Alabama On My Mind

Alabama On My Mind

Why do people consistently vote against their self-interest? Consider Alabama, where low-income people, who hardly benefit from tax cuts that jeopardize government services, recently voted down a referendum that tried to shift the burden from overtaxed working people to under-taxed business interests.

Alabama’s citizens, as a New York Times editorial comment pointed out, voted “for fewer social services, less education, and a shoddier legal system–to become, that is, more like a third-world nation.” Through a decision made by its own residents, Alabama is now entrenched at the bottom of the national rankings in government services.

The national landscape isn’t much brighter. Is there some plausible explanation for why Americans support spending more on government programs like education and healthcare, express disappointment that the gap between rich and poor has widened, but then give their support to Bush’s tax cuts, which disproportionately benefit the super-rich?

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Why do people consistently vote against their self-interest? Consider Alabama, where low-income people, who hardly benefit from tax cuts that jeopardize government services, recently voted down a referendum that tried to shift the burden from overtaxed working people to under-taxed business interests.

Alabama’s citizens, as a New York Times editorial comment pointed out, voted “for fewer social services, less education, and a shoddier legal system–to become, that is, more like a third-world nation.” Through a decision made by its own residents, Alabama is now entrenched at the bottom of the national rankings in government services.

The national landscape isn’t much brighter. Is there some plausible explanation for why Americans support spending more on government programs like education and healthcare, express disappointment that the gap between rich and poor has widened, but then give their support to Bush’s tax cuts, which disproportionately benefit the super-rich?

Princeton political scientist Larry Bartels‘ recent report, Homer Gets a Tax Cut: Inequality and Public Policy in the American Mind, offers some answers. As he points out, there is “a good deal of ignorance and uncertainty about the workings of the tax system” and a failure to connect tax cuts to rising inequality, the future tax burden or the availability of public services. The report also reveals how people are bamboozled by political spin and poor factual information offered up by our infotainment-ized media. (For more on the report, see Alan Krueger’s Economic Scene,” New York Times Business section, October 15).

I think that one reason why people vote against their self-interest is distrust of government. Alabama’s low taxes and limited services are, in fact, legacies of this distrust– fed equally by big business, fake-populists like the late Governor George Wallace and, now, a growing Republican majority.

Indeed, in interviews around the state on the eve of the referendum, voter disgust toward state government was palpable, with most people saying they did not trust legislators to spend taxpayers’ money. These fears are fanned by rightwing think tanks like the Heritage Foundation, which have worked assiduously to denigrate government. As anti-government ideologues like Grover Norquist see it, lowering taxes and downsizing government are the way to destroy the social safety net. (Norquist, after all, promotes the idea that government should be shrunk to a size where it can be drowned in a bathtub.) Then there are the consequences of signals people receive from politicians who have made an art of lowering expectations of what government can do even faster than they disappoint them.

Progressives have to take into account the historic libertarian, even anti-government, impulses of most Americans, and accept the role of market forces in many social solutions, but we must also challenge the widespread belief that because government has sometimes performed poorly in recent years, it cannot perform at all.

What’s heartening is that even after decades of rightwing government bashing, a progressive domestic agenda is in fact quite popular with voters, as we know from polls and surveys. The problem is that Democrats have not coherently or consistently articulated that agenda, while the Republicans have hammered away with a disciplined message about the phony dangers of “big government.” (Matt Miller effectively skewers this message in his valuable new book The Two Percent Solution:Fixing America’s Problems in Ways that Liberals and Conservatives Can Love.) And a Murdochized, conglomeratized media too often peddles spin –not factual information that might contribute to citizens acting in their self-interest.

Progressives could begin by articulating a coherent, alternative vision of the purpose and meaning of government. Opposition to the tax cuts is all very good, but for what purpose, to do what?

Let’s invoke President Lincoln’s injunction that government exists to do what individuals cannot do for themselves. Let’s challenge the view that we, as a society, cannot do things together and put forward new and compelling ideas about the role of government and how it can improve our lives. Let’s reclaim the ability to articulate why government is a social good, that investments in schools, infrastructure, health care and social services are worth making and that everyone should pay their fair share. And to the wealthy who aren’t paying their fair share–ask yourself if you aren’t better off being prosperous and paying taxes than going down in the first-class cabins of a sinking ship.

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