By Opposing Trumpcare, Democrats Are Voting Against Their Interests
Ok, not really. But that’s my point.
A common refrain among Democrats is that poor and working class Republicans are “voting against their interests.” By this, Democrats mean some lower income Americans support politicians who want to cut their benefits and reduce taxes on the wealthy. It’s a frustrated lament: “we want to help them, Republicans want to hurt them — they should be voting for us.”
Democrats offer a variety of explanations for this phenomenon, many centering around the idea that these Republican voters don’t understand what’s at stake:
- They’re “low information voters,” who just don’t pay attention.
- They’ve been hoodwinked by Fox News, Rush Limbaugh, and other conservative media.
- Democratic politicians have done a poor job explaining their policies.
- Most Americans see themselves as potential rich people, and therefore oppose anything that burdens the rich (i.e., they don’t understand that class mobility is rare in 21st century America).
- Democrats have abandoned working Americans by insufficiently supporting redistribution, labor unions, single-payer healthcare, insert socialist policy here. (The farther left you go, the more popular this explanation becomes).
Note that all these explanations assume interests are economic. That Americans should vote for whichever party offers policies leaving them with more money + benefits, and that there’s something wrong with people who don’t.
But many people don’t define their interests that way.
To illustrate this, consider the recent failure of Republicans’ attempt to repeal the Affordable Care Act. Most Democrats — and many non-Democrats — were happy to see the latest Trumpcare bill die (at least for now) in the Senate.
But why would they be happy? For many of them, Obamacare is against their interests.
Here’s how the House version of Trumpcare would redistribute resources for various income groups:
As the graph shows, the American Health Care Act would economically harm Americans making less than $50,000 per year, and benefit those making more, with the $50,000–$75,000 group basically breaking even. The Senate bill would have a similar distributive effect.
Median household income was $56,516 in 2015 — the latest year for which data is available — which means more than half the country would lose out or break even. Most of the benefit would go to households making over $200,000 per year; about 5% of the population.
And the graph understates the distributional effect. All the Trumpcare bills repeal multiple Obamacare taxes, but the biggest one is a 3.8% surtax on capital gains for households making more than $250,000 per year ($200,000 for individuals). The richest Americans make the most from investments, which means a large portion of Trumpcare’s economic benefits would go to the top 0.1% of households (lowest annual income: $1.7 million; average annual income: $6 million).
Even so, millions of Americans make more than $75,000 per year and would gain from Obamacare repeal. Yet they still oppose the bill. Why?
There’s a classic game theory experiment called the ultimatum game, in which one person is given some money — say, $10 — and then has to make an offer to split it with another player. The distribution can be anything the first player wants: $7-$3, $5-$5, $0-$10, whatever. The second player sees the offer in writing and then chooses to accept or reject it. There’s no negotiation or other direct interaction. If player two accepts, then both players get the proposed amounts. If player two rejects, neither player gets anything.
Basic economic theory assumes people are rational and prefer more money over less, which means player two will accept any offer above zero. Even a penny is better than nothing, so why not?
But in reality, many players reject the offer. The lower it is, the more likely they are to turn it down.
The reason is simple: they care about something other than money. In this case, it’s fairness. The two players can’t negotiate, but player two knows how much player one is divvying up. If player two thinks a $1-$9 split is unfair, he’ll reject it on principle, even though that means he won’t get a dollar.
In other words: utility (spite) > utility ($1).
Maybe you’d make a different decision, but there’s nothing inherently wrong with any of the choices. There’s also nothing wrong with upper middle class Americans voting Democrat, even though it’ll cost them some money. And there’s nothing wrong with working class Americans voting Republican, even though it’ll cost them some benefits.
A core part of freedom is the ability to choose your own preferences. To vote according to your interests as you define them.
Trump’s Support is Primarily Cultural
There are many reasons Americans who make less than $75,000 might vote Republican. Maybe their main issue is abortion. Maybe they’re religious, and want laws allowing individuals to refuse to sell cakes for same-sex weddings. Maybe they want a more aggressive foreign policy. Maybe they’re the mirror image of some wealthier Democrats who denounce Obamacare repeal, and oppose redistributive economic policies on principle. Or, as some Democrats would surely point out, maybe they’re racist, sexist, and xenophobic.
Trump support in particular seems driven more by cultural than economic factors. Even though his life has been very different from just about anyone else’s, millions of Americans see him as “someone like me.”
I’ve been banging this drum since the election, when exit polls showed Hillary won voters who identified the economy as their top issue, while Trump voters picked immigration or terrorism.
But now we have a lot more data.
For example, a PRRI study of the white working class, which makes up a significant portion of Trump’s base, shows:
Fears about immigrants and cultural displacement were more powerful factors than economic concerns in predicting support for Trump among white working-class voters.
Among the specific factors that jump out, the white working class is significantly more likely than whites with a college degree to believe “the American way of life needs to be protected from foreign influence.” They were also more likely to support deportation of illegal immigrants.
Many believe efforts to promote gender equality are, if anything, a bigger problem than institutionalized sexism:
And a majority believes things have gotten so bad in America that the country needs a “rule-breaking leader.”
Interestingly, members of the white working class who described their financial situation as excellent or good were more likely to say Donald Trump understands their problems than those who describe their financial situation as fair or poor.
Of course, “economic or cultural?” is often a false choice, since many of the issues are intertwined. For example, immigration is both a cultural and economic issue. Voters who want less immigration could believe immigrants reduce their employment opportunities, “dilute” American culture, or both.
Nevertheless, the evidence clearly shows culture is a powerful factor shaping votes among white working class Americans, especially Trump supporters. And the PRRI study didn’t even ask about political correctness, which many Trump supporters say they care about. That’s clearly cultural, rather than economic.
Disrespecting Elites is the Point of Trumpian Populism
Donald Trump is comfortable fighting in public. It’s what his supporters want.
If voters prioritize cultural over economic factors when defining their interests, then it’s perfectly reasonable for them to vote accordingly.
Democrats who aim to win over these voters with new policies providing additional economic benefits, or with better explanations of their current economic policies, will probably end up disappointed.