Dirty secret: Voters only care about themselves
When James Carville told Bill Clinton that "it's the economy, stupid" he revealed a dirty little secret about politics: Voters only care about themselves. The economy only matters to the extent that a person is negatively affected by it. If a person's salary is on a steady rise and they have a secure job the economy is much less important to them when deciding who to cast their ballot for, because for them, the economy is good. But the worse the individual's financial situation is the more the economy will shape their decision. Voters are self-interested actors and every successful politician knows it. The economy is a perfect metaphor for this because it is a material reflection of self-interest that candidates and voters can both relate to. Anyone following the presidential race will recognize the truth of this insight. When President Obama spoke of reducing rates on college loans he was courting the beneficiaries of those loans, since the youth vote is essential to his re-election bid. Likewise, when Mitt Romney voiced opposition to tax increases on those making over $250,000 a year he wasn't doing so because of his concern for the common good, but because he was trying to appeal to voters who that tax would hurt. Both candidates were telling a certain group of people: Vote for me, and you'll have more money — your economy will improve.The auto bailout was the president's attempt to shore up the support of union voters and help gain the support of voters in states like Michigan and Ohio. Romney's opposition to the Affordable Care Act is an attempt to secure the votes of business owners and those who have incomes that would allow them to purchase health insurance but refuse to do so. Both candidates try to pitch their policy positions in terms of the national, common good. But if the common good was their true target they wouldn't need to focus on wedge issues or distinguish between types of Americans their policies are designed to support but rather show how their policies will help the nation as a whole. This type of politics is not new. Voters have consistently rewarded candidates who play to their self-interests. Over 250 years ago, in April of 1777, James Madison lost his bid for a seat in the Virginia House of Delegates to Charles Porter, a tavern owner who freely distributed food and drink to potential voters. Madison refused to match Porter's pandering and lost the election. George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson openly gave free food and drink to potential voters in order to win elections. Not much has changed between then and now, except instead of food and drink politicians are offering loan relief, tax breaks and subsidies. While this may be politics as usual, it is divisive and one of the reasons we see the growing polarization in our nation. As government's role in our lives grows, the stakes of the game increase as our personal well-being becomes inextricably linked to the decisions of government. The only consequence of this process is an electorate that will further divide itself along socioeconomic lines. There seem to be only two solutions: limit the role of government in determining the distribution of wealth, thereby taking away the incentive of voters to vote according to their material self-interest, or give all voters the same interests.
Kyle Scott teaches American politics and constitutional law at Duke University and University of Houston. His commentary on current events has appeared in Forbes, Reuters.com, Christian Science Monitor, Foxnews.com and dozens of local outlets.