We All Vote Against Our Own Self-Interests

American electoral politics are a messy balancing act of cognitive dissonance.

It is time to stop blaming poor white people. We all vote against our own self-interests. All of us (at least those of us who vote).

This idea resurfaces in the wake of an unexpected (by the left) electoral victory by Donald Trump, though it is one of the well established tropes of American political discourse, especially among white liberals. We stand around scratching our heads, asking the question: “How is it that the white poor and working class insist on voting against their own self-interests?” We lament demagoguery and puzzle over the white precariat who espouse Trumpism and the austerity of the Republican platform. The word “ignorant” pops up with some regularity. This is a mistake.

We all do it, though. All of us (at least those of us who vote) vote against our own self-interests. Every single one of us. Every single time we vote.

An expansive range of articles are (understandably) materializing that seek to make sense of an electoral coup that blind-sided millions of people. They range from panic to acknowledgement that the left is obligated to do some soul searching to understand a group of people who feel so alienated that voting for Donald Trump seems like a good idea to them. While I appreciate (and applaud) this needed empathetic turn, I’m not sure that it is appropriate for us to categorize Trump voters as a them that we need to understand. They are us and perhaps we should put a little bit more effort into trying to identify what it really is that makes voting for Donald Trump so different from how the rest of “us” vote.

To put it simply, every voter in the United States votes for candidates who bring a mixture of things we like and things that are often so noxious that we have to pretend like they aren’t really there. How we each make our decisions is complicated and involves different parts of hope, denial, and prioritization of some issues over others. For many voters, we subconsciously know this and choose our candidates by the hue of the veneer they apply to their particular bill of goods.

American electoral politics are a messy balancing act of cognitive dissonance. Everyone who participates (or makes the conscious decision not to participate) does so by weighing out an array of options, many not savory. Our political process is immensely conservative and serves to perpetuate itself with as little change as possible, more so it seems than it serves to address the interests of “the people.” Voting for “the lesser of two evils” becomes a desperate moral imperative though and we find ourselves fighting for elite political candidates who, at best, we sort of agree with. Upon scrutiny, the vast majority of political candidates come with some amount of “baggage.” Whether it is a shady relationship with Wall Street, a legacy of covert drone warfare, allegations of sexual violence, a reputation of corporate immorality, or the innate prioritization of self interest that our governmental system cultivates in our politicians, every candidate we vote for is, by some measure, against our own interests. Even the teflon Bernie Sanders isn’t perfect but as we have seen, our political process (especially at the national level) does not seem to favor the sort of candidate who doesn’t come with a fair share of baggage.

Let’s be completely honest with ourselves. This is a veiled and coded way of invoking poor white stupidity and our own intellectual superiority. It is how we absolve ourselves of responsibility for what is wrong in our world.

To be clear, this is not a critique of voting, per se. Our elections do have an impact on our lived reality and participating in the process (especially at the local level) is a cherished civic duty to many. I am just trying to say that for every American voter, some amount of calculus has to be performed to weigh out the “goods” and “bads” of those candidates we vote for and against. Ultimately, our decisions tend to reflect whatever particular balance of goods we can stomach. Exactly what we prioritize differs but all of us vote against our own interests in one way or another.

When we pass this judgment, it involves the superimposition of the same sort of rational market logic that many of us on the left categorically criticize most of the time. When we puzzle that “they vote against their own self-interest” what we really mean is that we are puzzled that they vote against their own economic self interest. There are an infinite number of spheres of reason and affect that electoral politics target. These are the complex things that we progressive social scientists love to point out as making up the holistic human; we do this to denounce a form of capitalist logic that reduces humans to a set of rational choices about what brings them the most monetary wealth. Yet we invoke this same logic to question the intelligence of a class of people who are making choices to vote for politicians that we see as economically irrational. This ignores the complex and sometimes arcane human qualities that contribute to decision making. I certainly do not say this to espouse Trumpism; I firmly oppose it. I say this to denounce a poor form of logic that we ordinarily criticize in the intellectual left, but seem more than comfortable invoking when doing so makes us feel like we are superior to someone else.

A particular attitude that has materialized from the intellectual left during this electoral event is a sense of disconnection; the realization that many of us are so profoundly removed from how a large portion of our population sees the world that we are utterly dumbfounded by their choices. For the voter base that chose Trump, there was a complex arrangement of spheres of reason that led to their Trump conclusion, including economics, racial politics, partisanship, gender, and many other things. The particular arrangements were not the same for everyone. Most prominently though (and most misunderstood by the left) is the profound sense that the Washington elite are failing the people. We can split hairs over exactly what this means, the internet is absolutely full of that today, but I want to caution against committing the sin of a kind of othering that bundles what we find most odious into the logics of those we fail to understand. Did racism, misogyny, and ethnocentrism play into Trump’s election? Certainly. Dangerous far-right wing groups at home and around the world are celebrating Trump’s victory. This isn’t the whole story though. Could it be said that votes for Obama or Clinton are ultimately reducible to votes for drone strikes on Pakistani civilians or pro-Wall Street corruption? Is the racism implied by the Trump campaign something that is somehow worse than killing children with drones? Is it possible that the only real difference is that Obama and Clinton perform a public kind of Kennedy-esque affect that we call class which, while it pleases our fancy liberal sensibilities, also obfuscates the politically insidious aspects of their respective platforms in a manner that the populist Trump refuses?

