Heal Thy 'Self': What the Democrats Didn't Get: For Most Middle-Class People, Self-Interest Means Far More Than Economics

By Franke-Ruta, Garance | The American Prospect, December 2004 | Go to article overview

Heal Thy 'Self': What the Democrats Didn't Get: For Most Middle-Class People, Self-Interest Means Far More Than Economics


Franke-Ruta, Garance, The American Prospect


IT'S TIME FOR THE QUADRENNIAL DEMOCRATIC LAMENT about the false consciousness and dismaying distractibility of the poor. "John Kerry's supporters should be feeling wretched about the millions of farmers, factory workers and waitresses who ended up voting--utterly against their own interests-for Republican candidates," wrote Nicholas Kristof in The New York Times two days after the election. "One of the Republican Party's major successes over the last few decades has been to persuade many of the working poor to vote for tax breaks for billionaires." Matt Miller in the LA Weekly opined, "When [the] 'values' discussion is played out on the turf of gay marriage and not on, say, the abuses of crony capitalism, then Democrats aren't properly defining the debate." The Republican goal, agreed Diane McWhorter on Slate, is to "[s]educe the have-nots into a strange bedfellow-ship with the haves through emotional tribal markers that strike at some prerational sense of identity. Then they will be persuaded to vote against their own self-interest."

While the argument is true on some level, it also misses the point. The idea that millions of Americans vote against their economic self-interest because they can't comprehend where their true interests lie is rooted in a materialist vision of politics that fundamentally misunderstands what millions of people value most in life. It's a concept that is condescending, politically harmfully, and--most importantly--verifiably false. Several decades of social-science research--an entire literature on voting and self-interest--have shown that the "self-interested voter hypothesis," as it's known, fails to satisfactorily explain American political behavior. More generally, this purely materialist vision of self-interest simply misunderstands human nature.

Politics has always been as much about identity and community-not to mention raw group power--as about the economy. Self-interest defined in purely economic terms is an idea that reduces the Democratic Party to little more than the human-resources department of American politics, endlessly fussing over pensions and health-care plans and whether or not you got your flu shot, rather than a party concerned with the fundamental stuff of life: who we are, how we organize our society, and what it means to be American at this particular moment in history.

To be sure, Democrats from Bill Clinton to John Edwards have talked about everything from tax policy to the budget deficit as reflecting American values and identity. But, as researchers have discovered, a lot of other values-based elements come into play as voters go to the polls. Bryan Caplan at George Mason University, a bastion of libertarian and conservative scholarship that has become increasingly influential in Washington over the past decade, has found that the greatest predictors of political behavior are not income, race, gender, or even education; they are political ideology and party affiliation. This seems intuitively obvious--Kerry and George W. Bush both received better than 90-percent support from members of their own parties and completely banal. Yet the relationship between the first set of markers and the second is not always an economically self-interested one. "Measures of self-interest have little or no predictive utility for beliefs about unemployment policy, national health insurance, busing, or crime," Caplan notes in reviewing the literature on the subject.

Individuals are also motivated by the social capital they or their ideological groups can acquire through voting, and by pride, prestige, self-esteem, piety, and hope. They are inspired by the psychological benefits of their beliefs--even erroneous or irrational ones if those beliefs are unlikely to have significant negative costs. "If the most pleasant belief for an individual differs from the belief dictated by rational expectations," writes Caplan, "agents weigh the hedonic benefits of deviating from rational expectations against the expected costs of self-delusion. …

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