Doesn’t anyone vote against their self-interest anymore?

Today the Supreme Court will begin to hear a constitutional challenge to the Affordable Care Act. I don’t know how to talk about this without coming across as unbearably self-righteous, but mainly I just want to know that someone else knows what I’m talking about! Here’s the situation.

The ACA is what is making my family’s life tolerable right now. My husband and I are both self-employed, and even when one or the other of us worked for some company that offered employer-sponsored insurance, we couldn’t afford it. So, except for me when I was pregnant, we both went for nearly two decades without health insurance, and therefore with very little health care. This meant we always had the choice between risking bodily or financial ruin. We got away with it, more or less, because we were young. Now we are both 45, and the ACA, and the expanded Medicaid it funded in our state, came along just in time to save our bacon as we begin the long downhill slide into decrepitude. 

So I am following these hearings with fatalistic interest — interest because the decrepitude is speeding up, and fatalistic because there is nothing I can do about what the court decides. If the ACA is found unconstitutional and repealed, all I can do is petition my state reps to work out something else. That’s not nothing, but it’s not much. 

Here’s the part I’m having trouble conveying without sounding crazy. Several of my more liberal friends openly insisted that I oppose the nomination of Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court specifically because they believed she would certainly favor ACA repeal. They made it clear that I was doing something bad to vulnerable people by not taking a stand against Barrett. And never mind that there was literally nothing I could do to change the course of events — and that events were by no means set in stone. The question of whether or not the ACA is constitutional was deemed irrelevant on the grounds that it’s very hard to be poor; and the fact that I know what it’s like to be poor just made my point of view more offensive in their eyes. I offended them just by not being personally angry at Amy.

I have a confession to make: I think the ACA is unconstitutional. Or it may be. I don’t really know, because I am a housewife who knows how to type, and those are my qualifications to speak on the topic of constitutional law. I very much hope our legislators find a way, with or without Barrett, to keep the ACA in place. I hope the courts decide it is constitutional, or that they can preserve the constitutional part that is useful to poor people. But I also hope that Supreme Court justices see it as their job to figure out whether something is constitutional or not! I’m really attached to this idea! 

There is no power on earth or under heaven that will keep you from instructing me, in the comments, about why I’m wrong about constitutional law, so go ‘head. But that’s not really my point. My first point is that I would never vote for a president based solely on the likelihood that he will appoint a judge who is likely to make a decision that I think will benefit me. This is partly because there are too many variables in play, and I’d much rather vote based on things that are indisputable, rather than things that are hypothetical.

But my primary point is that that every adult should vote against his self interest from time to time, and I will never stop being dumbfounded at how many people can’t accept this as normal, everyday virtuous American behavior. When I say, “I think so-and-so will happen, and that will likely hurt me, but thus-and-such is indisputably true, so I’m going to proceed based on that,” people look at me like I’m some kind of moron, and the want to argue with me that so-and-so will be BAD for me, BAD, you see. But I don’t make all my decisions on whether they will be bad for me or not, because I am not a psychopath. 

Don’t think I’m saying it’s only liberals who make these arguments. Conservatives do the exact same thing, just for different issues, and they’re just as baffled that I would ever vote for someone who has promised to do something that might hurt me. 

Am I missing something? Didn’t it used to be a quintessentially American thing that we cared about what was right, even if it wasn’t personally good for us? Didn’t there used to be such a thing as ideals that are separate from self-interest? Or am I laboring under some kind of penumbra of American Catholic masochism, wherein things that are hard and unpleasant automatically seem more virtuous? Or what?

I already know that I’m some kind of impossibly starry-eyed idealist because I still care about the separation of powers. Whatever. All I know is people I used to respect are straight up making arguments like “This vote is necessary to protect my stocks” or “I heavily depend on the coal industry, so I’m proud to give him my vote.” 

Don’t misunderstand. I get making compromises. I can’t remember the last time I went through a day without making compromises, political and otherwise. But I don’t get being okay with it. I don’t get pretending like it’s not a compromise. Making compromises should make you unhappy, either because it hurts your conscience or it hurts your bottom line. Voting should make you unhappy! Why aren’t more of you people unhappy? That’s what gets me. 

Maybe we really should be restricting who gets to vote — not based on land ownership or bank accounts or education, but based on your ability to even consider voting against your own self interest. Maybe voter registration should be designed like one of those wretched social experiments they perform on kids: You can eat this piece of candy now, or you can give two pieces of candy to your mommy. Except your mommy is the constitution, and the candy is your self-respect.

