NEW YORK--Why do the poor and middle class, who get screwed by Republican policies, vote for them anyway? Old-school liberals accept the vexing explanation offered by Thomas Frank's influential book What's the Matter with Kansas?: How Conservatives Won the Heart of America. "Our long culture wars," posits the Los Angeles Times in its review, "have left us with an electorate far more concerned with their leaders' 'values' and down-home qualities than with their stands on hard questions of policy." Frank blames the phenomenon of trailer park Republicanism--people whose votes support right-wingers who export their jobs overseas, raise their taxes and starve their kids' schools--on the GOP's astute use of "cultural wedge issues like guns, abortion, and the sneers of Hollywood whose hallucinatory appeal would ordinarily be far overshadowed by material concerns."
It's the teen lesbian abortion sluts, stupid. Democrats reeling from November 2004 found an explanation in Frank's thesis. Republicans had divided Americans "along the fault lines of fear, intolerance, ignorance, and religious rule," wrote The New York Times' Maureen Dowd. The pivotal "moral values" voters--more than 20 percent, said exit polls--had been duped into voting against their own interests.
Frank's book is powerful, but it only tells half the story.
Many Democrats vote against their economic self-interest too. In 2000 George W. Bush promised tax cuts principally designed to benefit Americans earning over $100,000 a year. Yet 46 percent of these voters, well into the top one percent of wage earners, voted for Al Gore. In 2004, 32 percent of John Kerry's campaign budget came from people giving the maximum $2,000 direct contribution. (For Bush the figure was 49 percent.) Anyone with a spare two grand to blow on a presidential campaign can objectively be described as well off. And the most successful capitalists gave generously to liberal "527" groups like MoveOn.org: $19 million each from George Soros and Peter Lewis, $15 million from Stephen Bing, $13 million from Jane Fonda. Why did so many rich people support a guy who promised to take away their Bush tax cut? The fact that Democratic presidencies are historically better than Republicans for the economy may have factored into some of these wealthy voters' decisions--Kerry would have been better for their stock portfolios. But for others, values obviously played a role. They believed in economic justice. They were against the invasion of Iraq. And, like working class Republicans, they were willing to take an economic hit for their heartfelt beliefs.
Most Democrats oppose the Iraq war, seeing it not as a war of liberation or anti-WMD preemption but rather as a brazen attempt to protect low energy prices. Yet all of these people drive cars or ride mass transportation systems whose fares are tied to fuel costs. Although they stand to benefit from lower gas prices, they're against waging war to secure them.
Liberal lifestyles are defined by similar self-defeating behavior. I graduated from high school more than two decades ago; my mom still votes for every school levy because she believes in public education. Because I'm too lazy to wait in an extra line for the rebate at the grocery store, I pay an extra nickel per soda and give the cans to the homeless. Despite this additional cost, I support bottle deposit laws because I value the environment.
Traditional Marxist-influenced thinkers assume that citizens in democracies wage class warfare at the ballot box. In the United States, however, millions of Democrats and Republicans alike routinely cast votes that work against their narrowly defined economic self-interest. Recent surveys show that an overwhelming majority of Americans, from both parties, are willing to pay higher taxes for everything from better schools to higher salaries for soldiers to space exploration.
All Americans, not just social conservatives, are "values" voters. We have different values, that's all. Some of us rank values like personal freedom, a clean environment and economic fairness so highly that we're willing to give up some of what we have to promote them. Other people see those values as unimportant or even harmful. But they're willing to sacrifice for their opposing principles of traditional piety, free markets and personal security.
There's a thin line, a cynic would say, between idealism and stupidity. Even so, the broader point--that what divides us most isn't red versus blue, urban versus rural, or black versus white--is important. Americans have vastly different ways of looking at the world, of deciding what is important, even of defining what it means to be American.