Fellow blogger, Aprilloper, recently posed some important questions concerning American politics and its electorate. She asked why Americans vote against their self-interest. I wanted to try an attempt at answering this question. (Consequently, I ran headlong into deeper, more troubling issues I face everyday as an educator). An answer to this question would deepen an understanding of American politics and would provide directions in which one might begin deeper inquiries that would lead to positive solutions.
Here is a quote from an interesting book called Don't Think of an Elephant by George Lakoff. Lakoff is a linguist and cognitive scientist. This book tries to answer just such puzzling questions about the American public which seems, all too often, schizophrenic when it comes time to picking who their oppressor will be (i.e. election time). Here is one of his suggestions:
It is assumed that voters will vote their self-interest. Democrats are shocked or puzzled when voters do not vote their self-interest. “How,” Democrats keep asking me, “can any poor person vote for Bush when he hurts them so badly?” Their response is to try to explain once more to the poor why voting Democratic would serve their self-interest. Despite all evidence to the contrary, Democrats keep banging their heads against the wall. In the 2000 election Gore kept saying that Bush’s tax cuts would go only to the top 1 percent, and he thought that everyone else would follow their self-interest and support him. But poor conservatives still opposed him, because as conservatives they believed that those who had the most money—the “good” people—deserved to keep it as their reward for being disciplined. [In other words, they “earned” it]. The bottom 99 percent of conservatives voted their conservative values, against their self-interest.
It is claimed that 35 percent of the populace thinks that they are, or someday will be, in the top 1 percent, and that this explains the finding on the basis of a hoped-for future self-interest. But what about the other 65 percent, who have no dream that they will ever get that tax cut but still support it? They are clearly not voting in their self-interest, or even their hoped-for future self-interest.
[…] People do not necessarily vote in their self-interest. They vote their identity. They vote their values. They vote for who they identify with. They may identify with their self-interest. That can happen. It is not that people never care about their self-interest. But they vote their identity. And if their identity fits their self-interest, they will vote for that. It is important to understand this point. It is a serious mistake to assume that people are simply always voting in their self-interest.
Since the same people that market beer and SUVs to us are the same people that run a candidate’s campaign, it is easier to understand how people can be made to identify with candidates despite themselves. But, as Naomi Klein pointed out in No Logo, we are no longer buying products but instead image and identity. What this means to the question at hand is that it is irrelevant what the product can actually do as long as the consumer/voter is convinced that by purchasing (“voting”) a certain product, they are guaranteed a better, happier, sexier, more convenient life. Bearing in mind the frame that encompasses the lives of the majority of voting populace—an imposed “frame” that depicts for the hard-working, underpaid American patriot what it is that one needs and wants, such as “good ol’ American values”—the political elite can say what people want to hear and then get these people to vote from them despite their self-interest.
The American public is an easy thing to control thanks to indoctrinating practices such as the Pledge of Allegiance, the National Anthem, public education, patriotic rhetoric around every corner, and monolithic notions about American Democracy. As a teacher, I combat the notions of “American Exceptionality” everyday when kids bring to the classroom their inherited prejudices, biases, jingoism and ethnocentrism. The sources of these perpetuated notions are obvious, but how does one subvert them? Especially when one considers the power of the media—especially the ones that pretend to be “liberal” or “objective” (e.g. PBS, NPR, CNN, etc.)—who gives the American public the impression that we are being protected by their scrutinizing work. After all, we see people from both sides of the “spectrum” on their shows, don’t we? Forget the fact that the “spectrum” being presented by these networks as representative of human reality is so narrow that anyone who falls outside of the accepted spectrum is dismissed as “radical” or “irrelevant”. Thus, the media controlled by the corporate world (including PBS and NPR heavily funded by nefarious corporations) become an invaluable resource to the ruling class in the maintenance of the status quo. If the media does its job properly, people will believe
Along those same lines, one can almost hear those American centrists that never lose their hope that politics, “like life” they say so assuredly, is like a pendulum and so it has a way of balancing itself out. They say, like wise elders, that
People believe in some ridiculous parallel between democracy and capitalism. Correlations are made between the balancing effect that the Legislative, the Judiciary and the Executive that democracy is supposed to have but does not, and the even more farcical notion that capitalism is free-market economics when it is anything but “free-market”. There are too many things that the majority of Americans do not understand about the authority that rules their lives. Perhaps through gaining an appreciation of the convoluted reality of American politics better helps explain why Americans vote against their own self-interest.
For anyone interested, I would highly recommend the book Pedagogy of the Oppressed, written by Paulo Freire, for thoughts and ideas on how one might go about the task of helping the oppressed see their oppressor. In other words, helping Americans see that their vote is simply a decision of who will be their oppressor, and end the cycle of Americans seeing their leaders as someone with whom they share anything meaningful.