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Why do people write news stories against their own interests?

Matt Stephenson points me to this BBC article, “Why do people vote against their own interests?”, that seems to me to be a bit misleading. This would seem to fall into the dog-bites-man category of “This is important. Someone is wrong on the internet”–but it is the fabled BBC, and it is written by a political scientist at fabled Cambridge University–so maybe it’s going through some problems.

It is striking [says David Runciman, speaking on the BBC] that the people who most dislike the whole idea of healthcare reform – the ones who think it is socialist, godless, a step on the road to a police state – are often the ones it seems designed to help.

B-b-b-but . . . what about this?


The people who dislike healthcare are primarily those over 65 (who already have free medical care in America) and people with above-average income. No, these are not really the ones the new bill is most designed to help.

To be fair, though, my maps are based on survey data from 2004. I haven’t been able to grab more recent individual-level data to replicate our analysis with current public opinion. Still, my guess is that it is the older and richer who most strongly oppose changing the health-care system.


If people vote against their own interests, it is not because they do not understand what is in their interest or have not yet had it properly explained to them. They do it because they resent having their interests decided for them by politicians who think they know best. There is nothing voters hate more than having things explained to them as though they were idiots.

Hey, I didn’t know that! Maybe it’s true. I thought that in a relatively peaceful and prosperous country such as the United States, there’s nothing voters hate more than an economic downturn.

Beyond this, there’s little evidence that people vote based on their individual interest or even that they should vote based on their interest; rather, survey data and theory both suggest that people vote based on what they think is best for the country. (See here and here.) This is not to say that the psychological models of Drew Westen, which are touched upon in this article, are wrong or irrelevant, but merely to point out that “people voting against their interests” is not such a surprise or paradox.

And then there’s this:

Right-wing politics has become a vehicle for channelling this popular anger against intellectual snobs. The result is that many of America’s poorest citizens have a deep emotional attachment to a party that serves the interests of its richest.

Huh? From the 2008 election:


Republicans did better among upper-income voters–except possibly for the over-200,000’s. (The highest income category from the Pew surveys is “$150,000+”, so we can’t do a direct comparison at the top.)

Damn! Another beautiful theory crushed by the facts.

The counterargument, I suppose, is that the curve should be steeper–that the lowest-income voters should be voting even more for the Democrats, but, y’know, some low-income voters have conservative views on economic issues. More to the point, perhaps, upper-income Americans vote 10-20% more Republican than lower-income Americans, and this difference has been pretty stable since 1940 (with a brief interlude during the moderate presidencies of Eisenhower and Kennedy):


Also, as John Huber and Piero Stanig have discussed, rich and poor vote more differently in the United States than in most European countries. So, either on an absolute or a relative level, I don’t see how the argument in this BBC article stands up.

How did this happen?

As an American, I have what is I’m sure a naive view of the BBC as the ultimate in quality broadcasting, so I’m more disturbed by the above-linked article than I would be by a comparable think-piece on a U.S. media outlet.

There’s still something that’s buggin me here, though, beyond the whole BBC thing.

I can see how a reporter could get confused about this whole rich-voter, poor voter thing–in fact, we devoted chapter 3 of Red State, Blue State to an exploration of how this could happen. And I could see how the author of this article, David Runciman, could have a view of U.S. politics that differs from mine. After all, What’s the Matter with Kansas (which in its British edition was called What’s the Matter with America, to really drive the point home) has probably outsold Red State, Blue State by a factor of 200 or so.

B-b-b-but . . . David Runciman is not just some TV talking head. He teaches political science at Cambridge University! I’m sure he’s too busy to read up on the American Politics literature, but doesn’t he have some colleagues down the hall whom he could talk with about this stuff?

P.S. We last encountered Runciman when he described a primary election campaign with the unforgettable phrase, “But viewed in retrospect, it is clear that it has been quite predictable.” He also described a survey of 283 people as “throwing darts at a board.” Which of course made me wonder (along the lines of “Why don’t the just sell hotcakes?”) why they don’t just throw darts at a board, then? This would save them lots of money!

P.P.S. Just to be clear, I’m not saying that Runciman is a bad guy. My guess is that he just didn’t know any better. He read Thomas Frank’s book and it seemed convincing, he doesn’t keep up with scholarly debates on U.S. political science, so he didn’t know where to look. As Mark Twain said, it ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.

