In assessing their 2022 election prospects, liberals often ask why less wealthy working-class White Americans — and even some minorities— vote for Republicans. Why do these people vote against their own “interests?” Don’t they understand that Democrats offer more federal programs and payments? How can they fail to understand their own self-interest?
These questions may seem neutral and straightforward, but they are not. Buried within them is a deeply mistaken premise: That self-interest is to be understood in purely economic terms. And thus, the electoral strategy of liberal Democrats is to offer ever more government economic programs.
But Americans are not so easily captured in this one-dimensional picture. Economics is important, to be sure, but so are other values. Americans are not only gain-seeking, utility-maximizing creatures. Different and often more forceful springs of action include, for example, the love of God. Many Americans think liberal elites look down on them for their faith. Where would they get such an idea, those poor souls who cling bitterly to their Bibles and guns? They resent the condescension.
Another is the love of country. Most Americans deeply love this country and do not like to see it portrayed as systemically evil. They think America is an exceptional place to live. Less wealthy Americans volunteer for military service in far greater proportion than do elites, and not — as liberal economic determinists suggest — because they can’t find other jobs. Liberal elites look down on their view of America as simplistic, and they resent this.
They also love their families and communities. They don’t doubt that liberals love their own families any less, but they see everywhere events and trends that run counter to their own deeply held views about creating healthy families and communities. They do not understand why they shouldn’t have input into their children’s education; why their children are not accepted at America’s best colleges in proportion to their talent; why any city would ever offer “sanctuary” to criminals; why people who do not work are amply rewarded; or why illegal immigrants face less stringent COVID-19 vaccine requirements than they do. The entire liberal worldview seems upside down to them, and they resent being looked down upon for opposing it.
All this can be easily summed up: Less wealthy working-class Americans would like some respect. They work hard for the time-tested and long-honored ends of God, country and family. They resent the condescension.
This is all bad enough. What is worse is when liberal elites actually propose their own explanations for why people are not voting for their economic “interests.” The motives they advance are all low and base. If the core of rational self-interest is economic, other human motives must be more or less irrational. Thus they conclude that poorer Whites hate Blacks and immigrants — which they do not. They “discover” fear that the patriarchy may disappear, which by the way, seems to have already transpired. They “discover” that their opponents harbor a romantic illusion about an America that never was. In short, less wealthy working-class Americans vote Republican because of fear, hatred and ignorance.
Here elite condescension takes off its robes and displays itself fully. Here is the game: First, ascribe only base motives to the behavior you do not understand. Second, roll these base motives into one gigantic intersectional narrative. Finally, rest content in your seemingly deep but actually relatively shallow knowledge of your political opponents. All very pat, very self-serving, and far from what a few simple conversations would teach any honest inquirer.
Why don’t people vote for their “interests?” Because people are deeper and more complex than the cramped portrait of an economic man who seeks nothing but evermore federal largesse. The Marxist philosophy of economic determinism has never really been at home in communist regimes, which operate on very different principles. But not surprisingly, it has found a home in the elite class of our own commercial republic.
Here’s a hint about how elites might better understand all Americans: Think of them as citizens and not just consumers of economic goods and services.
• Jeff Bergner served in the legislative and executive branches of the federal government. He is completing a book on how American economic determinism leads to failures in domestic policy, foreign policy and intelligence analysis.
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