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 pre-rational 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.” Which is to say, if it's more pleasurable for an individual to believe that one day he may be rich and need the Bush tax cuts for the very wealthy, and if there is little cost to him in supporting Bush because both the president and Kerry promised to preserve the ones for the middle class, he may embrace the vision of his own future wealth in supporting Bush while seeing a vote for Kerry as a vote against the possibility of social mobility.
Similarly, members of the military clearly have a self-interest in not being sent to Iraq, where they might be killed, but nonetheless overwhelmingly supported the re-election of the president, just as friends and relatives of individuals serving in Vietnam were found, in a 1978 study, to have been more in favor of the war than the general public, even though the consequences of that support could have been the death of a family member. Clearly, members of the military, who are usually drawn from the more economically strapped sectors and are not paid particularly well, do not vote out of economic self-interest. Rather, they and their families are politically transformed by their group participation and have an ethic of self-sacrifice for the greater good that leads them to reject assertions that their project and the deaths it causes are due to “a mistake.”
To be sure, the economically self-interested voter hypothesis has persisted because it holds predictive power—up to a point. But where that point lies is critical. Truly poor individuals with family incomes of less than $15,000 per year voted for Kerry by an overwhelming margin, 63 percent to 36 percent, according to the National Election Pool exit poll. The working poor and lower middle classes, earning between $15,000 and $30,000, also backed Kerry by a sizable margin, 57 percent to 42 percent. Kerry even narrowly edged Bush among those earning $30,000 to $50,000 a year. These voters are struggling to pay their bills and worrying about health care, pensions, and job security. They cannot afford to vote on other issues.
But once a household gets up to the $50,000 a year level, watch out. It's among these groups that alternative self-interest sets in. The group that Kerry was most hurt by losing was only middle class. Kerry and John Edwards argued -- and banked on the fact -- that voters from this bloc were experiencing a “middle-class squeeze” due to increased college-tuition costs, higher local property taxes, and other changes, such as the higher price of gas. But the facts seem to indicate that while these voters were by no means wealthy, they were also doing well enough to give primacy to other considerations -- the threat of terrorism, gay marriage, abortion, nebulous considerations about who most supported their lifestyles -- in the voting booth. Their votes were influenced by the power of ideas and ideology.
Time and again, Democrats make the mistake of believing that economic self-interest will guide voters above this income range; they fervently believe -- or hope -- that the cutoff will be $80,000 or $100,000. But it simply is not. In 2000, Al Gore was unable to rack up a margin of victory in any population group earning more than $50,000 a year. Kerry lost households earning between $50,000 and $75,000 annually, 56 percent to 43 percent. And, because a narrow majority of the electorate (55 percent) earned more than $50,000, the baseline prosperity of the electorate helped do Kerry in. Indeed, more voters in 2004 earned $100,000 to $150,000 a year than less than $15,000 a year -- a stunning fact. And close to one in five voters in 2004 came from a household making more than $100,000 each year.
Democrats often point out that the median American family income has declined over the past few years. They're right, but in the last decade -- thanks, in part, to the boom of the Clinton years -- it's also true that the upper end of the middle class got richer. “In 2003,” noted economics writer Robert Samuelson in Newsweek, looking at the census data, “44 percent of U.S. households had before-tax incomes exceeding $50,000; about 15 percent had incomes of more than $100,000 (they're also included in the 44 percent). In 1990 the comparable figures were 40 percent and 10 percent. In 1980 they were 35 percent and 6 percent.” (All figures were adjusted for inflation.) Record-high homeownership rates and soaring real-estate prices also provide many individuals with a substantial sense of security and an expectation of stability, which some studies have shown are as important as income growth in predicting electoral behavior. These are changes that Democrats need to address while weighing their populist economic messages against other appeals.
Many commentators have argued that Democrats were trumped in 2004 by the unexpected importance of conservative values. But the data shows that what they really need to start dealing with are not simply conservative moral values but the broad set of values of the middle class. In fact, the Democratic challenge to the notion of the “rational,” self-interested voter should come naturally. This concept is imported from a strain of neoclassical economic thinking that elevates the science of “the mechanics of utility and self-interest,” as British economist W. Stanley Jevons dubbed it. When it comes to economics, liberals have long argued against the idea of the self-regulating market. If liberals know that markets are not always rational, why do they continue to insist that the individuals who participate in them must be perfectly so?
Garance Franke-Ruta is a Prospect senior editor.