“Why don’t working class voters vote their economic interests?” has been a perennial question for generations of academics. (One might also ask why full professors don’t vote their interests–for tax-cutting conservatives.) Part of the problem in addressing the question is knowing whether the premise is correct. When unemployed coal miners or WalMart greeters vote Republican, are they really voting against their economic interests? For the most part, they would deny that they are.
An article appearing last summer in the Journal of Politics adds some hard numbers to that discussion. Timothy Hicks, Alan M. Jacobs, and J. Scott Matthews report findings suggesting that in many countries, particularly in the United States, not only do working-class voters seem to not vote for self-declared working-class parties in the numbers observers would expect, they actually tend to vote for incumbents who have overseen greater gains for wealthy than for average families.
First, a few basics: While it may be hard for we politics-obsessed folks to appreciate, most people–or, at least, most Americans–pay little attention to government, know little about national and certainly international affairs, and, short of a huge crisis, don’t much care. Names such as Flynn, Sessions, Banton, much less Kislyak, mean nothing; nor do complexities like central bank interest rates, distinctions between medicaid subsidies and tax credits, and the Dodd-Frank provisions. When the roughly 50 to 60 percent of Americans who vote do vote (in presidential elections), they tend not to vote according to their own pocketbook interests, but according to what they see as the interests of the nation; they are, the term goes, “sociotropic”– although we can assume that their image of the “nation” tends be people sort of like themselves. Finally, when voters depart from their party loyalty (if they have any), they tend to vote on the principle of win-stay, lose-change. If things seem to be going well, vote for the politicians in office–in the U.S., that means the party that holds the White House; if things seem to be “on the wrong track,” throw the bums out.
Given these basic tendencies, one would expect voters to punish–i.e., vote against–incumbents who have failed to improve the economic circumstances of people like the voters. Nope. Several years ago, political scientist Larry Bartels found that in 50 years of U.S. presidential elections, voters seemed to reward the parties that were holding the White House when inequality grew (usually, Republican administrations). Hicks and colleagues re-analyzed additional American data and extended the analysis to other countries.
They found that, as a general rule, voters in many countries rewarded incumbent parties if their presidents’ or prime ministers’ terms coincided with recent economic growth and voted against them if they hadn’t. However, what the voters really responded to in this win-stay, lose-change way is whether the top five percent of families had experienced substantial income growth, not whether the average family had. That is, voters were especially likely to cast their ballots for incumbents when the top few percent had done especially well. Even if income for the population as a whole rose, this pattern means that voters are rewarding those in office during periods of particularly widening inequality.
Strikingly, Hicks et al found that this pattern of rewarding inequality held for middle-income voters and even for lower-income voters, not just for affluent voters. All groups responded positively to the rising incomes of the top-five percent.
Among the countries Hicks et al looked at closely, this pattern was strongest for the U.S., generally held true for the U.K. and Sweden, and was weakest for Canada, where voters rewarded income growth for average families (although even low-income Canadian voters did not against incumbents in years of rising inequality).
The authors extended this analysis to a larger set of countries over many years. They calculated an index of how much voters seem to respond to the fortunes of the top income group versus those of the average family. They found that this phenomenon seemed to taper off as income inequality got really high. Maybe there is a limit to working-class voters rewarding politicians who usher in more inequality.
Why would average-income and low-income voters feel that people like them are “winning” and thus reward incumbents when the very wealthiest were the ones getting wealthier? Bartels throws out a few possibilities. Non-wealthy voters (being “sociotropic”) respond to what they see as the national situation and they judge that situation by media coverage. Media coverage is, in turn, skewed toward the lives of the “Rich and Famous”; when those people are doing well, viewers think most people are. Or perhaps, average people are aspirational, seeing the growing affluence of the wealthiest as a positive target for themselves, the pot of gold coming into reach. Or perhaps, as the wealthiest do well economically, they invest more of their growing income in the political campaigns of incumbents and turn the vote that way. Or perhaps all three. Or something else.
In any case, this surprising version of win-stay, lose-change acts, willingly or not, visibly or not, to repeatedly reinforce widening inequality.