November 17, 2004

Voter Motivation and Another Stab at a Big Idea

Marc Comtois
I'd encourage anyone interested in the question as to "why we vote the way we do" to read this article by Patrick Cox about the seeming correlation between political ideology and demography. In it, he also tackles the apparent conundrum of those who most benefit from government spending (so-called Red States) voting against those who would seem to favor an increase in said spending (the Democrats). This is something that the pundit Lawrence O'Donnell (one of the proponents of Blue State Secession, btw) had been pontificating about recently. (O'Donnell said "Ninety percent of the red states are welfare-client states of the federal government.") According to this meme, it was rural voters, who receive more federal dollars than do urban voters, who are responsible for putting President Bush back in the White House. (I guess we are all supposed to revel in the irony of it all.)

Cox offers some insight into why this ungratefulness, as O'Donnell seems to imply, on the part of the Red States is not really hard to figure out. First, because the cost of living is higher in urban areas, they have a higher concentration of higher wage earners and generate higher revenue than do rural areas with lower cost of living requirements and commensurate wages. As such, more of the urban dollars get redistributed. To this I would add that the gulf between the very wealthy and the very poor is wider in the cities. As such, one group votes its interests (the poor) and the other (the rich) votes either out of guilt or because it can afford to pay for social welfare programs (or, with good tax people, can avoid taxed altogether anyway!). Cox's second point is that, with less concentrated populations, rural states spend more money delivering services (like the mail) to fewer people over larger areas. Finally, Cox believes that it is more likely that the voters in rural states are continually being "bought off" by "redistributionists" so that they will approve of other government programs.

While looking deeper for a link between demography and ideology, Cox closes the piece with the following:
The statistician's perennial caveat is that "correlation is not causation." but there is little doubt that there is connection, largely unexplained, between ideology and demography. Depressingly deterministic as it is, this correlation, if it continues, may mean that future elections will be decided by immigration patterns, reproductive rates and technologies that allow more businesses and workers to locate in suburban and rural locations.
In one sense, Cox has simply noticed a characteristic that has existed in this country almost since its founding. The Town/Country, Rural/Urban divide has been much debated. While Cox links demography to ideology, it is important to note that "demographies" can change in their ideological preferences, or, at the least, in their political preferences. (The change in the south from solid Democrat to solid Republican is an example of the latter. However, it can be argued that the ideology of the South has not necessarily changed as much as the vehicle that best expresses that ideology of the polity, a given political party, has indeed changed.)

Demography is a term that covers a wide array of other terms. These include words like geography, race or religion, and all carry certain characteristics or connotations that may be much more indicative, or even determinative, of ideology. Importantly, rare is the case where only one of these factors is determinative and usually it is a combination of these characteristics that goes into forming an ideology. As such, the ability of "demography" to serve as a conceptual catch-all makes it attractive, especially to one such as Cox who appears determined to find that one Big Idea as to why we vote the way we do.

The work of historians such as Bernard Bailyn, Gordon Wood and Joyce Appleby has shown that, while certain ideologies have been predominant at certain periods in our history, they inevitably give way to other, more persuasive concepts. Though traces of the ideologies of the 17th Century Radical Whigs, or the Civic Humanists or the Jeffersonian Liberals can still be found, no single ideology has dominated for an extended period of time among the general population.

Cox seems to have consigned himself to having concluded that his view is hopelessly deterministic, which harkens back to yet another Big Idea. History is full of many attempts by those who have been tempted to find a single word or concept to describe both the process of history and the future of the world. The funny thing is, just when we think we have it all figured out, the rules change. Just ask Karl Marx or Francis Fukuyama.