This election season has only just begun and we have already seen everything from celebrities talking to empty chairs (see videos of Clint Eastwood talking to a chair at the RNC and Stephen Colbert talking to a chair on his show) to endless commentators noting that a significant portion of American voters are voting against their own economic self-interest. While I found the empty chair debate to be the most amusing one so far, the topic that is most relevant to the theme of this blog is the roles of both our money (economic self-interest) and our hearts (values and emotions) when it comes to our voting. In short, economic self-interest may motivate some voters all the time, but it for sure does not motivate all the voters all of the time!
By now, just about everyone has seen the video that shows comments made by presidential candidate Mitt Romney about the 47% of Americans who are unlikely to vote for him (if not, click here to view it). Clearly, the comments he made on this were not meant for the masses, let alone the 47% he was referring to. However, the above video of him making those comments went viral anyway, and it continues to be the topic of commentary all over the news and entertainment media.
What I find most interesting about this story is not what Romney really thinks of that 47% of Americans that he referred to in that talk, but what they think of him. The truth is that some (though not most) of the 47% of Americans who don’t pay income tax have a history of voting for Republicans in presidential elections. They may even still be planning to vote for Mitt Romney. Similarly, many (though not most) of our country’s most affluent citizens have a history of voting for Democrats. Quite a few of them have even come out both publicly and financially in support of Barack Obama.
This is not news. Plenty of politicians, journalists, and even comedians have pointed out that many Americans vote against their own best economic interest. On his popular HBO series Real Time, Bill Maher has regularly pondered why anyone in a lower income bracket would vote for a Republican. Yet he himself has admitted that he is voting against his own economic self-interest by voting for a Democrat. (click here to watch Maher discuss this on his show). While the assumption seems to be that they don’t grasp that they are better off with a Democrat in the White House, it is also true that some do get it, but are choosing to vote Republican anyway. Why? There are in fact many possible reasons. It could be religious values, social peer groups, cultural values, or pure habit. It could be for various other reasons as well. Indeed, the idea that voters are purely rational beings just thinking about their economic welfare is quite naïve. Voters have hearts.
Similarly, plenty of affluent Americans, even those in the top 1%, have come out in support of Obama, not to mention higher taxes for wealthier Americans such as themselves. The list of wealthy Americans campaigning for Obama and making financial contributions to his campaign, even though it is against their own economic self-interest, includes Bill Gates, Warren Buffet, Arianna Huffington, and Oprah Winfrey. All of these Americans are part of the top 1%, and all of them have stated that they and other affluent Americans should pay higher taxes. It is worth noting that Gates and Buffet aren't just in the top 1%. They are, in fact, the two richest people in America today. While the fact that such people are voting against their economic self interest may seem irrational to some, it certainly is not a sign that these people don’t “get” that their political preferences do not align with their economic self-interest. Please note that Gates, Winfrey and Buffet were the three faces chosen this month by Forbes ito appear on their cover for their story on "The Richest People in America."
This brings me to the connection between the title of my blog and the driving forces behind the presidential election. For years, we have been told that when it comes to American voters, “it’s the economy stupid.” Yet, we also know that this phrase does not explain everyone’s voting preferences. Plenty of American voters, including myself, would vote for the same candidate regardless of the state of the economy. Plenty of us, including myself, would vote for the same candidate regardless of our tax bracket. Even independent voters can be swayed by more than pure economic concerns. Voting is affected by many variables including the economy, personal values, irrational emotions, cultural tendencies, personalities we are comfortable with, etc. How we feel about individual candidates is not just about who we think will make us richer or poorer. In short, when it comes to voting in America, decisions are made based on both our money and our emotions.
So, perhaps Mr. Romney shouldn’t give up on winning over some of that 47% after all. That said, I think his comments about them definitely didn’t help his chances.
Related Posts on the Psychology of the 2012 Presidential Election (click to view):
Fun Videos Related to the Topic of Wealthy People Paying Higher Taxes: