Why People Vote Against Themselves


It is always sad to see large numbers of people engaged in a politics that opposes their true self interest.

It is one of the things that defined the American south for a century after the Civil War.

It was what allowed the Nazis to take power in Germany.

And it is what happened  in Wisconsin’s recall election.

The reasons are numerous and varied but key to them is often a culture under great stress believing false promises being made to it by the powerful. White southern sharecroppers were taught to romanticize a plantation society they could never join and to blame blacks for their problems. For Germans the target was Jews and for Wisconsinites it was public unions.

While the scale and ultimate evil of these examples differ enormously, the strategy was the same: false stories, false demons and false solutions.

It is, however, the reality that Wisconsin faced badly and which greater America will face in coming months, so it may help to look at some other important factors affecting the state’s outcome:


The right spent about $23 a vote to win in Wisconsin. Transferred to the fall election, that would mean – thanks to the despicable Citizens United ruling – any of the following could buy the election and still have  from 83 to 98 percent of their wealth left: Bill Gates, Warren Buffet, either of the Koch brothers, Geoge Soros, any of four Waltons, Michael Bloomberg or Mark Zuckerberg.

The media

Television remains the major source of information and misinformation for American families, who spend over six hours a day with their TVs on. The networks they are watching are overwhelmingly run by corporations whose bias is towards the right. To get a sense of how television affects our view of politics, notice how often TV journalists refer to a candidate’s ads as opposed to their actual positions. TV has made political propaganda equal to or superior to actual facts in its coverage. This doesn’t even have to be malicious. For example, last night Howard Fineman on MSNBC was pushing the Republican line that public employee pensions are a serious issue. If Fineman had bothered to look into the matter he would have found, as Robert Reich has reported, that “public-sector workers now earn 11 percent less than comparable workers in the private sector, and local workers 12 percent less. (Even if you include health and retirement benefits, government employees still earn less than their private-sector counterparts with similar educations.)” These days it is considered good journalism just to pass on the lies of politicians.

Extremist group culture

The secret of extremist groups is that they offer salvation with little demanded other than cash and loyalty. The Republican Party is increasingly sharing the characteristics of the KKK, the Church of Scientology or Skull & Bones, namely offering a safe haven without the need for thought.This has a powerful appeal to the troubled.

The collapse of civic education

One of the seldom discussed characteristics of corporate-driven school testing is that it takes major time away from those former activities in a school that made students good citizens able to function with others. The victims include not only civic education but joint activities – including the performing arts – that teach the young how to live in a community. Another victim is history. Where does a young person today learn about the role labor unions have played in making America the country it is? Or come to  understand the importance of a recall?:

The significance of this in Wisconsin was well described by Daily Kos: “Young people didn’t turn out. Only 16 percent of the electorate was 18-29, compared to 22 percent in 2008. That’s the difference between 646,212 and 400,599 young voters, or about 246,000. Walker won by 172,739 votes.”

Labor unions

Labor unions aren’t what they once were, not because the problems that created them don’t still exist, but like so many other American institutions they have become more often iconic instruments of power rather than effective advocates and practitioners of their own cause.  Unions have been losing members for quite a while, yet – with a few notable exceptions – not much imagination has been applied to the problem. For example, the labor movement could have launched a workers’ equivalent of the AARP, one of the powerful non profits in the country – creating its own constituency for organizing. Unfortunately, nothing like this happened.

The collapse of liberalism

In recent decades, liberalism has turned into a upscale social demographic rather than a political movement. As it has done so, its historic connections with the working class and labor have suffered badly. For example, Franklin Roosevelt’s labor secretary, Frances Perkins, was central to more progressive economic legislation than the entire liberal movement has been able to come up with in the past thirty years. It’s hard to get liberals excited anymore about issues like pensions or the minimum wage and eventually politics reflects this fact. Consider the example of the women’s movement, which – with a few exceptions like the group Nine to Five – has been stunningly uninvolved with the most oppressed women in the country, those of lower incomes and social class. Further, treating those you should be organizing as just a bunch of  Bible thumping, gun toting idiots doesn’t help much.

To be sure, not much of the above can be cured by November, but it may help to face a few of these facts head on and then start doing something about them.

Sam Smith edits the Progressive Review. He is the author of The Great American Repair Manual.

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