Voting on Values and The Working Class

Obama’s “bitter-gate” comment led to a lot of controversy over very little. Obama gave a brief answer to a complex question at a fund raiser,  which the Clinton and McCain camps tried to distort to earn their own political capital. The attempt was to suggest that Obama was insulting voters in small town America, but so far there is little evidence that anyone has taken this very seriously.

After all the political posturing began to die down, there has been some more serious discussion as to whether Obama was right. This is actually difficult to give a definitive answer on as Obama was giving a very brief response in answer to a complex question, and even Obama later stated he was displeased with the wording used. It is hardly remarkable that an attempt to give a brief answer to a very complex question without advanced preparation would not turn out to be a definitive response on the issue.

Paul Krugman, whose blind Obama-hatred has seriously compromised his ability to think straight and write coherently,  has attempted to look at the actual issues in a recent column. Krugman has at least finally been convinced, partially by a recent column by Larry Bartels, that Thomas Frank’s argument in What’s the Matter With Kansas? is incorrect. Franks argues that Democrats have been losing because they have abandoned economic populism, allowing lower-income voters to vote Republican, against their economic interests, based upon values issues.

There is some truth to this but I disagree with Frank’s inherent assumption that voting should be based upon economic issues as opposed to on values. Franks also fails to recognize, as Bartels argued, that there are many of us affluent liberals who could also be said to be voting against our economic interests. From the perspective of electoral politics, Franks might be right that Democrats could regain some voters on economic issues by shifting to the left, but this would also cost them the support of many other voters.

Both economics and values are considered in voting. People will vote against their economic interests, but only to a certain degree. For affluent liberal voters there are things in life which are more important than dwelling on a few percentage difference in the marginal tax rate or the capital gains rate. Making money, at least for those of us who already have it, is relatively easy and I’m not going to compromise principles in voting out of fear that taxes might go up a little. I’ve rebalanced my portfolio in response to the decreased rates on capital gains in the past, and this year I’m looking at changes under the assumption that capital gains rates will increase next year. (As an aside, such investment strategy is why the Laffer-curve absolutists are incorrect in their claims a decrease in the capital gains tax definately results in increased tax revenue, and an increase will result in decreased tax revenue. A lower capital gains tax will lead to  shifts in investments to take advantage of the lower rate, but the more important question is not tax revenue gained by lowering the capital gains tax but tax revenue lost on other investment income.)

With regards to the current election, there is reason for affluent liberal voters to support Obama. On the other hand, I see no reason to support a candidate such as Hillary Clinton who is conservative on social and civil liberties issues and populist on economic issues. Krugman, preferring the more economically populists candidates such as Clinton and Edwards, tries to put a negative spin on both Obama’s comments on class and voting as well as on his supporters:

Does it matter that Mr. Obama has embraced an incorrect theory about what motivates working-class voters? His campaign certainly hasn’t been based on Mr. Frank’s book, which calls for a renewed focus on economic issues as a way to win back the working class.

Indeed, the book concludes with a blistering attack on Democrats who cater to “affluent, white-collar professionals who are liberal on social issues” while “dropping the class language that once distinguished them sharply from Republicans.” Doesn’t this sound a bit like the Obama campaign?

This raises the question of whether Obama is really making the Thomas Frank argument as Krugman and Bartels suggest. For Obama to be making this argument really is counter to what Obama has said at other times, and is counter to the reason why “affluent, white-collar professionals who are liberal on social issues” back Obama. Krugman, again blinded by his Obama-hatred, is content with assuming there is a contradiction in Obama’s beliefs as opposed to looking further. If he was willing to actually consider Obama’s views he might realize that his interpretation of what Obama said was incorrect.

