Why do poor states vote for conservative candidates?
February 21, 2012
Posted in Education
I was reading an article by Harlan Green (here) which raised the question of why the poorer states, particularly those who receive more in federal aid than they pay in taxes, support candidates who promise a smaller government and fewer entitlement programs. He refers to an article by Paul Krugman which lists three answers to that question:
- The answer that Thomas Frank gives in his book What’s the Matter With Kansas, that is, Republicans and conservatives have used social issues like abortion, gay marriage etc. to convince people to vote for them even when it was against their economic interests to do so.
- The opposite tendency of affluent voters in the Northeast to vote against their economic interests (voting Republican) because of their stand on social issues explained by Andrew Gelman.
- The fact that 40 to 44% of the people receiving government benefits like Social Security or Medicare do not recognize that they are receiving government benefits that the people they vote for want to cut.
To me none of these explanations is broad enough or goes deep enough to explain the behavior even though in some instances they may be true. Long ago when my wife was working as a teller in a bank a little old woman came in and was complaining that she feared the President was going to cut her Social Security. When my wife asked her who she had voted for she said “President Reagan.”
Green veers off on what seems like a tangent when he is answering a different question – what makes these states poor in the first place. He says there is a correlation between these states and the states with the lowest amount of passport holders. He notes that passport ownership usually marks wealth, experience in other cultures, education, and what he calls “openness”, all of which create social liberalism. By implication the lowest passport owning states would have lower wealth, lower education, fewer experiences with other cultures and a “closedness.” He then offers an argument that the support for conservatism comes from holding a social Darwinism and free market belief even among the poor who haven’t risen to the top. He doesn’t explain where that belief comes from, only that it is an outdated 19th century belief in the 21st century. The presidents he believes instituted the most deregulation to remove controls on the free market were Herbert Hoover and George W. Bush. Our economy went into its most severe depression or recession as a consequence.
Now I haven’t checked on Green’s economic history nor do I want to go into the lack of logic in his arguments. What I want to ask is whether the same things that keep the residents of these states poor are the same things that make them vote for conservatives? Right away I want to emphasize that this is a social science hypothesis; it is a probabilistic statement not an absolute. I am not saying that all people in these states vote conservative, nor that all in these states are poor, less educated and “closed”, nor that only such people vote conservative. I am sure that there are many wealthy, well-educated conservatives out there. I am asking whether there is a statistical correlation between states with large blocs of these characteristics and current voting patterns. If there is, does this correlation mean there is a causal relationship between the two? I am not asserting that there is; I am only thinking out loud. Are people willing to vote arguably against their economic interests because of ideology, philosophy or other such abstract beliefs. Have their real economic interests been hidden or mystified? Do people in fact vote their economic interests or do they vote as they do for other reasons?