Kansas is us

One of the perennial questions that people on the liberal end of the political spectrum discuss is the one about why so many people seem to vote against their own interests. These questions are variations on the themes in the 2004 book What’s the Matter with Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America by Thomas Frank where he explores why his once left-wing populist home state of Kansas now espouses right wing economic policies that do not benefit the majority of people in the state. I have not read this influential book but its main themes have percolated widely in political discourse and the reason given is that economic concerns have been driven by the rise of hot-button culture war issues that have driven economic concerns into the background, even as their personal economic situation becomes more dire.

Not long ago, Kansas would have responded to the current situation by making the bastards pay. This would have been a political certainty, as predictable as what happens when you touch a match to a puddle of gasoline. When business screwed the farmers and the workers – when it implemented monopoly strategies invasive beyond the Populists’ furthest imaginings – when it ripped off shareholders and casually tossed thousands out of work – you could be damned sure about what would follow. Not these days. Out here the gravity of discontent pulls in only one direction: to the right, to the right, further to the right. Strip today’s Kansans of their job security, and they head out to become registered Republicans. Push them off their land, and next thing you know they’re protesting in front of abortion clinics. Squander their life savings on manicures for the CEO, and there’s a good chance they’ll join the John Birch Society. But ask them about the remedies their ancestors proposed (unions, antitrust, public ownership), and you might as well be referring to the days when knighthood was in flower. (p. 67-68)

He argues that Democrats have colluded in this shift by also focusing on socio-culture wedge issues.

The Democratic Leadership Council, the organization that produced such figures as Bill Clinton, Al Gore, Joe Lieberman and Terry McAuliffe, has long been pushing the party to forget blue-collar voters and concentrate instead on recruiting affluent, white-collar professionals who are liberal on social issues. The larger interests that the DLC wants desperately to court are corporations, capable of generating campaign contributions far outweighing anything raised by organized labor. The way to collect the votes and — more important — the money of these coveted constituencies, “New Democrats” think, is to stand rock-solid on, say, the pro-choice position while making endless concessions on economic issues, on welfare, NAFTA, Social Security, labor law, privatization, deregulation and the rest of it. (p. 243)

The link above discusses some of the criticisms of Frank’s thesis.

The dominance of these neoliberal forces within the Democratic party remains significant, though the rise of progressive voices such as Bernie Sanders and others have slowed or halted that rightward slide, even if they have not been able to completely reverse it.

There is a tendency to view the phenomenon of people voting against their own economic self-interest as somewhat pathological and baffling. We also have the examples of immigrants and racial, ethnic, and religious minorities supporting the Republican party which is becoming ever more open in expressing support for the idea that the US is a white nationalist Christian nation. For example, the leader of the neo-Nazi Proud Boys who was recently found guilty of seditious conspiracy in the January 6th attack is Enrique Tarrio, a Latino. The white supremacist and Holocaust denier Nick Fuentes claims to have Mexican ancestry. The Hispanic man who randomly killed eight people in a Texas mall using an assault weapon was a neo-Nazi sympathizer and possible white supremacist. There are women and people of color and members of the LGBTQ community who are fervent supporters of sex abuser Donald Trump and the Republican party, both of which are actively working to undermine the rights of women and further marginalize people of color and the LGBTQ community.

But in trying to understand this phenomenon, it might be useful to look in the mirror. When I think about my own voting habits, I am almost always voting against my own interests, where ‘interests’ are defined narrowly in terms of those things that directly and tangibly benefit me. As someone who is financially secure, it would be more rational for me to vote for candidates who would cut taxes on those who are better off and reduce spending on social welfare programs that do not benefit me. As a man, I should not care if the rights of women are taken away and they are paid less well or treated worse than men in the workplace. I should oppose trade unions or any efforts to raise the wages and benefits of workers since that would lead to higher prices of goods for me. As a cis heterosexual male, I should not care about the way that the LGBTQ community is treated. As someone who has reasonably good health insurance I should oppose universal health care since that might mean that more people have access to health care services and thus perhaps increase wait times for me. And so on. And yet, I do not do any of those things. I am as ‘irrational’ as the Kansans. And I am by no means alone. There are many, many people like me on the liberal and progressive end of the political spectrum who vote against our own interests.

Why do we behave seemingly irrationally? The irrationality is an illusion due to us not responding to purely economic incentives. It is because there are values that we care about that transcend our own narrow economic interests. I cannot speak for others but in my case, I would like to live in a society that does not have obscene levels of inequality, that has a humane criminal justice system, that provides a safety net for those who are old or disabled or unemployed, that has a health care system that is free at the point of service to sick people, and that does not discriminate on the basis of gender or race or ethnicity or sexuality or religion.

All those things that I would like to see require the government to spend money and that necessarily means the raising of taxes, with much higher rates on those who can afford to pay more. This means voting for those policies and parties that will go against my own interests.

So we are just like the allegedly problematic Kansans in that each one of us has a basket of values, only one of which is a narrow economic interest. How we weight the items in that basket to arrive at a decision about what polices and parties to support will differ from person to person. But we should not be surprised that it does differ and that different people will come down on different points in the political spectrum.

This does not mean that we should treat all values equally. I clearly believe that the values I hold dear are the ones that lead to a better society, one that is more just and humane. I also believe that it will lead to significant psychic benefits in that a society that treats all its people better is one that is happier in general. The real issue is how we persuade people to adopt the same values that we have. And in this respect, there is hope. Surveys indicate that there is broad support for those values, which is why those opposed to it are becoming ever more strident. They see their values as losing.


  1. says

    I am as ‘irrational’ as the Kansans.

    No, you’re not. You said it yourself. You’re voting against some of the things that would be of benefit you financially in the short term in favor of things that benefit the larger society (and you, obviously) in the long term. You’re trading one cookie today for a box of cookies tomorrow*. That’s fully rational. Unless it’s likely that you’ll be dead tomorrow, taking the cookie today is the irrational course.

    *I recall that there is a test for impulsiveness in children that basically presents just this scenario.

  2. Silentbob says

    There is a difference surely in having more than one needs, and voting against one’s interests to give more to others; and being deprived, and voting against one’s own interests to have less?

    This post seems not to distinguish the two.

  3. mikey says

    @Rob: Yes. Just re-read this last month. Weird related fact: Le Guin derived the name from a sign for Salem, OR, seen in her rearview mirror.

  4. mikey says

    @Jimf: Agreed. The way I initially framed it was that we all vote against our interests, but some of us have interests that mark us as a-holes.

  5. says

    I have a simple rule when I vote. If the question or person on the ballot is likely to broaden the power base of citizens, then I vote yea. If not, nay.

  6. says

    They are voting their self-interest. They have been bamboozled by religion and propaganda into adopting different weightings for values. For example, if you are convinced there is a “heaven” or “hell” you might weight things differently based on that silly idea. If you can get someone to buy an absurdity like that, you can manipulate them outrageously because they believe their self interest is to align with the divine mission.

  7. Kimpatsu999 says

    In the UK, Margaret Thatcher was on course to become a one-term footnote in history until the Falklands War. Then she was reelected time and again on a wave of jingoism. Many Americans will vote against their own economic and social welfare interests so long as the US is making sure minorities suffer worse than they do. “Pull out one of my teeth by all means, so long as you pull out two teeth from the black man.”

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