P.P.P.S. No, I don’t think that Thomas Franks’ work is empty of content. Yes, I do think that the differences between right-wing and left-wing populism are worthy of study. Yes, I do think it’s a good idea to try to understand what happened so that health care reform, which was formerly supported by a solid majority of Americans, is no longer so popular. But I don’t think this discussion is well served by sloppy statements that are contradicted by the data. As I wrote immediately above, I’m sure Runciman and the BBC would be more accurate, if only they knew that more accurate knowledge was out there. That’s one reason we wrote Red State, Blue State: in addition to presenting new research and (our idea of) a synthesis, we wanted to communicate to journalists and even English political theorists that U.S. politics isn’t quite as they might suppose.

P.P.P.P.S. I apologize for using the expression “B-b-b-but” twice in one blog entry. Usually I try to space out my sputterings a bit more, but it just seemed appropriate here. When ya gotta sputter, ya gotta sputter.

P.P.P.P.P.S. See here for further discussion (including a response from Runciman). I think I was being a bit too critical in my blog entry above. My graphs are good, though, and are relevant to the items being discussed, so I think I’m still usefully adding to the discussion.


  1. Rich says:

    I think you may have a typo, if I'm understanding your argument correctly: "More to the point, perhaps, upper-income Americans vote 10-20% more Democratic than lower-income Americans" Shouldn't that be more Republican?

  2. Andrew Gelman says:

    Typo fixed; thanks.

  3. zbicyclist says:

    Thanks for a very interesting post.

    I thought the BBC was the gold standard as well, but maybe they are no more like the 'classic BBC' than CBS is like the 'Tiffany Network' they were in the days of Edward R. Murrow and Fred Friendly.

  4. Tom Rees says:

    For sure wealthy people are more likely to vote right wing, but the key question is why do poor people ever vote right wing? From a simple minded perspective, the left is offering free cash – why on earth would you turn it down. Now, there might be a number of reasons to turn it down (for the good of the country, because they think it's in their long term interests, because fiscal conservatism comes as a bundled issue with social conservatism), but that, I think, is the thrust of the BBC article. There is a question to be addressed.

  5. Andrew Gelman says:


    See P.P.P.S. above. I agree that this is a question worthy of being addressed, but I'd prefer to see it addressed with correct rather than misleading statistics.

    In particular, no, this isn't anything special to the U.S., and no, this isn't something new–there have been (some) low-income Republicans since the dawn of opinion polling. And, at least the data I've seen have shown that the people who are most likely to oppose health care reform are not those whom it seems designed to help. (Although I'm willing to believe things have changed on that last point; as noted, above, I haven't seen recent poll data on the topic.)

  6. A reader from the UK says:

    BBC is pretty good when it comes to the natural sciences (Science in Action is very good, for example), but social science coverage is much worse. I think it reflects the political/social theory bias common in many UK universities, with Cambridge as a notable example.

  7. Phil says:

    What can I add, except that I share your bafflement and frustration about why so many people believe things that aren't true, and are indifferent to the facts that should straighten them out?

  8. KMC says:

    I often vote against my personal best interest if it is in the common interest to do so.

  9. John says:

    The BBC's reporting can still reach great heights and has the capacity for outstanding reporting that you could not find anywhere else in the world – this is due to the pretty unique position the BBC finds itself in. However there has been, at least for the last decade, a pressure on the BBC to dumb down it's broadcasting, particularly news output, to make it more accessible to 'the general populace', the Corporation suffers from perennial low morale and has done from it's very early days but this process is what the current low spirits of staff are attributed to in a large part. The BBC News website has led the charge in producing dumbed down content.

    I studied under Runciman at Cambridge and he was never a man to allow facts to stand in the way of what he though. Make no mistake though, he has a first class mind, and he is no one's fool.

  10. Ed says:

    This type of stuff is infuriating, but I think it comes from a mental model of US politics which goes like this:

    1. Democrats favor increased government spending.

    2. Republicans opposed increased government spending.

    3. The government spends money mainly to help poor people.

    4. People in poor sections of the country should vote Democratic! But they vote Republican! Why is this?

    These are several unquestioned propositions, and of them only #1 is correct, while #2 and #3 is completely wrong, and #4 is mostly wrong. I think you've debunked them on this site.

    Much of this happens to come from swallowing Republican talking points, since Republicans like to portray themselves as the party of low governments spending, and to create the impression that spending on things like prisons and defense isn't really government spending.

