One of the more unseemly arguments in American political discourse has begun to pop up all the time in the current election campaign. It’s the idea that certain people or groups of people are “voting against their own self interest,” and that it’s up to me—the person pointing this out—to steer them in the right direction.
Just this election cycle, I’ve heard some version of this argument from big city liberals about poorer conservatives, from Christian Zionists about Jewish Democrats, from Republicans about black people, and it just goes on.
Few political tropes are more tiresome and condescending, and for a simple reason: If I tell someone they should vote a certain way because it’s more in their interest than the way they have been voting, I’m implying that I have a better idea of what’s good for them than they do.
This approach is most associated with the left, and especially on display in Thomas Frank’s 2004 book “What’s the Matter With Kansas.” The book made some astute points about the conservative tendency to run on social issues and then immediately pivot to tax cuts while in office. But Frank’s overarching thesis was that Republicans have conned red-state social conservatives into “voting against their own interest” by “getting them to care about” social issues, so they’ll end up supporting policies that distribute tax cuts to the rich while cutting social services to themselves.
In a piece published after the 2004 election, Frank claimed vindication for his thesis. But I had three major problems with it: 1. Thomas Frank isn’t a better arbiter of the “interests” of conservative voters than the voters themselves are. 2. Telling people they’ve been “conned” into voting against you isn’t a very good way to get them to vote differently next time. 3. What about very rich liberals who vote Democratic, even though they could take a tax hit as a result? Aren’t they voting against their own self interest?
No, you’ll say on the last point, they’re putting other, more important matters ahead of naked economic interest. Guess what: That’s what conservative red-staters are doing too.
The liberal version of this argument has persisted through the rise of Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street and, just like every other trope of elitist smugness that makes liberals like me go crazy, it found its way into Aaron Sorkin’s Newsroom.
However, “liberal elites” aren’t the only ones who do this. The implication of Mitt Romney’s address to the NAACP last week, and most Republican appeals to African-Americans in general, are that black voters should know better than to keep doing things like vote for Democrats at a 90/10 split. Same for those on the right who imply that Jews need to stop voting Democratic in large numbers, lest they be called “self-hating Jews” or bring about the end of the state of Israel. And National Review editor Rich Lowry wrote a column last week calling young voters “dupes” for sticking with Obama.
Trying to persuade voters to vote for your side plays a part in every election campaign, and political professionals have various strategies for doing so. But conveying to whole groups of people that “you were too stupid to realize that voting for us was good for you last time, but hopefully now you won’t be so stupid” is not a recipe for winning elections, ever.