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Economic, Social Issues Play Part in Voters’ Decisions

October 28, 2004 at 12:00 AM EDT
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JIM LEHRER: Now our business correspondent, Paul Solman of WGBH-Boston, looks at how much economic issues really do control what voters do on Election Day.

PAUL SOLMAN: The state of Kansas. Over the past few decades, as the American economy was becoming freer, many Kansans were losing ground economically. And yet these same people began to vote for the champions of free market economics: The Republican Party.

It was a puzzle to born-and-bred Kansas conservative, now-liberal Thomas Frank, who returned to his home state to write a book about conservative voting trends: “What’s the Matter with Kansas?”

THOMAS FRANK: The aspect of this that interests me and that I write about in the book is a nation of people or even a region of people becoming more conservative as conservatism clearly suits their interests less and less and less.

PAUL SOLMAN: To Frank, economic conservatism, in cutting taxes on companies, on capital gains, on estates, and in its push for deregulation, for instance…

THOMAS FRANK: Has empowered management at the expense of labor — has busted labor unions, you know, across the country; has made possible globalization, outsourcing.

We are becoming a country more like the 19th Century than we were in the middle of the 20th Century in terms of the division of income and in terms of wage growth and that sort of thing. This is happening everywhere. This is not unique to Kansas. It’s not unique to the Midwest. This is going on everywhere in America.

The pay differential between CEO’s and blue-collar workers, the income differential between the top 10 percent and the bottom 10 percent… there’s any number of ways of looking at it.

The shocking thing is that while this is going on, at the same time, you have a conservative revolution going on in this country that never seems to exhaust itself.

PAUL SOLMAN: Frank contends that conservatives have mobilized lower- and middle-income Americans to their cause, against their own economic interests.

Of course, many people see conservatism quite differently: As a catalyst for real economic growth that benefits everyone in the end, a point we’ll return to shortly.

But with the election just days away, in a setting about as American as you can get — the Washington Mall — we thought we’d explore the question: Are people voting against their own economic interests these days, and if so, why?

Conservative Republicans, says Frank, have become dominant by defining what he says are two new social classes: Authentic Americans as against liberal elitists.

He says the issues conservatives have focused on tend to define these classes — abortion, gay marriage, creationism as an alternative to evolution — rallying points against the highly educated elites in places like New York and California.

In buying into these new social categories, Frank argues, many lower-income Americans sacrifice their true economic interests to symbolic allegiances.

THOMAS FRANK: The Republicans, and conservatism generally, have advanced and have enjoyed the kinds of successes that they have in the last 30 years because they have a way of speaking about social class, and they have a way of talking class war.

It’s a stereotype that is familiar to all of us from infinite repetition. It’s the red states versus the blue states.

It’s a way of talking about class and a way of appealing to class antagonism and even stirring up class antagonism without actually talking about class.

PAUL SOLMAN: Without actually talking about economics?

THOMAS FRANK: Yeah, in the real sociological sense, without talking about economics. Economics are out of the picture.

Class is a matter of tastes; class is a matter… above all, class is a matter of authenticity. Do you drive a Chevy or do you drive a Volvo?

Do you drink, you know, Maxwell House or do you drink some affected, you know, Starbucks sort of thing?

PAUL SOLMAN: This is social class not in the old sense of the term– upper, middle, and lower class — but class as, well, almost tribal identity.

Now, this may be an interesting argument; it’s surely a controversial one. So we invited Republican thinker and former speechwriter for the president, David Frum to respond.

Have many lower-income Americans been hoodwinked to vote against their economic interests, which ought to incline them to the economic program of the Democrats? He had two responses. First:

DAVID FRUM: I wouldn’t agree with that because I think their economic program does not serve the interests of those people.

But let’s say you were a Democrat and you did believe that. Doesn’t that suggest that you ought to, then, show more respect for the cultural values of the people you are trying to mobilize? But what’s happening, instead, is that some people make the argument Tom was making would say, “Well, just forget about these cultural concerns.

Regard abortion as unimportant; regard immigration as unimportant; regard the flag and patriotism and the pledge of allegiance… we regard these things as unimportant.”

PAUL SOLMAN: Creationism, Ten Commandments?

DAVID FRUM: Yes. “Garbage. Forget it, it’s not… where the planet comes from, why we live, these are not important questions.

