Why People Vote Against Their Economic Interests/ from The EconomistSeptember 21, 2018
The politics of distrust
Supporters of both parties reckon the government won’t make much difference anyway
A COMPLAINT often made of Donald Trump’s presidency is that many of the voters who delivered him to the Oval Office will suffer from his policies. These include the tax cut, with its benefits heavily skewed towards the rich. The complaint builds on the growing frustration of partisans of both parties that many people who seem to be natural allies are instead rivals. This may be one result of an increasing cultural division in America’s politics—the culture wars are trumping the class wars. But it may also be caused by the belief that politicians won’t make a big difference to economic outcomes anyway.
Expressing opinions that clash with self-interest is a bipartisan activity. Wealthy Democrats support higher taxes; they are more likely to favour higher taxes on wealthy households than are poorer Democrats. Republicans, meanwhile, are not much in favour of increased spending on Medicare and Social Security, though many of them are likely to need it. In 2017, only 35% of Republicans said they were in support of increased spending on Medicare, compared to 61% of Democrats; there was a similar difference in opinion over spending for Social Security. And yet Republican support skews old: in 2016, 53% of those aged 71 to 88 identified as Republican or leaned Republican compared to 36% of those aged 18-35. And it is old people who benefit most from such transfers: in 2013, for example, government accounted for 73% of the health spending of those aged over 65 compared to 27% of the expenditures of those under 65.
This disconnect between personal financial interest and partisan lean may be partly explained by the fact that increasingly, other things matter more than money when it comes to political affiliation. According to Gallup polling, the proportion of Americans who say the gap between rich and poor is America’s most important problem, at 2%, is much smaller than those who cite immigration (11%) or race relations (7%). And there is evidence that factors including location, race, and religion influence party affiliation more than income does. In 2016, Pew research suggested 47% of those in families with incomes between $30,000 and $50,000 identified as Republican –more than the 46% of those with incomes over $150,000. Compare that to the 55% to 33% gap between rural and urban support for Republicans, or the 76% Republican support amongst white non-Hispanic evangelical Protestants compared to the 7% support amongst black Protestants.
Another reason for voting against one’s economic self-interest is the belief that Washington won’t successfully implement transformative economic policies –good or bad. Pew polling suggests that the proportion of people who suggested they could trust the government in Washington to do what is right “just about always” or “most of the time” last December was 18%. As those numbers suggest, distrust is bipartisan. Just 15% of Democrats and 22% of Republicans—less than a quarter of those who identified with the party controlling both houses of Congress– had faith in Washington to do the right thing. When Democrats were in the same situation in December 2009, it was little better: 25% of Democrats expressed faith in government. Perhaps it is inevitable that partisanship has become about signaling values rather than worrying about economic outcomes.
The lack of belief that Washington can act on voters’ benefit is regrettable because the federal government does still have an impact on individual finances, and could have a bigger one. Estimates by Christopher Weimer, an economist, suggest 12% of Americans are kept out of poverty thanks to tax and welfare programmes. Analysis by the bipartisan Tax Policy Centre suggests that if the tax deduction destined for the top fifth of earners thanks to last year’s reform had instead been distributed to the bottom quintile, it would have raised their incomes by 50%. Perhaps the most corrosive effect of believing that government won’t make a difference is that it abandons those to whom it really could to the whims of ideologues.