even if the facts speak against them. Some even suggest that a general exasperation with party politics is behind the phenomenon.

But for what it’s worth, I think that in order to make sense of why people vote against their own interests it’s useful to first ask how they do it. It’s helpful here to narrow the term down a bit. For simplicity’s sake, let’s say that the relevant question is whether the party you’re voting for is likely to make you, your family and your community better off financially. If you’re voting for a party that doesn’t look like it’ll do that, you’re voting against your own interests. But, crucially, that in itself does not mean that you’re voting irrationally. That depends on your reasons for voting as you do.

Reasons to (seemingly) vote against your own interests can be broken down into at least three broad categories:*

(1) Voting according to a different set of priorities (actually for your own interests)
(2) Voting according to political or moral conviction (may be for or against, depending on your personal circumstances)
(3) Voting based on mistaken assumptions (definitely against)

By way of an example, imagine that I were filthy rich. As things stand (being very much not filthy rich at all) I’d tend to vote Labour here in the UK (although as a non-citizen I can only vote in local and EU elections). That is, of course, barring any context-specific reason not to – a particularly disagreeable local candidate, or voting tactically in an area where Labour don’t stand a chance of winning anyway. But if I were filthy rich, my own financial interests would probably be better represented by the Conservatives. What reasons would I still have for voting Labour?

First, I might think that Labour actually did still represent my best interests; I might want things that I cannot easily buy with my own money. For instance, I value very highly the fact that I can walk on the streets at night without feeling afraid of being attacked. To get that I need both a strong police force and preventive programmes ensuring that people don’t fall into a life of crime, which require higher taxes. In that instance I might not care that I will be taxed at a higher rate; or, I might regret having to pay more but feel that overall it will be worth it.

(I’m obviously not suggesting that the left have a monopoly on keeping people safe. But the methods will typically be different – the left will, as a rule, prefer preventative measures while the right will favour a “tough on crime” stance. But my preference for one policy or the other will depend on my empirical beliefs about which is more effective, not personal financial interests.)

Second, I might feel that as a matter of justice, government should be primarily concerned with improving the lot of the poorest members of society. That is, I am deliberately voting for a party that doesn’t represent my interests precisely because they don’t represent my interests, as I don’t think they should be the primary concern of the government. (If I were poor, of course, my political convictions and personal interest would happily intersect in this case.)

But, third, I might be mistaken. I might care about my taxes, but not know that the Tories are more likely to lower them than Labour are. Maybe their policies on areas that matter to me have been misrepresented in the media. Or, going back to a point I made earlier, research might show that actually the Conservatives had it right, and a “tough on crime” stance really does work better than prevention.

In both of the last two cases I am voting against my own interest. But my reasons for doing so are very different, and require a very different answer if you, as a political opponent, want to persuade me to vote otherwise. Going back to the example of the US, then, people may vote for politicians that don’t represent their financial interests because they represent their moral convictions (against their own interests narrowly construed, but not irrational), or they may have been led to believe things that aren’t true, such as the benefits of low-tax, anti-union policies for society’s poorest (against their own interests). Or, as this article suggests, older Americans might vote against redistributive programmes for younger people out of fear that they’ll erode their own Medicare benefits (for their own interests, if somewhat selfish). In most cases, suspect, it’ll be a mix of more of them.

Now, I don’t have any answers whatsoever on what to do about it, but I do believe that as a starting point it’s useful to think about a problem by thinking about how to think about it. And I worry that by locking yourself into your favourite mode of understanding the problem you will miss other important considerations. This piece, for instance, argues that voting is more like a religion, and that conservatives are by nature much more sensitive to things like benefits cheats and scroungers than liberals are. That might be true. But to me, it overlooks the fact that the same voters are often deeply misinformed about the amount of money lost to benefits cheats, believing . In this case it’s not really clear that the problem is the values rather than the facts. After all, I think most on the left would agree cheating on your benefits is morally wrong.

One final complication is that it’s not obvious, philosophically, if people voting against their own interests is really the problem, rather than the problem being the policies that result from it. After all, many would argue that people shouldn’t vote for their own interests, but rather for what they believe will be best for society. In that case the question is, why do people vote according to such a pro-rich, anti-poor conception of the common good?


*There are probably more. Please feel free to suggest others I’ve overlooked.

Jesper Lærke Pedersen

Jesper recently completed his PhD in Political Theory at the School of Government & International Affairs, Durham University. He works on global justice, specifically responsibilities of the developed world towards developing countries. He’s also the webmaster for this blog.

Twitter LinkedIn Google+  


On ‘negotiating the balance between personal freedom and really cool free stuff’


Climate Change’s “Climate Problem”: Where are all the women?


