Saturday, March 6, 2010

AMERICANS—VOTING AGAINST THEIR INTERESTS?

“Why do people often vote against their own interests?” is the question asked by one Frank Waters in a late-January BBC program. His answer is a simple one: resentment at politicians and policy wonks who give the impression of knowing what is better for the people than they themselves do. His support is his analysis of the opposition to health care reform.

Like many analyses, this one has some supporting evidence and some plausibility. But some is not enough for most single-cause analyses. Resentment may fuel much hostility to health care reform, but so, too, does disappointment. Polls have consistently shown that most Americans want a public option. So its omission from the legislation, largely in response to vociferous objection to it as “socialized” medicine has led many favoring health care reform with the public option to oppose the resulting legislation lacking it.

In looking to explain the present, Waters ignores the past. He overlooks the long history of American anti-intellectualism and its manifestations in resentment and hostility to those smarter and better educated than most. George Wallace famously referred to them as “pointy-heads.” (Although intellectually challenged people resent the smart, economically challenged people admire the rich.) If resentment at political elites matters today, it matters more by degree than kind. So the question should be: what aggravates it today?

Waters’s answer omits much of the present, including the obvious fact of economic distress. Most but not all resentment comes from a certain demographic—white and lower middle- to lower-class—and a certain geographic—southeastern and southcentral. The demographic but not the geographic applies in New Jersey and Massachusetts; it may well repeat itself in other states as well. For when the economy is bad and stagnant, and improvement not evident, people become insecure, fearful, and angry. Such feelings are appropriate, but not for good decisionmaking or self-interested voting.

Some part, size unknown and probably unknowable, of this resentment comes from two other sources: government gridlock and demographic change. I shall take up the former at another time. The latter seems obvious. Whether the response to Obama is a specific instance of racism or a more general fear of displacement by non-whites is a question with the likely answer “yes.” Within a few decades, whites will no longer be a majority, only a plurality. In highly populated coastal states—California, New York, Florida, and Texas—and in many large interior cities in other states—Atlanta, Chicago, Denver, Kansas City, and St. Paul/Minneapolis—, growing concentrations of minorities are powerful, if not dominant. White anxiety about their growing political power makes them fearful of change of any kind. Thus the angst of the white, Alabama woman who cried out at a town hall meeting, “I want my country back.”

It will not come back. It will be different. Whether it will be better or worse depends on whether those who stoke the underlying conditions of resentment prevail or not. The Republican Party and conservative groups are doing their best to hold the line by fighting the fight—I do not say the “good fight”—to prevent the inevitable.

So politics rears its ugly head and fans the resentment, with Republicans fighting against Obama and anything which he favors. My guess is that, with a modification here and there, most of Obama’s policies, if enacted into law, would so greatly improve the condition of the country that Republicans would become a permanent minority for a generation. Thus fearful, South Carolina Senator Jim DeMint urged opposition to health care reform even before a bill existed, to cripple the president. Thus fearful, Kentucky Senator and Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who last year proposed a Congressional budget commission, this year voted against it when Obama came out in its support. When, in his State of the Union speech, Obama supported a tax reduction for small businesses and the self-employed, a reduction long urged by Republicans, they refused to applaud and afterwards lied that Obama intended to raise, not reduce, those taxes. (My computer crashes on the subject of John McCain.)

The insecure, angry, and fearful are not bothering with such facts; they are consulting their fears and building them into smoldering resentments—both fanned by Republicans. They earn their exploitation by those who play them to win power at their expense. Sarah Palin’s appearance at the Tea Party convention for a $100,000 speaking fee is the perfect example. The rich get richer, the poor get poorer; the smart stay smart, and the stupid stay stupid. For a while, they may get their country back, but not for long.

Meanwhile, although off-year elections have gone against the Democrats, change may be coming to the Republicans. It is a long shot, but Massachusetts Senator Scott Brown may surprise everyone by re-creating moderate New England Republicanism to serve a constituency wanting problems solved, not politics as usual. Can the party of “no” become the party of “new”?

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