Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Voting Against Your Interests

When I was in college, I did not fit any doctrinaire labels of "liberal" or "conservative"--I was against big government, but also against our wars; I believed in personal responsibility, and also believed that included responsibility to those around us. I rejected identity politics and multiculturalism, but believed in civil rights and a social safety net.

On that last point, my views were clear. I believed in equal opportunity, and equal protection under the law, and believed that some safety net was simply part of a basic social contract. For this, my more conservative friends berated me endlessly for "voting against my interests." Attending an elite school, they said, was "your ticket to the top." "There will always be winners and losers, no matter how fair you try to make things," I was lectured. "Don't be naive! Don't you want to be one of the winners?" they asked. One of them went so far as to say that "The only way you know you're rich is if there are a lot of people who aren't! Why would I want to level the playing field?"

In once sense, they were right. Looked at from a narrow, winner-and-losers perspective, my social views were not self-serving. Looked at broadly, the "liberal elites" who constantly campaign for equal opportunity ARE voting against their narrow self interests. The idealistic among them feel it is simply a moral issue. Others, myself included, who are not "bleeding heart liberals" but still support some kind of social equity, simply believe that a flatter society is more stable and ultimately better for all of us. But we are still accused of being naive, of supporting charity for people who don't deserve it, and of voting against our own interests.

I recount this because it has become fashionable among liberals to ask why the social conservatives in the heartland constantly "vote against their own interests." Those people are being duped by big corporations into blaming their ills on the less fortunate, so that they will vote for politicians who will in turn coddle the same corporations, or so the story goes. Is there some truth to this? Of course there is. The alliance between the social conservatives and the anti-regulators was invented for the purpose of putting the anti-regulators in power. It worked because they shared a common enemy, one they hate more than they hated Osama bin Laden: Liberals. Of course, the strategy may be unraveling, because the social conservatives have taken over much of the Republican party. And THAT is why it is really important to take a new look at what they are.

My conclusion: The real danger lies in NOT taking them seriously. We make a mistake if we condescend to them by saying that their social issues are a sideline. First of all, what right does anyone have to dismiss someone elses convictions so casually? It's also important because the more you condescend to someone, the more you make them mad. Most important, what will happen if we fail to take them seriously, and find them running the country?

For make no mistake: The social issues ARE important. It is our social and cultural orientations, not our bank accounts, which determine who we are and what we will be remembered for. And on the non-economic front, the social conservative movement is frightening. Economic policies will come and go, and we will go through cycles of more or less regulation, more or less of an economic safety net, more or less equity. These will ultimately self correct, whichever "side" you favor. But a culture's core assumptions can last a long time.

I would argue that it IS the social and cultural issues which are important, far more than our banking laws. If we allow our country to wallow in tribalism, bigotry and the oppression of women; if we allow science to be removed from our schools; if we make one religion the source of our laws and values, at the expense of other belief systems; if we go back to a world of fear and censorship; if we recriminalize normal human behavior and decriminalize police brutality; if we end the free exchange of ideas; if we throw out the immigrants that drive our economy; in short, if we reject the Enlightenment and the freedoms that made this country great, we will sign the death warrant for the American Era. The social conservatives love to wave the flag, but it is plain as day that if they were in charge, this country greatness would become nothing more than a memory.

THAT is why it is folly to dismiss the conservatives' cultural and social viewpoint as a mere distraction. For them, it is the real thing, and we had better pay attention.


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