Listen, whatever party you belong to is going to screw you over eventually, because that is what parties do. If you think your party is going to always help you out all the time, that’s a sign you’ve become an absolute amoeba, and have simply learned how to brainwash your own self into believing good is bad. Voting against your self-interest is like swallowing something prickly because you’ve been gorging on pudding so long, you’re in danger of forgetting how to chew. Snap out of it! Especially if you make a big deal about honoring the founding fathers. It’s as if people think the point of democracy is so everyone gets their chance to be their very own King George III.  

Voting against your self-interest reminds you that no system will save you. The constitution won’t save you, either. But at least it’s something outside of yourself. You do remember there’s something outside yourself, right? 

Remember the scene in The Silver Chair, when Puddleglum stamped on the witch’s fire, and the children woke right up? He broke the spell partly because the magic fire was out, but also partly because the room now smelled like burnt Puddleglum. That’s what democracy should smell like: A nice, pungent stink of self-sacrificial burning flesh, that breaks the trance and reminds us we’re not in paradise here and never will be. More Puddleglum, please. 

Image via Pxhere. (Creative Commons)

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24 thoughts on “Doesn’t anyone vote against their self-interest anymore?”

  1. « I thought it was a quintessentially American thing that we care about what was right, even if it wasn’t personally good for us.”

    I would absolutely not characterize the US this way. It is at the very essence of the American worldview that there is no concept of the common good, i.e. what is « right. » we work under the assumption of the privatization of value, ie that all truth claims regarding what is good are purely subjective and thus should not be considered when forming policy (lest one group impose its values on others. Hence, for example, people can simultaneously hold that abortion is the killing of innocent humans life and that it should be legal.) Absent the common good, the criteria upon which we tend to judge policy is individual rights / freedom and money. These are our only « goods. »

    Of course, as a Catholic and as I philosopher, I wholeheartedly reject this worldview and agree that people should vote, etc. according to the common good and not just their own self- interest. However, I also think some of the examples you discussed are not merely self- interest, but fundamental claims of justice (eg healthcare, communities having been ravaged by industry’s sudden arrival and departure, etc.) I think it’s important to make this clarification because I’ve witnessed many times how Catholics can weaponize ideas likes self- sacrifice. It’s not selfish to stand up against injustice when the injustice happens to affect you personally.

  2. A lot of food for thought here! Interestingly, I feel like I’ve encountered the phrase “voting against one’s self-interest” primarily in a very different context — liberals talking pityingly/condescendingly about impoverished red state people are voting against their own economic self-interests by voting Republican. The implication is that people are too blinded by racism or religion to see that Democrats would actually help them. I’m left-leaning myself but find this line of argument super-patronizing…but I’ve never noticed the underlying assumption that people should be voting for their own economic self-interests.

    1. I agree, Jennifer! This has bothered me for quite a while and I’m glad Simcha is writing about it. Remember that book, “What’s the Matter with Kansas?”? I assumed the title was tongue-in-cheek or sarcastic, that the author didn’t really believe that there was something “wrong” with the voters there, and as a left-leaning person from the east coast I bought the book in order to gain insight into the perspective of right-leaning people in middle America. But the author made it clear he thought people in Kansas really did vote the “wrong” way, primarily because it would allegedly benefit them personally from a financial perspective to vote Democrat, and his “answer” to the question he posed based upon this fundamentally flawed premise was, in a nutshell, “pro-life people are dumb and they are being duped.” There are other problems with the book (the specific people receiving the most federal aid are usually not the same people voting red (Kansans are not a monolith!)), but the arrogance and condescension bothered me the most.

  3. Simcha, I admire this call for voting against our own self-interest. I have done this most recently in supporting a school tax increase. We absolutely need more of this for each of us to be better citizens, and to have a more flourishing nation.

    There is one piece of your argument I don’t quite follow. You want to relativize self-interest as a reason to vote. But why does the Constitution get to matter more than your right to health care? I totally get calling people to put their own self-interest second to the common good, or the dignity of human life. But the Constitution is a human document, it’s been amended a bunch, and it’s constantly being reinterpreted. If “self-interest” here is defined as “your interest in not dying early or bankrupting your family,” I’m OK with the Constitution mattering less than that.

