I’ve often heard and seen it said that many people who vote for conservative or right-wing politicians or policies are “voting against their own interests.”  In other words, they’re voting directly or indirectly for policies that will cut services that they (might) use, reduce support for programs or institutions that benefit them, or benefit corporations or other institutions that harm them.

I’m somewhat less interested in whether this is true than I am in whether it’s even the right way to think about things. Depending on how we understand “their own interests,” it may or may not be. Consequently, we should be very careful about making this claim. None of what follows is especially novel, but it is worth repeated emphasis.

If we think of interests narrowly, in individualistic terms, then voting against your interests means voting in a way that makes things go worse for you personally. It means voting against your self-interest. For that to be problematic, we have to view democracy in a certain way, as a mechanism for aggregating the interests of individuals and then generating policies based on the interests of the majority. This is certainly one way to think about democracy: as a way of adjudicating between competing interests so that the greatest number of people end up satisfied.

That’s basically the liberal conception of majoritarian democracy. The fundamental problem of politics is to protect individuals from each other and ensure that each of them has maximal latitude to pursue their ends without interference from others. But that’s not the only way, nor the best way, way to think about politics and democracy.

Another democratic tradition finds its way to us through Jean-Jacques Rousseau. It directs us to look not to the narrowly construed interests of individuals but to the interests of the community as a whole. On this view, democracy is not about adjudicating between my interests and yours, but about us coming together with all affected by the decision in order to determine, as a collective body, what is in our interests.

That conception of democracy, which is based on a sense of community and solidarity, is the better one.

People sometimes should vote against their narrowly construed self-interest—not prudentially speaking, but morally speaking. It’s prudent, arguably, for hedge fund manager to vote in such a way that serves his own financial interests. But policies that favor his interests are likely to undermine our sense of community, solidarity, and moral equality. What’s good for the hedge fund manager comes at the expense of others, and of the political community as a whole.

Democracy, understood as a process in which we come together to hear and be heard, and to come to decisions that we all can live with, requires us to think beyond what’s good for ourselves and to consider what’s good for all of us. I don’t have children, for example, but nevertheless I ought to support public funding for schools and robust parental leave policies. I ought to support these measures because I’m a member of a community the health of which is sustained by bonds of solidarity. We can, and usually do, exist alongside each other as competitors and antagonists, but it’s not a good way to live.

This conception of democracy based on solidarity also requires us to ensure that all who want to participate are able to do so on equal terms, which brings us back to the question of how “interests” should be construed. I think that people do often vote against their own self-interest, but as I’ve said, I don’t think that that’s always a problem. When we widen our focus to consider structural inequalities, however, we can see that we should often vote based on “our” interests, and vote against what is in the self-interest of other members of the community.

Members of the working class, for example, have interests based on class membership; their interests are set against the interests of capitalists. Furthermore, class-based power disparities preclude our coming together as moral equals to make decisions that affect us all. (So too do power disparities based on social categories like gender, race, (dis)ability, age, etc.) When a voter votes against her class interests, she not only votes for policies that make her worse off as an individual, she votes for policies that sustain the systemic subordination of her and everyone similarly situated.

Incidentally, this sort of class-conscious voting was what the Founding Fathers of the United States feared when they wrote about the “tyranny of the majority.” They were afraid that the masses might vote to redistribute the property of the rich to ensure their own political equality and material well-being. To foreclose these consequences of popular rule, the framers quite intentionally created an anti-democratic system of governance–a system that would avoid what John Adams called “the horrors of democracy.” It’s a system that embodies James Madison’s belief that the government “ought to be so constituted as to protect the minority of the opulent against the majority.”

So to sum up, we need to give serious thought to what we mean when we say that people vote against their interests, and doing so requires us to reflect on our understanding of democracy and its value.

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