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“Why do people vote against their own interests?”: An update

I emailed David Runciman my discussion of his BBC broadcast (in which he wrote: “It is striking 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” and “many of America’s poorest citizens have a deep emotional attachment to a party that serves the interests of its richest”).

Runciman responded with some comments which made me feel that I was being unfair in my original description of his statements as “the usual errors.”

Below is my dialogue with Runciman and also my response to a related comment by Megan Pledger.

Runciman replied to my original blog, reasonably enough, as follows:

I [Runciman] don’t think I say at any point (either in the radio program, or the article which is a shortened version of the script) that there is more opposition among the poor than among the rich, or among the young than among the old. I don’t say that more people vote against their own interests than vote in their own interests – obviously not true. Maybe it reads like that’s implied. But many also implies more than you would expect and I still believe that’s true.

To which I replied:

My quick understanding of most public opinion trends is of a national shift on top of a spread of relative opinion. That’s why I’m guessing (though I don’t know for sure) that health care reform remains most popular among lower-income people under 65, who happen to be the ones who benefit the most from it. I agree that the shift in national opinion is striking but I suspect it is a shift at all levels.

Regarding the “more than you would expect” issue, I very much agree with you. My point was that “more than you would expect” is not a new phenomenon in this case: many (even if not a majority of) low-income people vote for conservative parties, and that has been happening since the dawn of polling in the U.S. and in other countries as well.

To which Runciman wrote:

Sure – but I think (I hope) what we were doing in the radio show was talking about the level of anger, which is new, or at least more visible, plus the fact that knowing what makes people angry (being talked down to) doesn’t seem to help politicians know how to address it. Isn’t this part of Obama’s problem? Trying to explain to people what’s in their interests seems to be poison in the current political environment, and I don’t believe that was always so. But yes people voting against their interests is nothing new.

I’m not sure (one way or another) about the difficulty of explaining to people what’s in their interests, but he does have a point about the level of anger, which is something that I don’t usually think about when analyzing public opinion.

In the comments to my blog, Megan Pledger makes a similar point:

I [Pledger] 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.

My quick reply is that I think of opposition and anger as different points on a continuum. Or, to put it another way, visible anger is opposition that has been organized by some political entrepreneur. I’d guess that the people most angry about health-care reform are similar, demographically, to those who are in opposition to the idea.

I also want to return to the question of changes since 2004. One thing we noticed from our maps of public opinion in that year is the systematic differences between opinions on health care and partisanship and vote preference. In the past year, with Obama’s push on health care, I expect that opinion on this issue has become more closely correlated with partisanship and ideology, and so I’m guessing it is Republicans and conservatives who have most strongly moved toward opposing the plan.

Runciman had a follow-up BBC broadcast that drew analogies to the politics of the 1930s (a connection I’ve considered too), both in the U.S. and the U.K., and the controversies then and now about deficit spending.

3 Comments

  1. Sebastian says:

    "talking about the level of anger, which is new, or at least more visible"
    I have developed a very skeptical view of any claims about how different things are today. I don't know if we can measure anger very well and if we would have the data to compare, for example, 2010 to 1994. But if you read accounts of the Clinton years – e.g. Skocpol's Boomerang – it should at least make you hesitant about the "unprecedented anger" claim.
    And there is a reason, too, that Tyler Cowen over at MR refers to particularly aggressive and unhelpful political discourse as "Jacksonian". etc.

    It just seems that Runciman is doing punditry and not political science – which, as I said before – I think makes sense because I don't think anything in his academic work would actually make him much of an expert in understanding public opinion.

  2. Mark Rutherford says:

    Does it ever occur to you and your interlocutor that there may be a divergence between what you and Runciman regard as in people's "best interest" and the voters do – and that your opinion of the matter might be wrong and theirs correct? There is no sign of this possibility ever occurring to either of you, but why should you rule it out – since they have a more intimate acquaintance with their interests then you do? Why are you not curious about their explanation of their own best interests to you, rather than fussing about how to explain what's best for them to them?

  3. Andrew Gelman says:

    Mark:

    I think you're misunderstanding my point. I'm trying to understand public opinion; it's Runciman who's talking about communication. I also don't know what you're talking about when you say "what you and Runciman regard as in people's 'best interest.'" In 1994, the people (by their votes) regarded it in their best interests to have a Republican congress; in 2008, they regarded it in their best interest to have a unified Democratic government. "The people" are diverse and have many interests, which change over time. I never wrote anything about what I regard as in people's best interest, and if you read this blog, I can't see how you can think that I'm not curious about what voters think!

    In any case, politicians on both sides of the aisle are trying to explain issues and convince people of positions. That's what politicians do. Politicians don't just sit passively following the polls; they have policy goals and use public opinion as a tool in achieving these goals. Think of G. H. W. Bush with the Gulf war, Clinton with Nafta, and G. W. Bush with Social Security.

    Politics doesn't exist in a vacuum; political entrepreneurs are, in your words, "fussing about how to explain what's best" to people all the time.

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