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Why Do People Vote Against Their Best Interests?

Why support a leader who will harm rather than help you?

We see this all the time. People seemingly voting against their own self-interests: poor people supporting a candidate who is owned by the rich or immigrants who support an anti-immigrant candidate, for example. What is some of the psychology behind supporting a leader who doesn’t represent an individual’s interests?

Ethicist and leadership scholar, Joanne Ciulla, in a recent address at the International Studying Leadership Conference, suggested that some groups, frustrated by a lack of jobs and financial resources, may feel a sense of resentment against those who are better off. This creates a “have-nots” versus “haves” mentality. If one candidate appears to represent the “haves” or the “establishment,” or even the status quo, people feeling resentment may automatically gravitate toward the candidate who offers change, or the candidate who claims to represent the “have-nots.”

Let’s put this in the context of the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Poor, working-class whites, who might typically be drawn to the Democratic party because of the party’s promotion of social programs to help the poor, surprisingly supported the billionaire Republican candidate, Donald Trump, who ostensibly was going to abolish critical social programs such as health care and provide tax cuts for the wealthy. (Admittedly, he promised to provide “the very best health care,” “to make the rich pay their fair share,” and to bring jobs to the poor, but this is counter to the long-standing Republican agenda.) How can we explain this seemingly contradictory behavior? According to Ciulla, drawing on Ruth Capriles book, Leadership by Resentment, poor, working-class whites have become deeply frustrated and resentful. They perceive that social programs don’t help them as much as they help (and are targeted toward), ethnic minorities. In addition, white males from this group may resent recent advancements by women and therefore turned against candidate Hillary Clinton (her calling Trump supporters “deplorables” didn’t help the situation). According to Capriles, resentment is a powerful force in those who feel disenfranchised, and fuels other acts against one’s own self-interests, including suicide bombings and shootings, and support for toxic dictators.

In the U.S. presidential election, two other psychological processes come into play: (1) the limitations caused by a two-party system; and (2) the we-they feeling (or in-group, out-group bias).

In U.S. elections, voters are presented with only two candidates. Third party candidates are viewed as unviable. If one candidate is rejected, that leaves only one alternative. Voters who turned against Clinton for a myriad of reasons (“she’s a woman”; “she’s dishonest”; “she represents the establishment”) had only one alternative. And, Trump presented himself as the candidate to change the status quo—the very thing that fueled the resentment in the first place.

The we-they feeling is responsible for the seemingly inexplicable support that poor Whites continue to hold for Donald Trump, even as his policies seem to make their situation worse, with less access to healthcare and tax cuts that may hurt more than they help. The in-group (Trump supporters) draw together in solidarity and feel greater animosity, resentment, and even fear of, the outgroup. Trump’s rallies serve to increase in-group cohesiveness and foster greater negative feelings about the out-group of Trump’s detractors.

So, this may explain the contradiction of working against one’s own self-interests, but what can be done about it?

The only real solution is good leadership: leadership that works to reduce resentment by providing for basic needs, treating all constituents fairly (being the leader of all of the people), and fighting against the pernicious in-group, out-group bias by focusing on our shared identity as Americans. I know this is not easy but it seems the only way forward.


Capriles, Ruth (2012). Leadership by Resentment. Cheltenham, UK: Edward Elgar.

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