I’m Pretty Sure I Am the Best Determiner of What’s In My Best Interests. Thanks, Though!

There’s a narrative that comes up in supposedly progressive communities a lot, especially around election time. It concerns people who ‘vote against their own interests,’ as determined by the observer. People look at electoral results and polls and declare that, gosh, some people just don’t know what’s good for them because if they did, they wouldn’t have voted that way. They wouldn’t join the organization that’s really working against their interests. They wouldn’t contribute monies to said cause because it is really bad, and wrong, and evil.

I see this especially with discussions about people living in poverty. There’s a strange duality that seems to occur while at the one hand, people insist that poor communities deserve autonomy, and need to be treated with respect. At the same time, though, they’re saying incredibly patronising things about people who live in poverty, like that they don’t know their own best interests and are not capable of making informed choices after being presented with information. It’s peculiar to see people basically trying to keep poor folks in a subordinate position while claiming to advocate for them; ‘it’s for your own good,’ they say.

Here’s the thing, though, which is that most people know their own best interests, and people who appear to be doing something that might appear to contradict with their interests usually know what they are doing. Many progressives cannot figure out why poor people vote Republican. Because, you know, Democrats have done so much for people in poverty, and actual progressive political parties are all totally viable, so everyone should vote for them[1. Which, you know, the only way to get viable is indeed to have lots of people vote for you, but that is kind of hard to do when voters may not know about a candidate from an underrepresented party, or, shocker, when the party’s platform actually conflicts with their values, and, yes, their interests.].

Republicans are good at messaging. They communicate clear, simple ideas that appeal to many people. A lot of people like the idea of paying lower taxes, of freezing government spending. A lot of people value gun ownership. A lot of people think that gay people don’t deserve civil rights. Republicans promise all of those things. If I was a person who held those values as particularly important, I would probably vote Republican, because they would be promising me exactly what I wanted. They would be promising me things in direct alignment with my interests.

But, people say, poor folks need government benefits and freezing government spending would put a stop to those. So people who would vote Republican are shooting themselves in the foot. Except that things are not that simple. We are in a Democratic Presidential administration right now, and guess what is being cut? Yes, that’s right, social services. Electing a Democrat is no guarantee that social services will be protected. Here in California, with a Democratic governor, we’re having even more severe spending cuts. Some people who voted for Brown are pretty angry about those cuts, as well they should be, but, on the other hand, he made no secret of them during the campaign, he made no attempt to hide his plans while preparing the budget. So who voted against which interests there? Brown promised the lesser of a field of evils and now we’re reaping it.

I find the idea that people cannot make political decisions if they’re poor incredibly offensive. If you’re a poor person who votes for a progressive candidate, you’ve been taught to do the right thing, good you, have a headpat. If you’re a poor person who votes for a conservative candidate, you’re voting against your own best interests, which is what happens when we allow people like you to vote, bad thing, no cookie for you. Nowhere in here is there any room for autonomy, for the decision to personally, on your own volition, make an informed choice about how you participate in the political process.

Nowhere here is there any respect for the fact that many people come from radically different cultural backgrounds and have different priorities than others. Writing about rural politics here in March, Andrea discussed the fact that for many people in rural communities, the social services vaunted by progressives are never actually seen, and there’s no particular reason to vote to have even less money. Furthermore, those progressive social service platforms, those promises to help, say, people living in rural areas who are very poor, also come with extremely bitter pills like gun control laws that people are not comfortable with. So of course they vote against them, just as you would vote against a platform that contained content you were not comfortable with, because you can make an informed decision on the basis of the available information.

Rather than assuming that poor folks vote against their own interests, it might behoove people to find out what those interests are. And it might behoove people to do a little more outreach; people vote for the candidates they know and the people they feel comfortable with. If they don’t know the candidates, or primarily only receive negative messaging about them, they’re less likely to vote for them. If you want campaigns to be successful in traditionally conservative poor communities, start by reaching out to those communities, finding out what they need, networking with community leaders, and talking with them about how to reach their community with information.

Not how to make their community vote for a particular cause. How to effectively communicate with a community. Because making comments about people vote against their own best interests, or cling to guns and Jesus? That’s not communicating. That’s an indicator of the contempt you hold for the community. Why should they respond to that by voting for you?