[In the last few years I’ve met a number of people with connections to Kansas—good people all, and most of them Democrats, too. This piece is written with them in mind, with respect and affection.]
What is the matter with Kansas? This question is important, and not just for Kansas, because the political trend that Thomas Frank analyzed in his bestselling book of that title is widely viewed as the most potent force in American politics today. Frank’s view is that Kansas’ staunch social conservatives vote against their interests. In the end, I think he’s right about this, but for the wrong reasons. The idea of voting against one’s interests is more complicated than he acknowledges, and this is what I want to explore here.
Frank is hardly alone in claiming that a large swath of white, working-class Americans vote against their own interests when they select candidates on the basis of cultural and symbolic issues such as gun rights and abortion rather than economic issues such as health care. This assertion rests on a number of questionable assumptions: for example, that voters generally, and these voters in particular, vote with the intention of furthering their interests; that commentators like Frank know what those interests are, even if the voters themselves do not; and that issues such as gun rights do not touch on the foremost interests of those who value them.
The first assumption—that we do or should vote in order to further our interests—is debatable, but lies outside the scope of my present interest. The second claim, that the commentator knows the voters’ interest better than they do themselves, amounts to pointing out a sort of ignorance on the voters’ part, and thus will doubtless strike some readers as condescending. In a previous blog I argued that it is not truly condescending to accuse someone of ignorance. But the nature of this assumption merits a closer look.
When we say that someone has acted against her interest, we are suggesting that either she doesn’t know what her interests are, or she is mistaken about how to achieve those interests. I suspect, but cannot prove, that most liberal commentary in the Frank vein assumes that the overriding interest of American voters is to do as well as possible for themselves materially—to earn money, to live securely, to provide the most comfortable possible life for their children, and so on. The benighted voters of Kansas either a. fail to recognize that these are their interests, or else b. falsely believe that supporting gun control will advance them.
Consider option a. I argue that a person’s interests are not just given, so that we can be mistaken about them in the same way that we can be mistaken about other matters of fact. They are subject to reflection, and this entails an element of choice. As such, it is far more difficult to be mistaken about my interests. I say ‘more difficult’ rather than ‘impossible’ because one might forget what one has chosen as an interest, or be confused about the content or implications of an interest. But the important point is that I am in a better position to know my interests than is Tom Frank, or anyone else, for that matter.
So we should consider the likelihood that social conservatives just have different interests than the ones Frank and others take them to be voting against. Indeed, the fact that they vote so dependably and vehemently against their presumed interests is prima facie evidence that those are not their interests at all. There is nothing inherently irrational about preferring something that does not benefit me materially. As David Hume says, “’Tis not contrary to reason for me to chuse my total ruin, to prevent the least uneasiness of an Indian or person wholly unknown to me. ‘Tis as little contrary to reason to prefer even my own acknowledge’d lesser good to my greater, and have a more ardent affection for the former than the latter.”
It makes a lot more sense to suppose that the voting patterns of white social conservatives reflect in some degree the interests of the voters, and their best understanding of how to pursue those interests. I think that those interests are best understood as relating to a sense of moral community that some Americans feel was lost after the 1960’s. To name just a few major causes, the civil rights movement and the wave of non-European immigration in the 1980’s and 1990’s demolished the picture of America as a monolithically European culture, while feminism and gay rights unsettled gender roles many took for granted. For highly educated voters who can participate in the newly-globalized economy, these are unambiguous steps forward, morally but also materially.
Americans with less education, however, are likely both less able to adapt to a globalized economy and more likely to define their moral community in relation to familiar practices and nearby people. And Frank has argued, persuasively I think, that the voting patterns he points to break down fairly clearly on educational lines. Thus poorer people in places like rural Kansas can see feminism and gay rights as tearing down the moral institutions that give their lives meaning. They are also more likely to see issues in terms of the groups, especially ethnic and religious groups, of which they are members, rather than in terms of humanity in general. So they can feel threatened not just materially but morally by large-scale immigration, and react to terrorist attacks not as affronts to human dignity but as attacks on their community.
So it is hardly surprising that such people have a tendency to vote for political candidates who share these impulses, and who profess to care about the same issues. These candidates tend of course to be Republicans. The Democratic Party is increasingly home to educated people, especially on the coasts—the very group whose boats are lifted by global trade. It is hardly an accident that at the same time the Democrats are less likely than they ever were to emphasize social justice and economic equality, though the recent health care bill is a notable exception to this.
Nevertheless, the eponymous voters of Kansas do, I think, vote against their interests when they support candidates such as Sarah Palin or Mike Huckabee. Their mistake is not that they don’t know their own interests, but that the candidates they vote for do not serve those interests. The economic and social forces that threaten the traditional order in Middle America are well beyond the capacity of any political party to turn back, and in any case the Republican Party has shown no inclination to offer more than lip service to appease social conservatives. The sad fact is that neither major American party shows interest in addressing the real concerns of white working-class Americans.
This brings out a genuine quandary: I see a tension between movements toward freedom and toleration and the legitimate need of many Americans to live in strong communities that provide their members with ethical guidance. For me, at least these movements, such as feminism and the civil rights movement, are clear examples of moral progress. Is it possible to have liberation from the straitjacket of tradition without destroying the communities these traditions sustained? I don't pretend to know the answer.