Voting against their own interests

In this week’s New York Magazine, Frank Rich repeats the what’s-the-matter-with-Kansas theme, claiming that working-class whites are “voting against their own interests.” I get why it’s a popular line on the left. In short, it frames white working-class support for Republicans as a simple failure of rational understanding, one that, if it could only be remedied, would result in landslide Democratic victories.

But it’s a fantasy. Worse, for liberal strategists it’s dangerous. The Kansas trope is selectively applied and unrealistically narrow, it misunderstands the nature of some central political fights, and it’s largely at odds with what we know about actual patterns of voting and non-voting.

If poorer Republicans are voting against their own interests, doesn’t that mean that wealthier Democrats are as well?

Since grad school, I’ve been involved with a longitudinal study of the Harvard Class of 1977. This class includes Bill Gates, Steve Ballmer, Mad Money’s Jim Cramer, and lots of other overachievers. Its members have median family incomes around the top 1% or 2% of the country. And it has many more Democrats than Republicans.

So why aren’t we asking, you know, what’s the matter with Harvard? Why are they voting against their own interests by supporting big-spending tax-raisers? Are they just fools in the end, unable to align their votes with simple rational understanding?

Actually, no. No, they’re not. And here’s why.

Tangible interests go beyond rich-poor issues

In addition to being a pretty wealthy group, Harvard graduates are also singularly reliant on meritocracy. And the main threat to meritocracy is group-based discrimination, discrimination that seeks to undermine education-based and performance-based regimes in favor of allocating societal benefits to white, native-born, male, heterosexual Christians.

Sure enough, if you look within the Harvard Class of 1977, the tilt towards Democrats is especially strong among blacks, women, LGB folks, and non-Christians. In addition, Democrats are more prevalent among members with family incomes below the top 1%. So, for example, there’s a segment of this Harvard Class that is actually (modestly) more likely to contain Republicans than Democrats: White, Christian men with incomes over $500k who aren’t married to working women (think, e.g., of George W. Bush and Mitt Romney).

So, really, it isn’t that Harvard folks are ignoring their interests. It’s instead that interests are multifaceted. In a time and place in which anti-discriminatory factions are in the opposing coalition from anti-redistribution factions, these ultimate meritocrats mostly choose the anti-discrimination coalition. That is, they do so unless they’re both super-rich and have group-based features that make them less concerned about discrimination, in which case they’re marginally more likely to choose the anti-redistribution coalition.

Is something similar happening with working-class whites? Are they taking into account a broader range of tangible interests? Actually, yes. Yes, they are.

Plunder and some zero-sums

We meritocrats are so opposed to group-based discrimination that we often don’t want to admit that anyone at all might be better off under old-style bias. I’ve been a bit surprised, then, by the popularity of Ta-Nehisi Coates, who (for example, in making the case for reparations) argues forcefully that America’s racial history has largely been about plunder. In a 2013 essay, he states it starkly:

“It is important to remember that atrocity is not simply insanity, that it is often not insanity at all, but hard interest, that even in the Holocaust there were interests, that there were winners and that they saw themselves as such. In our own land, we have long observed this. To better avoid the painful fact that there were ‘winners’ in a slave society, that those winners were not merely great planters, to avoid the fact that ordinary Americans are indicted in all that came from slave society, we discuss the ‘race problem’ as though it were a problem of manners and civility. I am sure the average African-American in 1963 could empathize with the dream of little white boys and little black girls holding hands. But he likely would have settled for a day when white people would no longer see him and his family as a field for plunder.”

And plunder, for Coates, is not limited to slavery or the Jim Crow South, but extends as well to more recent discrimination—in housing and lending markets, in employment, in law enforcement, and so on. Coates writes that “behind every great atrocity stands some particular winner,” but it’s true of the less great and less atrocious as well. When a white hiring manager at a plant is racially biased, there are particular jobs that some whites will get and minorities won’t. When an employer pays women less for the same work, that’s extra profit for the employer. Not everything is zero-sum, of course, but some things are.

The bottom line is that the fight between meritocracy and discrimination may not be about redistribution, but it’s nonetheless about distribution. It’s about the allocation of tangible benefits between white, native-born, straight, Christian men who happen to kind of suck at meritocracy, on one side, and non-whites, immigrants, LGBT folks, non-Christians, and women, particularly when they happen to be good at meritocracy, on the other side.

And, indeed, just as the Harvard folks are particularly Democratic when they’re blacks, LGB, non-Christians, or women, working-class folks are particularly Republican when they’re white, heterosexual, Christian men. Even in the Clinton-Trump race, straight, Christian whites with 4-year college degrees favored Trump, while whites without college degrees who are LGBT or non-Christians actually favored Clinton. These folks are not ignoring their interests.

Recognizing that group-based discrimination has winners is important in developing effective countermeasures. In particular, this isn’t just about teaching perspectives or good morals (or Coates’s “manners and civility”) or whatever; it’s about changing cost-benefit calculations. Indeed, I’ve argued that that’s what political correctness is—it’s the imposition of tangible costs on the coordinating signals of discrimination.

The Kansas thing isn’t really true on its own terms

In short, the main problem with the “voting against their own interests” claim is that it ignores interests that don’t relate to redistributions from rich to poor. And it’s actually discriminatory interests that primarily explain why working-class whites often vote Republican these days and why this is particularly the case among white, heterosexual, Christian men.

But there’s also more. The Kansas line has never really been all that convincing on its face. So, for example, when I looked at the demographics of the Obama elections, there were a couple of Kansas-relevant points: Within whites without college degrees, (1) those with low incomes tended to be less supportive of Republicans than those with higher incomes and (2) those with low incomes were just less likely than others to vote at all.

In other words, in the Obama era (and before) it simply wasn’t the case that whites with both less education and low incomes were particularly big Republican voters. Indeed, the only big Republican group I found among non-degreed, low-income whites was churchgoing evangelicals. And even those folks were noticeably more likely to sit out the Obama elections than were higher-income white evangelicals.

Among Harvard folks, both rich-poor interests and discriminatory interests factor into their voting decisions—that’s why both income and various group-based features predict their partisanship. And the same is true among the working class, where things like race, sexual orientation, religion, and gender have their effects, but so does income.

The Trump election does appear to have pulled a significant number of non-degreed, low-income whites off the electoral sidelines. Trump promised them more discrimination but not less redistribution, which would have been a sweet combo deal for them.

He now seems determined to break the latter promise. This might return some low-income whites to the sidelines, continuing their long dissatisfaction with elites in both parties. But it won’t be because they suddenly realized what their interests are. They’ve known that all along, the Kansas trope notwithstanding.