It’s as predictable as it is insulting: Cocooned Democratic pundits predict victory in an election, Republicans win, blogs light up and students take to Facebook to bemoan how sad it is that so many dim-witted Americans just voted against their economic interests. It happened in 2000 and 2004, even resulting in the publication of a book on the topic, “What’s the Matter with Kansas?” This year, it’s déjà vu all over again.
And it’s pretty ubiquitous, too. Pretentious columnists at The New York Times pull the argument off the shelf every so often (“Most voters don’t know much about policy details, nor do they understand the legislative process,” Paul Krugman opined last week), as do pretentious columnists at the Yale Daily News. The Internet is filled with various iterations of this same message, coming from people who apparently don’t mind that they might still have some friends who disagree with them.
So, besides the obvious condescension, what’s wrong with the argument that voting Republican is almost always against your interests? On the simplest level, it betrays the cognitive dissonance engulfing the left’s “we’re all in this together” rhetoric. The left wants us to be together, as long as “together” means some kind of a push towards redistribution. It’s troubling that some of the bluest cities in the country are actually those with the most social imbalance and economic inequality. Despite liberal policies, the rich and poor shop for groceries in different places, they pray in different places and they travel in different ways. A genuine platform of “togetherness” would seek to bridge these day-to-day lifestyle gaps that contribute heavily to many facets of inequality.
“Togetherness,” then, doesn’t really mean unity at all. It’s appropriated as a weapon of class warfare. They’re Robert F. Kennedy’s words coming out of Saul Alinsky’s mouth. “Togetherness” used in this way shouldn’t be conflated with fostering fairness and community cohesion, great things that most Democratic policies haven’t come close to accomplishing.
The “What’s the Matter with Kansas” argument is also fundamentally flawed because it reduces voters to purely self-interested agents.
For the sake of the argument, let’s say that maybe a Kansas voter doesn’t agree with the Republican candidate’s position not to raise the minimum wage. But perhaps she’s appalled by the fact that America has some of the most draconian abortion laws in the world, far to the left of countries such as France, Germany and Italy — where federal laws often mandate waiting periods and where abortion is usually legal only through 12 to 16 weeks. In the United States, it’s often legal past 24 weeks, despite poll after poll showing that majorities find this horrific and favor a 20-week limit, which Congressional GOP leaders have proposed. Are these voters foolish for prioritizing protecting the defenseless over their economic gain, however just their economic demands may be?
There’s also the economic side of the coin that, no matter how hard some try, can’t really be separated from people’s hopes and values. First, it shouldn’t even require mentioning that there are many circumstances that can determine the course of a person’s economic future and overall success. Many of these factors are outside one’s control: racial discrimination, lack of education, lack of family support, poverty. But Americans like to believe — and if it’s a myth, it’s been a pretty empowering one through the generations — that underneath it all, just about everyone can pull off a decent measure of success in life, and maybe much more. It’s what my parents came to the U.S. believing. And even though there were institutions in the U.S. that made things harder for them, they kept believing this promise.
Obviously, some people have had to deal with much worse, and progressives in America have worked in certain areas to make opportunity more accessible to more people. On the issue of economic inequality and the minimum wage, progressive arguments have a lot of salience. But it seems that their rhetoric and policy has gone from “giving everyone a fair shot” to “making sure the government is there every step of the way.”
Here’s a disconcerting thought: What if even the voters who have a lot to gain through broader economic safety nets vote against those policies to preserve the importance of true freedom? Maybe the voters in Kansas don’t want to be treated differently. Maybe they want to preserve the existential value of free will — something many Yale students, with privileged backgrounds that are lifelong insurance policies of their own, just don’t understand. Or is it that giving voters far more credit than they could possibly deserve?
John Aroutiounian is a senior in Jonathan Edwards College. His columns run on alternate Tuesdays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.