Jonathan Chait does the best job I’ve seen of actually evaluating Obama’s comments.  Recognizing that the issue is far more complex than can be analyzed based upon Obama’s brief answer in San Francisco, Chait looks at the issue by reviewing past comments from both Obama and Bill Clinton:

Obama’s offense, as we all know, was to call white working-class voters “bitter” over their economic misfortune during the last few decades, and thus prone to “cling to” guns and religion. Taken literally, Obama was saying that these voters have taken up religion and gun ownership only over the last few decades–a notion so transparently false that he surely couldn’t believe it. And, in fact, he doesn’t: In a 2004 interview with Charlie Rose, Obama described how traditions of hunting and churchgoing stretch back generations. He proceeded to argue that, in the absence of plausible economic improvement, people in small towns will vote on the basis of those traditions that give their lives stability. This is not a controversial view among Democrats. Bill Clinton once said that Republicans “find the most economically insecure white men and scare the living daylights out of them”–a less respectful expression of the same analysis.

Chait provides a further look at voting based upon economics versus values:

To urge the white working class to vote on the basis of economic policy is itself considered an act of elitism. When Obama and other liberals reproach blue-collar whites for voting their values over their wallet, argues Will, they are accusing those workers of “false consciousness.” A Wall Street Journal editorial took umbrage that Obama “diminishes the convictions of those voters who care more about the right to bear arms, or faith in God, than they do about the AFL-CIO’s agenda.”

But nobody’s challenging the validity of caring more about your religion, or even your right to hunt, than your income. The objection is whether it makes sense to vote on that basis. There are, after all, stark differences between the two parties on economic matters. Republicans do want to make working-class voters pay a higher proportion of the tax burden, restrain popular social programs, erode the value of the minimum wage, and so on.

Democrats, on the other hand, have no plans to keep anybody from attending church or hunting. A few years ago, their gun-control agenda revolved around issues like safety locks, banning assault weapons, and other restrictions carefully designed to have virtually no impact on hunters or average gun owners. Now Democrats have abandoned even those meager steps. The GOP’s appeal on those “issues” rests on cultural pandering rather than any concrete legislative program.

And, while it may be elitist to say so, voting for a politician merely because he can mimic your lifestyle is not a very good idea. George Will and the Journal editors would never dream of voting on the basis of which candidate related best to their culture. They support the candidates who share their policy goals, not those who share their passion for watching baseball, or flogging the servants, or whatever other pastimes they may enjoy.

Now, it’s true that many working-class whites also vote on social issues that do have some political relevance, like abortion or gay marriage. It’s certainly not irrational on its face to vote your values over your wallet. (Democratic billionaires do it, too.) On the other hand, conservatives routinely express their fury that a majority of Jews stubbornly flout their own “self-interest”–defined as low tax rates and a maximally hawkish Middle East policy–to vote Democratic. The process of trying to persuade others to reconsider the nature of their self-interest is not some Marxist exercise or an accusation of false consciousness. It’s what we call “democracy.”

One problem with many appeals to vote Republican is that it is based upon falsehoods and scare tactics. As Chait notes, “Democrats, on the other hand, have no plans to keep anybody from attending church or hunting.” Despite this, Republicans have based many campaigns upon using scare tactics to tell voters that Democrats planned to take away their guns, and even bibles. The support by liberal Democrats of our heritage of separation of church and state is distorted as representing an attack on religion, ignoring the fact that historically it has often been religious leaders who argued for the importance of such separation to preserve their religious freedom. It is voting based upon such scare tactics, not voting based upon their values, which I believe Obama was really trying to get at in his answer in San Francisco.


  1. 1
    Amy Jeffries says:

    Voters respond not just to what the candidates say but how they say it. Voice coach Marilyn Pittman says Obama is often too preachy when he speaks. Check out her commentary on the last three standing in this cool multimedia project:

  2. 2
    Ron Chusid says:

    I agree to some extent. Sometimes I do think that Obama sounds to preachy. However I, and a tremendous number of others, would still vote for him despite that. Besides, while Obama sounds preachy, Clinton just sounds dishonest.

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