People like me feel baffled when it looks like poor and working-class people are “voting against their interests.” How can someone with a chronically ill family member who has no health insurance not support Medicare-for-all, for example? Or, how could someone struggling financially vote for someone who supports ending the Earned Income Tax Credit?
Why do working class and poor people sometimes vote against their own interests?
One answer is, who’s to say what their best interest is? Just because I’d be delighted if there was Medicare-for-all so I’d never have to worry about bills if a loved one got seriously ill doesn’t mean that’s a top priority for other people. And just because I am over the moon when I get a tax refund because of the EIC doesn’t mean someone else must think it’s a great idea. So, we could say that working class and poor people actually are voting in their own interests because they are voting how they want to vote.
Another answer is that we all vote against our own interests. Or, rather, none of us uses purely rational, logical thought when making decisions. Our values drive our decisions.
As an example, I voted for President Barack Obama in 2008, even though I knew he was in the pocket of Wall Street as much as any Republican before him. Any time I have examined closely his position on issues, I’ve found areas where I disagree heartily. But, when I asked myself the question everyone — knowingly or unknowingly — asks themselves when they vote, “Will the candidate look out for people like me?” I felt he was the better candidate. No data, statistics or even general policy. I felt like he would be more likely to hold values similar to mine such as equality, fairness and empathy.
When Gov. Paul LePage’s supporters ask themselves, “Will he look out for people like me?” they don’t say, “Will his policies make my life better?” Frankly, all of the governor’s gaffes may actually endear him to Mainers as just a regular guy doing the best he can, in the same way former President George W. Bush was appealing to so many. Again, these are qualities based on values and emotions, not on policy.
Add to this that we are all underinformed. Keeping up with all of the statistics, data, policy options and changes would be more than a full-time job. That’s part of why we elect politicians, so someone will follow all of the details and know what’s going on. Who has time to educate themselves about all the hundreds of complicated issues, form our own opinions and match those opinions up with politicians? I know I don’t.
Liberals like me look at working class and poor voters and sigh, rubbing our hands together in concern, because we see them voting for someone such as U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan whose entire focus is cutting taxes for the rich and cutting spending on the poor.
Rather than slamming doors shut with insulting tea party nicknames or condescending rants about politicians duping the uninformed working class, we should acknowledge our own voting decisions are made with equally human brains.
If our choices were examined in a purely rational, utilitarian way, we’d see that there is no one way to define someone’s “best interest” and that none of us depends only on facts and data when we vote.
Maybe we can stop fretting over the poor, misguided uninformed electorate who are voting against their own interests. Instead, let’s begin conversations about how we identify our best interest through our shared values like freedom, caring and responsibility.
Heather Denkmire is a writer and artist who lives in Portland with her two young daughters. After a few challenging years, she is growing her small business, where her team helps nonprofit organizations win grants. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Her columns appear monthly.