Mark D. White
In the December issue of The New York Review of Books, Ronald Dworkin discusses (alongside Mark Lilla, David Bromwich, and Jonathan Raban) the recent midterm elections in the U.S. that saw the Republican party reclaim the House of Representatives and shrink the Democratic Party's majority in the Senate. (The piece appeared earlier this month on the NYRBlog.) While I won't get into the politics of his essay, I want to address his introductory comments (emphasis mine), reminiscient in spirit of Thomas Frank's book What's the Matter with Kansas?:
The results of Tuesday’s election are savagely depressing, wholly expected, yet deeply puzzling. Why do so many Americans insist on voting against their own best interests? Why do they shout hatred for a health care plan that gives them better protection against calamity than they have ever had? Or stimulus spending that has prevented a bad economic climate from being much worse for them? Or tax proposals that lower their own taxes by raising taxes on people much richer than they will ever be? Why do they vote in such numbers for the party favored by the bankers and traders who brought on the economic catastrophe?
Putting aside the validity of Dworkin's assertions regarding the past and future effects of the policies of the previous two years, I'll answer the bolded question with a question (or two) of my own: Why do so many intellectuals assume to know what voters' best interests are? Why not, instead, give voters the benefit of the doubt and understand their electoral choices as reflecting their actual interests, which may in fact be more complex, subtle, and nuanced than the ones assumed for them?
Readers of my previous posts and published work on "libertarian paternalism" may recognize a familiar thread in this, as the idea of "nudges" similarly reflects a disregard for the actual interests of persons and substitutes outsiders' own judgments for them. But furthermore, entire classes of interests are often summarily dismissed--namely, noneconomic ones.
For instance, in the above passage Dworkin only mentions economic factors that he feels "should have" led voters to choose Democratic candidates over Republican ones. But even if voters agreed with the Deomcratic candidates (or party) on economic issues, they may have disagreed with them on the war in Afghanistan, same-sex marriage, abortion, gun control, or any number of issues that don't directly impact their pocketbooks, but which may nonetheless be of great importance to them.
Does Dworkin really want to look down on voters because they didn't hue to what (he assumes) to be in their narrow, economic self-interest? Is that what he (and similarly-minded people) would actually rather have voters do? Of course, many voters presumably disagreed that the policies of the last two years are actually in their economic interests, and arguments along those lines will continue into perpetuity, with reasonable people on both sides. But more broadly, I'd like to think that not all voters make their choices at the ballot box purely according to the effects of policies on their personal finances, and that some are willing to sacrifice some financial well-being to support policies that (whether I agree with them or not) they think are right for the country.