  4. Simcha, you’re not crazy; or if you are, I’m crazy with you! I, too, believe that it is a “quintessentially American thing that we care[d] about what was right, even if it wasn’t personally good for us.”.
    In fact, I believe that that is how everyone should vote: not primarily for what will benefit merely themselves, but primarily for what will benefit the common good, and is based on truth. This is part of why I believe that education is important: because we are tasked with voting on leaders and issues affecting the society around us, and need to be knowledgeable about what the common good is and requires.
    If I may, I’d like to say a word to those of you who did not vote for Trump because of his boorishness, lack of professionalism, and character faults (which I have no problem saying that he has) : I realize that it would be ideal for us to have leaders whose character is heroic, respectable, and virtuous. However, when the issue at hand is electing our country’s president, shouldn’t the question be “who would do a better job at promoting the common good, greater justice, and freedom for more people?”, rather than “whose personality is more genteel?” ? I wish Mr Trump had acted more professionally and respectfully these past four years. But what he did do was to promote a lot of freedom, goodness, and justice for an awful lot of people in our country and abroad, and he seemed intent on continuing that. I did not vote for him because of his personal manner, but because of many of his policies and accomplishments, and because his policies affect our country far more than his personal manner does.

    1. I did vote for Trump despite many concerns that I continue to have about him. My concern isn’t just that he’s not genteel. Regardless of some good things he’s accomplished in terms of pro-life legislation and protecting religious freedom, I think he is, for the most part, an unkind person who showed a blatant disregard for life in the way he handled (or failed to handle) the pandemic. I think the good things he did were for the purpose of getting votes, not because he really cared. If I hadn’t sent in my absentee ballot before he started hosting superspreader events and downplaying the virus after he recovered from it, I would have been very tempted to vote for Biden.

      1. Yeah, the only people I know who mention his boorishness and bad manners are people looking for a reason to defend him. Those like me, who could never ever vote for him, have much graver reasons. His presidency has been an almost unmitigated policy (or lack of policy) disaster, and the few useful things he’s done can be easily and instantly undone. The harm he’s done and continues to do will be much harder to undo.

        1. Simcha, thank you for your reply. I wish I could go to coffee with you and hear you expand on the summary you gave. I don’t understand why you think that, but I wish I could have the chance to hear/learn what-all led you to your conclusion. I think I will get the chance to have a conversation like that with my cousin — who of course isn’t you, but also voted for Biden.

  5. I do think America has an empathy problem, which would lead to most voting in their own interest and never giving it a second thought. For example, I’m convinced nothing will ever be done about our sky high gun death rate until every person in our country has personally lost someone due to gun violence. Until it personally effects someone, they find it unthinkable to give up a perceived “right.” At the rate we are going, that actually won’t be that far in the future.

    I’ve been voting against my self interest for years when it comes to economics and other various conservative principles but I also stand by the idea that when things are more fair for society as a whole, everyone benefits, including me. So maybe I do vote in my own self interest after all.

  6. There are aspects of the ACA that do seem downright unAmerican to me – mainly the individual mandate and forcing employers to provide coverage which goes against their consciences and religious beliefs. I’m no supreme court expert, but from the questions being asked, it does seem that the justices are more inclined to strike down portions of the law and keep the rest of it. Not familiar enough with the whole of Obamacare to know what other things strict constitutionalist judges would be inclined to strike down, if anything.

  7. It is interesting to me, that, as the American Civil War was possible because of States’ Rights, so the current mess seems related to the same. At least, the weird uncertainty about the election is connected to the fact that it is actually the states that elect the US President, not directly the people – and, if I understand why the Affordable Care Act might be considered unconstitutional – that is, again, because of the contest of powers between the federal centre and the individual states.

    Dunno – I suppose the distribution of governmental power like this is supposed to be a guard against central tyranny – is that right? – but it also militates against unity, doesn’t it?

    God bless America – and keep her from disaster!

  8. I totally agree Simcha. If I had based my vote on my own self-interests, it would have been for Biden. First of all, I think he would have done a much better job handling the pandemic than Trump has (anyone would!). It is in my own best interest for this pandemic to be better managed and resolved. Secondly, my husband (our home’s primary breadwinner) works for New York State, and New York State is broke right now because Trump left us to fry after we got hammered with Covid in March. Biden would be more likely to help get some federal relief for NY, which in turn would mean better job security for my husband (protecting him from layoffs due to the state being broke). However, I decided to prioritize abortion over my own self-interest, so I voted for Trump. It was not fun, by the way. (And I know it’s very debatable as to whether Trump has actually helped the pro-life movement; he has certainly passed some good pro-life legislation and appointed at least one Supreme Court justice who is genuinely pro-life, but I know he has also reduced credibility to the movement by associating it with him and his narcissistic, uncharitable attitude. So believe me it was with great reluctance that I voted for him. I’m concerned about Biden’s impact on abortion legislation and religious freedom, but otherwise I am not sorry that Trump lost.)

