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.