The important questions are these economic ones.” And you know, I think if you’re going to take the interests of people at all levels of society seriously, you have to respect their values as well as their economic interests, however you see their economic interests.

But I think you want to be really careful about saying to people when you go vote that it’s okay to think about whether you’re going to pay a little bit more or a little bit less retail sales tax.

But the meaning of life; who’s human; who’s a member of our community; justice; fairness; equality; patriotism; civil rights — you shouldn’t think about those things, think only about that retail sales tax.

PAUL SOLMAN: Do you not respect their values?

THOMAS FRANK: I respect everyone’s values, of course. The thing is… and here’s a kind of an interesting historical parallel, is that we did… we went through a period very much like the present one in the 1920s, where all the political issues were cultural ones.

And they were all about values and they were all about… we fought over immigration and we fought over evolution — that was a big one. And we fought over prohibition.

And then, along comes the Great Depression, and those issues just disappeared. They really did dry up and blow away.

PAUL SOLMAN: So then have the culturally and economically marginalized begun to vote against their own interests?

Are those suffering economically, yet backing the president, voting counterproductively, as Tom Frank suggests?

DAVID FRUM: I think any theory about what is happening in American politics has also to give an answer to this question, which is, why is it that so many of the very wealthiest people in the society are moving toward the Democratic Party?

Because that is a… at the same time as so many people in the middle classes and the working classes have moved Republican, the very richest have moved Democratic.

So any theory has to explain why people like Michael Eisner and George Soros, people who are not blind to their economic interests, why they increasingly gravitate toward the Democratic Party.

THOMAS FRANK: This is a good one. This is the subject for my next book: “What’s the Matter with Connecticut?”

And look, there’s a lot of different ways of looking at this, but by and large, the Republican Party… if you look at the policies that it enacts, the people that it benefits, it’s still the party of business in America.

DAVID FRUM: I think most Republicans believe, and I believe, that when it’s in the interests of everybody, is a society that is open to the maximum scope for individual talent — a society of dynamism, a society where people can get ahead. And that means low taxes.

That means a growing economy, and that’s what Republican economics policies at their best, which they aren’t always at, but at their best, try to achieve.

THOMAS FRANK: This is, in my opinion, the weakest aspect of the Republican message, the sort of… the pure free-market ideology– the religion of the market.

And I think this is where Democrats really should be hammering. Inequality in this country is spectacularly visible right now. And it’s something that is unprecedented in our lifetime, or much worse than it has ever been before in our lifetimes.

PAUL SOLMAN: Of course, there is one simple explanation for why people may not vote their pocketbooks this year: Other issues simply loom larger than economics.

And indeed, folks on the Mall of America, outside the Air and Space Museum, to be precise, seemed to illustrate the point. A South Carolina lawyer voting for President Bush:

LARRY BRIGGS: His values and my values parallel pretty much.

PAUL SOLMAN: For others, like this Iowa farmer, war is the reason to back the president.

KEVIN HADLEY: I support him, the way he took care of Iraq — you know, 9/11 and all of that — the terrorists.

PAUL SOLMAN: This Colorado mother was voting against the president, but again, not primarily for economic reasons.

JANET MEYERS: First is the moral issue. I don’t think he’s a moral president, and I don’t think he’s helped this country.

PAUL SOLMAN: For those interested in our poll, it came out almost exactly 50/50, Bush/Kerry, though given our sample size, the results are what we’d call “anecdata” at best.

On the other hand, not everyone was oblivious to their pocketbooks; not this Kerry voter from Syracuse, New York, for example.

CORY OWENS: With the socioeconomic ladder that I fit into, I think he’s a better fit, better candidate for me.

PAUL SOLMAN: This, in the end, is how Tom Frank thinks most voters might be expected to behave, if they only knew what was really good for them. David Frum’s final comment:

DAVID FRUM: Every person is the world’s leading expert on what he or she feels and believes. And I don’t think you ever want to tell people that they are mistaken about how, what their beliefs are and how they express them.

PAUL SOLMAN: Tom Frank?

THOMAS FRANK: We don’t live in a world where everyone’s interests are perfectly crystal clear all the time. People get things wrong all the time. I know I do.

PAUL SOLMAN: At the of the day the question is, who has got it wrong, or right, this time?