    1. I can respect that. As you know, I disagree that Trump’s actions will prove to be a net win for the unborn, but I’m gratified to see pro-lifers voting with reluctance for him. What I can’t square is the people who’ve convinced themselves to be happy about that vote.

      1. I was on the fence myself about whether he would yield a net-win for the unborn, and I completely agree about the people who are so eager to vote for him. The defense of his every move is repugnant to me. If my son spoke the way he speaks, I would be a failure as a mother. And no woman would ever get away with speaking the way he does.

        1. People who voted for Trump for the sake of the unborn but find his other policies repugnant ought to, for the sake of everyone hurt by those policies, hound him till hell won’t have with regard to said repugnant policies! This is what the bulk of the prolife movement failed to do.

          1. I agree Suzanne. The pro-life movement was way too quick to overlook not just his flawed policies, but his repugnant character as well. The worst part was when so many pro-life leaders started buying into his pandemic rhetoric. I finally unfollowed Abby Johnson when she shared a conspiracy-theory article about the pandemic. He has blood on his hands regarding the pandemic as far as I’m concerned, and it’s bad enough when his supporters downplay it, but then to say that the whole thing is a hoax and a conspiracy? I have no tolerance. It’s hypocritical from a pro-life perspective.

    2. I can respect that argument. I weighed all of the same factors and came down on the other side. With these two candidates, we ultimately had to give our vote someone who is seriously flawed. What we don’t have to do is give that candidate our unquestioning fealty. If my guy wins, I need to be ready fight him on all of the things he does that are awful. If the other guy wins, I need to be ready to back him up on anything he does that advances the common good.

      1. I feel the same way AM. We had two really bad choices, and my vote was for the lesser of two evils (although I was on the fence about which one that was). And I certainly would never treat either candidate as an idol whose every decision and view I would defend.

    3. Claire, I think you are wonderful. On my local Catholic mom Facebook page I argued just what you did here, that Trump would damage the pro-life movement by his behavior — without saying who I was voting for, just trying to explain why a pro-life Catholic might consider not voting for him — and I was told that merely making such an argument was specious and put me in danger of eternal damnation for contributing to the murder of millions of babies and leading my sisters in Christ into hell along with me, etc. I learned a lot about the block function this election cycle.

      1. Thank you Kimberley. I have experienced the exact same thing in my homeschool group (I’m a brand new homeschooler). Charitable dialogue becomes impossible when there is any perspective that seems to deviate at all from hardline Trump support. These same people also downplay the pandemic and think that masks are a form of control. These are otherwise a wonderful group of women who are faithful to Church teaching, so it’s shocking to see the vitriol that comes out of their mouths when it comes to politics. (For example: Democrats are Marxist baby killers.) I guess it comes from being so desperate to see abortion illegalized that they’re willing to cling to anyone who seems to promote that, without realizing that in addition to attacking it legally, we also need to convert hearts. And Trump is not going to do that. And neither is uncharitable dialogue. Don’t get me wrong, I want it to be illegal, and that (along with religious freedom) is why I reluctantly voted for Trump. But my vote was more of a vote against Biden, rather than an endorsement of Trump. I sent in my absentee ballot right after Trump signed the executive order for babies who survive abortions to receive medical care, and around the time that he nominated Amy Barrett. After I sent it in, he hosted several Covid superspreader events and then downplayed the virus after he recovered from it, and I started having buyer’s remorse. Honestly, in my opinion pro-lifers were between a rock and a hard place in this election, and I refuse to judge someone for how they voted as long as they were really trying their best to discern how best to protect life.

        1. I have had some modest success with the members of our Rosary group – making gentle remarks of the sort “Always worth thinking about …” the implications of this or that. You have to be non-pressing, refrain from getting into arguments, show charity.

          That said, I emphasise the word ‘modest’ 🙂 In New Zealand, of course, we don’t (thank God!) have Mr Trump; we do, however, have “Set The Cops” on them National vs “Try To Help Poor People” Labour. National makes noises about limiting abortion; Labour talks about decriminalising it entirely. The actual behaviour of both parties when they are in office has differed very little, the one from the other.

          It has been my impression over the years that, whilst in America, the Republicans talk differently from the Democrats about things like abortion – there seems to have been not much difference in practice.

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