I’ll suggest another way to think about this. The influential anthropologist Bruno Latour invoked the theoretical concept of blackboxing. According to Latour, blackboxing is “ the way scientific and technical work is made invisible by its own success. When a machine runs efficiently, when a matter of fact is settled, one need focus only on its inputs and outputs and not on its internal complexity. Thus, paradoxically, the more science and technology succeed, the more opaque and obscure they become.” In a nutshell, we pack exceedingly complex groups of information into simple units (black boxes) that we can process as simple units without having to deal with all of the complex information they contain. In Latour’s study of lab science procedures, he observed that this can become a problem when systems become so complex that people start taking black boxes for granted and no longer scrutinize the information within them. Unfortunately, this can become a tool that can be wielded by a scientist who realizes that if they can pack enough units of information (Latour calls these units modalities) to an idea or piece of technology to make it exceedingly complex and then build a black box around it, they can often have their ideas accepted without proper scrutiny. A contemporary scientific example of this can be seen in the medical technology company Theranos which managed to blackbox its supposedly revolutionary Edison machine, successfully convincing people to invest millions of dollars into a piece of technology that scrutiny would ultimately show not to work.

The black box concept works to explain social phenomena as well. American politics is itself a black box, containing thousands of progressively smaller black boxes associated with various partisan agendas and strategies. Is the classy behavior of our elite liberal politicians just another modality that obscures the unpalatable realities of their platforms? Millions of (justifiably) frightened Americans, especially the vulnerable groups who have been mocked by the Trump campaign, might disagree with me over whether or not there is something profoundly worse about Trump politics versus American politics as usual. I will wager, while maintaining my explicit solidarity with America’s vulnerable, that this argument might be a tough sell to a Pakastani civilian family who lost a child to a drone strike in the past decade, the loved ones of those killed by recent police brutality, or Latin American families who have seen their livelihoods eviscerated by American economic policies. Perhaps we should ask the question: “who is really worse? Is it the politician who impoverishes people around the world or the politician who wants to build a wall to keep them out?” Far too often, our liberal answer is “Well, that isn’t what matters to me most. I prefer the politician who doesn’t call people names.” Like many Americans, my hair stood up time and time again when I heard the horrid things that Trump said about people during his campaign. It sounds so awful. It also starts to pale when we ask questions about war, police violence, and economic ruin. I expect the critique that says “but Trump’s horrible rhetoric empowers the bigots!” Yes, I know.

I spoke on the phone yesterday with a family member who came out as a Trump supporter. After denying this in a previous conversation, he admitted it and emotionally expressed his logic to me. Trump is a firebomb thrown into an absolutely despised political system. This relative told me that he honestly does not know if Trump would be a good or bad President but it doesn’t matter. That is of secondary importance. What matters right now is the sense of empowerment he feels at having landed a devastating clean hit in the face of a government he sees as corrupt, elitist, and not of the people. He says it isn’t about bigotry for him. I have seen a number of Trump supporters I know saying that they made a decision that they believe to be in the best interests of the vulnerable in America, especially those who are most terrified right now. I believe them; at least that their intent is what they say it is. Of course, we can start to deconstruct that and say that regardless of intent, a Trump Presidency presents a legitimate threat to millions of vulnerable people. This brings me back to my point. If we start to deconstruct the politicians “we” vote for, some pretty ugly stuff can be found. The politically correct veneer that pleases our liberal sensibilities is there though and we vote, feel good about ourselves, and don’t act when day after day, our country bombs people around the world, LGBTQ people continue to suffer structural violence, and police continue to shoot people dead in the street without consequence. At least we didn’t vote for that awful demagogue though....

Let’s consider some difficult but unavoidable potentialities. Is it possible that Trump supporters, whatever their motivations, are the most legitimately revolutionary-minded constituency in the United States right now? To call ourselves progressive, we liberals sure are conservative. When Trump voters acknowledge that they do not know if Trump will be a good President or not, it becomes difficult to rationalize their decision as rooted in a desire for white supremacy or the return of long-gone manufacturing jobs. This sounds much more like a risk taken by people who see the United States government as so evil and corrupt that it needed to be destabilized. For all of our progressive rhetoric, this is a decision that liberals have been, thus far, unwilling to make.

Let’s be honest about this and let’s stop blaming poor white people for what all of us do. We just prefer our black boxes in fancier packaging.