The comments Barack Obama made about voters in my homestate of Pennsylvania voting against their economic self-interest have prompted long time California political consultant and pundit Dan Schnur to attempt to make the corollary argument for liberals at the NYT.
For many people, that’s certainly true. But there are plenty of other voters who don’t necessarily base their votes solely on jobs and taxes, and many of them are quite financially successful. They have determined their political affiliations largely as a result of the same continuing battles over abortion, guns and same-sex marriage that have drawn so many working-class voters to Republican candidates over the years. The only difference is the side of the fight they’ve chosen. It’s hard to argue that a wealthy pro-choice Democrat is any less of a values voter than a pro-life construction worker who votes Republican.
Perhaps Mr. Frank’s book would benefit from a sequel. We could call it: “What’s the Matter With the Upper East Side?” or perhaps “What’s the Matter With Beverly Hills?” or “What’s the Matter With Martha’s Vineyard?” The answer is that there’s nothing wrong with these voters at all, nothing more than there is anything inappropriate about blue-collar Kansans or Pennsylvanians who have decided that economic issues are not the most important influencers on their vote.
Many wealthy Democratic voters do recognize that they are voting against their economic interests and do so deliberately. They are actually voting on an economic agenda, one that recognizes that there are many people who are not as fortunate as them and that they can afford to pay more in taxes. Indeed Bill Clinton has made this argument about the Bush tax cuts, as has just about every major Democratic contender in recent years.
They also happen to side with the Democrats on social issues in addition to fiscal ones. In recent years, the social issues of most concern to Democrats have faded from prominence in the wake of 9/11 and the constant defense against the Republicans, particularly Bush.
The mistake that Senator Obama and Mr. Frank both make is that they assume that only the values of culturally conservative voters require justification. An environmentally conscious, pro-stem cell bond trader who votes Democratic is lauded for selflessness and open-mindedness. A gun-owning, church-going factory worker who supports Republican candidates, on the other hand, must be the victim of partisan deception. This double standard is at the heart of the Democratic challenge in national elections: rather than diminish these cultural beliefs as a byproduct of economic discomfort, a more experienced and open-minded candidate would recognize and respect the foundations on which these values are based.
The bond trader is fully aware of his fiscal situation. He watches the taxes come out of his pay check every month. The economic impact on the Reagan Democrats or whatever you want to call them is much less direct. There has not been a deliberate strategy from the Democrats to lure the bond trader to our side, where there absolutely has been a strategic attempt to trump up values issues during election season to lure social conservatives to vote for Republicans.
I am not saying that what Schnur has written here has absolutely no merit. The Democrats run into problems when they say things that are condescending and insulting to voters. The tone is an issue and that is where Obama ran into trouble. Talking about the impact of policy positions on voters lives is not. Democrats do need to make an argument that fiscal issues are more important to voters’ daily lives than things like guns and marriage equality.