Friday, January 25, 2013

On the Paradox of Poor Southern Republicans

Is there something in the Bible about Jesus wanting us all to bear arms?  I've read through it a few times but can't recall anything of that sort.  Perhaps the eleventh commandment, only applicable in Murka?  Thou Shalt Be Armed.

The reason for those silly thoughts can be found in this article about Republican voters in the US South:

Jeri Bilbo would seem a natural supporter of the Democratic Party’s vow to protect the social safety net during the spending-cut debate in Washington.
Her husband gets disability payments and government-funded health care after leaving his dock-worker job in New Orleans because of rheumatoid arthritis. They live in a drafty farmhouse in southern Mississippi having lost their home to foreclosure.
“It will keep the rain off us, but it won’t keep the cold off,” said Bilbo, 60.
Yet Bilbo, who registered as a Republican to vote as a high school senior, said she’s stuck with the party out of tradition. She’s an example of the contrarian nature of U.S. politics, where people often vote against their economic self-interest because of family, culture or such issues as abortion and guns.
Poplarville and Picayune, the two largest cities in Pearl River County, are dotted with payday loan businesses and inexpensive retailers such as Family Dollar Stores.
Glenda Hebert, 74, a Poplarville resident, says she voted for Romney and has been a lifelong Republican, even with her dependence on government anti-poverty programs.
Asked why she’s a Republican, Hebert’s answer is succinct: “Because I’m a Christian.” She said she attends an Assembly of God church and blames Obama for “murdering all the babies with abortion” and worries that “pretty soon he’ll be taking the guns away.”

The question the article raises is whether people make rational decisions in politics.  Because I'm tired I won't go on the usual detours of discussing all the different concepts of rationality we might apply here.  Neither will I start exploring the question whether human beings ever make truly rational decisions.  But it's worth pointing out that the article seems to regard "rationality" as equal to very narrowly defined financial self-interest.  Or as voting your wallet. 

From that angle the Southern poor Republican voters are not rational, because their home states are net recipients of federal aid, and Democratic administrations are more likely to continue such aid than Republican administrations.  But the article argues that the same is true about some Democrats who vote for their own taxes to be higher:
People in the South tend to be concentrated in “donor” states, those that receive more federal tax dollars than they contribute, Heberlig said. “If you listen to the rhetoric, you’d think it’d be just the opposite,” he said. 
Democrats also vote at times against their own economic interests, since the representatives they send to Congress have generally been supportive of raising taxes. Among the 20 wealthiest congressional districts in the last Congress, 12 were represented by Democrats and eight by Republicans.

That definition of rationality is too narrow, an almost claustrophobic one.  For instance, I might vote for something that will increase my own tax burden even if I'm purely selfishly motivated if the proposal under consideration gives me greater overall benefits than the increase in my taxes.  Depending on the valuation mechanism I choose, those benefits could be some monetary equivalent of, say, a safer society, a better educated society or more direct benefits created by large construction projects bringing money into the community.

In a similar vein, that the poor Southern Republicans vote against their own financial self-interests doesn't necessarily make them irrational.  If Ms. Hebert, for instance, places a higher value for the banning of abortions and for her right to go about armed to the teeth, she may well be willing to give up the government support she lives on.  In other words, the benefits, for her, may outweigh the costs, for her.

What makes her case different are the answers she gives when asked why she is a Republican.  It is those answers which make me conclude that her choices are not rational.  President Obama does not go around "murdering babies with abortion" and is extremely unlikely to take all the guns away.  And neither of these two has much anything to do with the Christian Bible which never mentions abortion directly and most likely never says anything about the right to bear arms.

My guess is that many, many voters are not terribly rational in their choices.  This is partly because our time is limited, and those who work two jobs or one job with long hours and/or have the care of many others as their lot simply do not have the time to follow politics as keenly as, say, snake goddesses and other such leeches.  But sure, some people simply can't be bothered to learn much about our shared concerns.  It's easier to go by tradition and by the social pressure.  Not voting at all is even easier.

Still, I smell the fruits of much successful Republican propaganda in what Ms. Hebert said.   It is difficult to make careful political choices if the daily news media consist of right-wing talk shows, Fox news and the like, and if the churches preach on the evils of abortion while not saying very much about something the Bible talks about a lot:  The evils of greedy business people and human greed in general.  The same would be true (in a reverse political sense) if vast segments of the popular media were a Stalinist retraining program.  But that's not the case, whatever the conservatives say about the evil liberal media.

The question this raises in my mind is the following one:  Does anyone explain to the Ms. Heberts of this world what the costs and benefits of her choices are?  That were her party truly successful she might lose those government poverty benefits she relies on?  My impression is that many voters do not connect those dots, and the media doesn't try to reach out to them.