  1. Lisa Herzog

    Hi Jesper, thanks for raising these interesting questions! At the risk of muddling the waters, I want to throw in two more ideas that partly overlap with the options you describe.
    1) Hope. I don’t know whether it is still literally true, as the cliché goes, that poor people vote for low taxes because they hope to be rich one day. But they might hope that the economy will pick up. Or that trickling down will happen. You might say that this is nothing but a mixture of own interests and misconceptions about economic mechanisms and the likelihood of becoming rich. But it seems to me that psychologically there is something specific about hope and its orientation towards a better future that makes it so powerful.
    2) Identity. When reading around in psychology, I came across a distinction – roughly – between our “is-self” and our “ought-self” – the self that we think we ought to have, or that we wish to have. I wonder whether part of the story might be that people vote for the interests of the selves that they wish they had, not the ones they actually have (and if the “ought-self” is a future self, this might be related to hope).

    • Jesper L Pedersen

      Hi Lisa, thanks for your very insightful comments. As for (1), it’s a very common idea, but one that came up surprisingly little when I researched for this blog post. My sense would be that the idea that you shouldn’t vote against the interests of the rich because you hope to one day be one of them can be subsumed under the second and third reasons I mentioned. The idea that society should be arranged so as to encourage entrepreneurship so long as everyone has an equal chance regardless of background is a very reasonable political philosophically. That coupled with the belief that everyone does have an equal chance (“The American Dream”) leads to the phenomenon you’re describing. So perhaps it’s not so much a case that they think they’ll benefit directly, but that they believe that entrepreneurial spirits should benefit, and they’re under the mistaken assumption that that’s currently equally likely for everyone.

      As for (2) I think you’re right, identity can be a really strong motivator. And perhaps there are a lot of people who simply vote Republican because “in our family we’ve always voted Republican”. Perhaps it comes out of a sense that your party represents your class, in which case it’d be a case of mistaken assumptions, but if it happens unreflexively perhaps it’s a separate category entirely?

  2. cinnamonb

    Hello Jesper –

    Ran across this article in doing some social justice searches. You’ve tackled a question that’s been bugging me for years! And not just me, someone also asked basically the same question of Robert Reich – at his Wisconsin appearance filmed for C-Span booktv. I KNOW it happens. I’m a retired community college prof and the last contract I voted on had this clause really not in faculty’s best interest. Yes there were still those who didn’t even want to further study it, we HAD to vote on it that day (unfortunately, it passed by 2 votes!)

    You’ve framed some great questions to further investigate this phenomena – and so has Lisa. One comment I would make is that facts have been known to backfire! There was a pretty well-known study about that I read years ago. It was reported in the Boston Globe but is now either no longer on line or you have to pay… so I don’t know further details about it now. You might have seen about it, though.

    Now your conclusion is dynamite! “In that case the question is, why do people vote according to such a pro-rich, anti-poor conception of the common good?” Exactly. I’ve so often noticed in comments on news articles about struggling folks that there seems to be an awful lot of blaming the poor. Author Shasha Abromsky commented on the trend of there being a thread of thinking that the poor are “not worthy.” Sad.

    Anyway, I hope you read this and Happy New Year.

    • Jesper L Pedersen

      Dear cinnabomb,

      Thank you very much for your comments. Since I wrote this I read this other great post from Matt Bruenig’s blog (http://mattbruenig.com/2015/12/30/the-story-of-eric-harwood/) which puts a human face to the kind of issue I discuss more abstractly. It tells the story of a man who’s struggled greatly with the US welfare system, and who clearly deserves our sympathy. Yet it doesn’t seem to match with his social status that he is campaigning for a Trump or Cruz presidency.

      “Specifically, he thinks it spends too much money on foreign aid, refugees, and immigrants, when it should be spending it on struggling veterans, seniors, needy children, and those who cannot work.”

      Bruening argues that Harwood’s “concern about foreign aid, immigrants, and refugees, though misguided in my opinion, has a very clear connection to his economic situation. Put bluntly, he wonders why his country can somehow help these people while he drowns. In the grand scheme of things, the reality is that the US does not spend that much of its GDP on foreign aid, refugees, and immigrants. The reason there are so many poor veterans, elderly, children, and disabled (the four populations Harwood kept bringing up) is not because the government doesn’t have the means to help these groups. It just chooses not to for various ideological reasons. This is something I know because I spend most of my waking hours studying the shape of government spending and the US welfare state. But you could certainly see how someone like Eric Harwood might think otherwise.”

      That seems a pretty clear cut example of voting based on mistaken assumptions.

      • cinnamonb

        WOW – Hi Jesper — I was very pleasantly surprised to stop by here after so many months and see you replied! Hope your year is going well.

        Thank you for sharing that story of Eric Harwood. Mistaken assumptions, indeed. I will also have to check out Matt Bruenig’s blog.

        Keep on your toes, I just might be stopping by this blog again…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Powered by WordPress & Theme by Anders Norén