    The fact is that most federal spending doesn't benefit the poor (more like the opposite), and it tends to go to red state type places and is supported by the Republicans. The wealthier people in these red state type places, of those who vote, tend to vote Republican and the poorer people tend to vote Democratic.

    But income classes in Republican areas vote Republican more often across the board than their counterparts in Democratic areas, which is partly explainable that Republicans are more likely to favor the sort of government spending that benefits the economies in those areas!

    Its better if you started thinking of US politics less about shaping the future of the country, and more as a contest of who can direct more funds from the Treasury into your particular area.

  11. Mike Maltz says:

    "Against their own interests?" That implicitly assumes that my only interest is money. Do I have other interests? Assuredly so: the futures of my children and grandchildren, Haiti, Darfur, etc. They may not be monetarizable (no, it's not a word), but since the 80s we've been conditioned to believe that all of our interests come with a dollar sign before them — or that they can be thrown into a scalar utility function. I kinda doubt it.

  12. How much of the confusion comes from Simpson's paradox? Maybe people aren't doing any analysis, but maybe some people are and see some poor state to rich state correlation and incorrectly extend to populations.

  13. Sebastian says:

    he teaches political theory.
    According to Wikipedia (I know, I know)
    "He specialises in the development of the theory of the modern state, analysing the work of key thinkers such as Thomas Hobbes, Emmanuel Sieyes, Benjamin Constant and Max Weber"
    I'd say some dumb things, probably, writing on Hobbes and Constant. But then I wouldn't…
    People who know more about academia in the UK have mentioned to me that Cambridge (as opposed to Oxford or LSE) doesn't have much of an empirical political science department… that shows. I still remember the last Runciman, too: "For a country the size of the United States…" gaaaaaaah.

  14. anon says:

    Sebastian: From the UK perspective, I can tell you that people in the second and third school you mention do not think that there exist any political scientist at all in the first school you mention. I have not met one, for that matter. As an aside, Essex and Warwick (which are barely known, especially Warwick, outside of the UK) are places that people in the two other places you mention take more seriously than Cambridge.

  15. Megan Pledger says:

    I think you and Runciman are talking about different "mosts".

    You are talking about groups of people with the highest proportion of people against health reforms.

    Runciman is talking about people with the higest degree of opposition to the health reforms.

    He goes on to try and prove his case using proportions of people. But it's a big call to think degree of opposition amongst people who oppose is distributed the same between demographic groups.

  16. Chris Brew says:

    The BBC's coverage of biology, psychology and language sciences is distinctly wobbly. Animal communication stories are often reported in a more sensationalist and ill-informed way than in print journalism. Paleontology is similar. I suspect that the journalists are sensibly being careful when working in areas that they know they don't command, such as physics and chemistry, but sanguinely confident when dealing with the Rumsfeldian unknown unknowns of the softer seeming sciences.

  17. Will says:

    The BBC strives to be (truly) fair and balanced and respects intellectual depth, even if it does feel the need to dumb down to reach the wider audience who are obliged to pay for it. Those qualities are what make it special. But who at the BBC would challenge Runciman's article and who in the UK would doubt it?

    Having strong opinions about US culture requires no data at all, as can be proven by going to Britain and asking ordinary people. And in a country whose education system forces early specialization (and thereby stifles intellectual mobility between disciplines), the halo effect accompanying the status of an academic "expert" with posh credentials can disproportionately suspend criticism.

    Understanding US culture requires living in the US. It's easy for "obvious" misapprehensions to be disseminated unchecked with even the best intentions and minds. For British journalism tempered by more US exposure try the FT or the Economist.

    I can offer no defense of Runciman or Cambridge, but in defense of the BBC, I will say
    a) its international non-US coverage humbles that of any US news station I've seen
    b) try being British and listening to reporting of UK news in the US – sometimes bizarre, frequently unbalanced, often hilariously/ frustratingly inaccurate – don't get me started on healthcare. The fabled BBC does pretty good US coverage most of the time.

  18. thom says:

    The BBC is generally very good, but it is big and some space (particularly on its web content and rolling TV news is filled with rather poor quality stuff). A big problem is its tendency to follow the Newspapers in dumbing down science and health stories to chase ratings – it is a shame because its the 'wacky' poor quality stuff that gets 'most read' and 'most emailed'.

    As part of a defense I'd point out that it has a half hour weekly national radio slot devoted to analyzing topical statistics: 'More or less: behind the stats' on Radio 4 – also available as a podcast.

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