Posted on July 20, 2018

Why Don’t We Always Vote in Our Own Self-Interest?

Thomas B. Edsall, New York Times, July 19, 2018

One question that has troubled Democrats for decades is freshly relevant in the Trump-McConnell era: Why do so many voters support elected officials who are determined to cut programs that those same voters rely upon?


Over the past half century, residents of Kentucky have become steadily more reliant on the federal government. In the 1970s, federal programs provided slightly under 10 percent of personal income for Kentucky residents; by 2015, money from programs ranging from welfare and Medicaid to Social Security and Medicare more than doubled to 23 percent as a share of Kentuckians’ personal income.

Twenty years ago, there was only one county (out of 120) in which residents counted on the federal government for at least 40 percent of their personal income. By 2014, 28 counties were at 40 percent or higher.

But as their claims on federal dollars rose, the state’s voters became increasingly conservative. In the 1990s, they began to elect hard right, anti-government politicians determined to cut the programs their constituents were coming to lean on.

Suzanne Mettler, a professor of government at Cornell, describes these developments — which can be found in states across the South, the Mountain West and the Midwest — in her new book, “The Government-Citizen Disconnect.”


So what’s going on with Kentucky voters?

Kentucky stands out in that it is exceptionally white, at 84.6 percent, compared with 60.7 percent nationally; it has a low median household income, $44,811 compared with $55,332 in all states; a higher poverty rate, 18.5 percent compared with 12.7 percent nationally; and fewer college graduates, 22.7 percent compared with 30.3 percent nationwide.

There is, however, one thread that runs through all the explanations of the shift to the right in Kentucky and elsewhere.

Race, the economists Alberto F. Alesina and Paola Giuliano write “is an extremely important determinant of preferences for redistribution. When the poor are disproportionately concentrated in a racial minority, the majority, ceteris paribus, prefer less redistribution.”

Alesina and Giuliano reach this conclusion based on the “unpleasant but nevertheless widely observed fact that individuals are more generous toward others who are similar to them racially, ethnically, linguistically.”

Leonie Huddy, a political scientist at the State University of New York — Stony Brook, made a related point in an email:

“It’s important to stress the role of negative racial and ethnic attitudes in this process. Those who hold Latinos and African-Americans in low esteem also believe that federal funds flow disproportionally to members of these groups. This belief that the federal government is more willing to help blacks and Latinos than whites fuels the white threat and resentment that boosted support for Donald Trump in 2016.”


This pattern continues today. The states with the lowest ceiling on maximum grants in the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families program (which replaced traditional welfare in 1996) are in the region with the highest percentages of African-Americans, the South, and are overwhelmingly represented at the state and federal level by conservative Republicans. The accompanying map illustrates this pattern.

How does race intersect with other factors contributing to the opposition toward redistributive policies found not only in Kentucky, but in many regions of the country?

Let’s start with a concept known as “last place aversion.” In a paper by that name, Ilyana Kuziemko, an economist at Princeton, Taly Reich, a professor of marketing at Yale, and Ryan W. Buell and Michael I. Norton, both at Harvard Business School, describe the phenomenon in which relatively low income individuals “oppose redistribution because they fear it might differentially help a ‘last-place’ group to whom they can currently feel superior.” {snip}


Applying last-place aversion theory to means-tested federal programs for the poor reveals that the group most likely to voice opposition is made up of relatively poor whites right above the cutoff level to qualify for such programs.


Even more important than “last place aversion,” though, is the issue of what we might call deservingness: white Americans, more than citizens of other nations, distinguish between those they view as the deserving and the undeserving poor and they are much more willing to support aid for those they see as deserving: themselves.


There is a developed literature examining the role of racism in the political economy of redistribution. If voters perceive that the primary beneficiaries of redistribution are from a group that they view negatively, they may be unwilling to support redistribution programs.

In 2016, Michael Tesler, a political scientist at the University of California, Irvine, reported on the results of a survey that asked one half of those polled whether they agreed with the statement: “Over the past few years, blacks have gotten less than they deserve.” The other half of poll respondents were asked a nearly identical question, substituting “average Americans” for blacks, so it read: “Over the past few years, average Americans have gotten less than they deserve.”

Among white respondents, the differences in the responses were striking: More than half, 58 percent, said average Americans got less than they deserved; 28 percent, however, said that African Americans do not get what they deserve.


In exploring the issue of race and deservingness, a key question comes up: Why would race play such a pivotal role in the growing conservatism of a state like Kentucky, which is, as I mentioned earlier, overwhelmingly white?

Two reasons.

As I reported in an earlier column, a key factor distinguishing counties that moved in a decisively Republican direction in 2016 was not the absolute number of African-Americans or immigrants, but the rate at which minority populations were growing.

In 2000, Kentucky was 90.08 percent white and 8.8 percent black and Hispanic; in 2017, the state remained decisively white, but blacks and Hispanics made up 12.1 percent of the population. This seemingly modest 3.3 point rise amounted to a significant 37.5 percent increase, making the issue more politically salient than it might have otherwise been.


The broader reality is that the Civil Rights revolution of the 1960s unleashed both progress and a backlash that continues to resonate in American politics five decades later. This backlash is in many ways more insidious than the blatant discrimination of the past and potentially more dangerous. It is an object of constant political anxiety for the left and continuous, concerted, calculated manipulation by the right, made more overt by the president of the United States, who has dispensed with the dog whistle and picked up a bullhorn.