Why Some Conservatives Vote Against Their Interests
Ki Gulbranson: Man bites hand that feeds him.
(That’s harsh, I know, but Ki, yer killin’ us.)
As the social sciences lay claim to examining ever-broader areas of public behavior, longstanding assumptions about voting behavior are being called into question in novel ways. A recent article and book have led me to question whether we should consider voting to be an exercise in rational judgment, subject to the rules of discourse, debate, and creative problem solving, or just an affirmation of tribal affiliation.
We’ve all heard of “values voters,” those who put what they perceive to be issues of conscience and religion ahead of platforms, proposed solutions, and candidates. As social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, author of “The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics” puts it, those values voters are “voting for their moral interests.” Core moral interests, like religion, rarely allow for rational discourse. When God, however defined, has spoken, it tends to stick. The fact that the vast majority of religious people maintain a lifelong affiliation with the religion they were born into reinforces this point. And when God and Country get conflated, it’s all downhill toward Santorumville from there.
Political writers sometimes reflect on the seeming futility of ever convincing anyone of the opposite polarity to switch sides. And in the broader scheme, that seems almost immutable. Yet, on an issue-by-issue basis, change does come, if slowly. And this isn’t to say that the movement naturally progresses in one direction or the other. For all the progress we make across the racial divides (plural) that define us, we have the Democrats adopting Republican strategies to health care reform, and then getting trounced for it by a conservative constituency that moves inexorably to the right.
I was struck by an article and subsequent NPR interview by Binyamin Applebaum, whose piece, “Even Critics of Safety Net Increasingly Depend On It,” appeared in the New York Times on February 11. For one, he was writing about the voting culture of what we in Minnesota call “outstate,” practically my own back yard. Applebaum explored how it is that people who benefit directly from government assistance, and who would suffer greatly without it, insist upon voting for conservatives who threaten—er, promise—to curtail or eradicate it.
Ki Gulbranson, who runs a little tee-shirt print shop in Lindstrom, Minnesota, can’t get by without government support. He receives a subsidy worth several thousand dollars via the earned-income tax credit, his kids get free school breakfast and lunch provided by federal funding, and his mom, 88, has scored two hip replacements under Medicare. He prints, among other things, Tea Party tee shirts that reflect his personal views against all those things. Here’s what it comes down to for him:
“I don’t demand that the government does this for me,” he said. “I don’t feel like I need the government.”
How about Social Security? And Medicare? Can he imagine retiring without government help?
“I don’t think so,” he said. “No. I don’t know. Not the way we expect to live as Americans.”
We can’t make it, he reckons, without these supports and yet, as he says, “You have to help and have compassion as a people, because otherwise you have no society, but financially you can’t destroy yourself. And that is what we’re doing.”
But here’s the thing: when he votes, compassion goes out the window and he goes with the side of himself that says the nation is financially destroying itself, moving, even, in an apocalyptic direction, and aid to regular folks must stop.
So what Ki thinks and what he does are implacably out of whack, yet he will vote conservative because that is where his internal compass, his moral compass, points him. He feels like he doesn’t need the government, yet without its—and I use this term only to highlight the rhetoric I oppose—handouts—he cannot survive in such a manner as to live as an “American.”
In “The Righteous Mind,” Jonathan Haidt seems to be saying that liberals need to respect the hard-stop “moral capital” the right brings to the electoral table with its interest in “norms, practices and institutions, like religion and family values that facilitate cooperation by constraining individualism”—this according to Slate’s William Saletan, reviewing the book in the New York Times Book Review.
But I can’t get past the utter despair, the wrenching contradiction of voters like Ki Gulbranson, who cannot reconcile reality and gut. The true fact is this: the middle class is receding from Middle America. Government assistance has increased exponentially to fill that gap.
Market capitalism, laissez faire libertarians, Wall Street moguls, and Republican SuperPac funders don’t care. They don’t care about the social capital of a job base. They care about making the world safe for capitalism—for free markets. And free markets don’t care about jobs. Free markets care about profits. Jobs are an expense. Increasingly, in many American business models, they are an unnecessary expense. And that leaves Ki Gulbranson to dangle in the wind, loyal to the end.
I never expect to convert a dyed-in-the-wool conservative to reform-minded liberal progressivism. But I do believe that people can sometimes be persuaded to pursue their true interests on an issue-by-issue basis. We can see that happening, for example, with the steady diminishment of resistance to gay marriage in the culture as a whole.
What should disturb us is that to the extent that morals-based voting—gut-based voting —eschews rationality to such an emphatic degree. It is, to a rationalist, no different than superstition-based voting, or tribal-based voting. I appreciate how social psychology undermines the sanctity of rationalism. I enjoy articles that reveal findings like that a significant element of what we know as physical or sexual attraction may be based on olfactory cues. So much for the primacy of one’s “type” or the verbiage that appears on one’s Match.com ad. (Perhaps it should read, “I prefer someone who smells like musky butterscotch,” This may raise new dimensions for stalled campaigns: Newt walks into the room and suddenly it’s fresh-baked cookies!)
If we can’t expect a significant reality-based movement to ever occur in our electorate, then isn’t this pretty much the end of the line as far as collective solutions to problems like global warming? Saletan writes. “Our taste for sanctity or authority, like our taste for sugar, could turn out to be a dangerous relic.”
I’d say that’s true. Haidt takes liberals to task for not understanding or respecting the impetus to vote values—and he holds that conservatives have the edge when comes to bedrock values. But doesn’t recent evidence show us that values-based thinking often leads into a mobius maze where correspondence to actual conditions on the ground is lost? Like say, when a certain Court says that strip searches are just fine for even the most routine of violations? So what then? Lemmings? Dodo birds? Social Darwinism? I think so.
I love that cartoon that shows a person typing away at the computer saying, “I can’t come to bed yet; someone is wrong on the Internet.” I get it. I get the futility. But somehow, some way, we need to get the Ki Gulbransons of the world to see that it’s okay, the world will not end, if they pull the lever for the guy or gal who wants to maintain Social Security, expand health care coverage, and allow those little bennies like the Earned Income Tax Credit; those little tidbits that allow people like Ki to survive almost as if he were still a member of the middle class, while we figure out how to convince the country that jobs matter now more than ever.