Blue States Make, Red States Take
We’ve all heard it: “Dress for the job you want, not the one you have.” I often wonder if the same logic applies to electoral politics. Though conflating “the political” with “the sartorial” isn’t at all my intention, I cannot help but believe that we vote for the lives we want, not the ones we have. Politics, broadly understood, helps to bridge the chasm between the immediate and the aspirational, to negotiate the oscillation of our material needs and our magical desires. To this end, I think there is sufficient evidence to argue that politics is what we do when metaphysics fails, what we do when transhistorical categories of supposed universality become unlaced.
So what exactly constitutes the ground for our political calculus? And what happens when voting for our future aspirations negates our current needs?
Traditional scholars in the field of political science often suggest that our unobstructed self interest (premised on rational choice theory) tends to produce policy preferences and electoral outcomes largely reflective of our material interests. Regrettably, however, according to a 2007 report published by the Tax Foundation entitled “Federal Spending Received Per Dollar Paid by State,” U.S. states that rely most heavily on federal subsidies for public programs routinely elect politicians who are determined to excoriate such funding sources. The articulation of policy preferences and, indeed, the creation and maintenance of a deeply democratic society are co-premised on free and equal access to reliable information, but even a cursory exegesis of the Tax Foundation data compels one to conclude that the particular states most dependent on aid from the federal government are the very same states whose residents voted overwhelmingly for John McCain in 2008. How could this be?
According to the data, only 10 “blue states” were net recipients of federal subsidies, as opposed to 22 “red states.” Only three “red states,”—Texas, Florida, and Nevada—were net payers of federal taxes, as opposed to 14 “blue states.” And only one “blue state,”—Rhode Island—paid as much as it was remitted. In 2008, eight of the top ten net recipient states voted for John McCain over Barack Obama by an average margin of 10.2 percentage points. Please see below:
Federal Spending Received Per Dollar of Taxes Paid by State / 2008 Presidential Election Margin by State
1) New Mexico: $2.03. / Obama +15
2) Mississippi: $2.02 / McCain +13
3) Alaska: $1.84 / McCain +22
4) Louisiana: $1.78 / McCain +19
5) West Virginia: $1.76 / McCain +13
6) North Dakota: $1.68 / McCain +8
7) Alabama: $1.66 / McCain +21
8) South Dakota: $1.53 / McCain +8
9) Kentucky: $1.51 / McCain +16
10) Virginia: $1.51 / Obama +7
A democracy presupposes an informed citizenry. The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution mandates the right of all persons to free expression and a corollary guarantee to receive the constitutionally protected expression of others. Such lofty rhetoric is inescapably troubled by the role of ideology. Why would voters in red states elect lawmakers who promise them small government when they benefit disproportionately from federal dollars? And why would voters in blue states elect lawmakers who support policies that redistribute their income to red states?
Aristotle once referred to ideology as “those beautiful lies.” Although not far from untrue, the role of ideology today is a bit more nuanced and multidimensional. According to Jeannie Oakes, a scholar of education policy at UCLA, ideology refers to the ways in which culturally based meanings serve, in particular circumstances, to establish and sustain relations of power that are systematically asymmetrical. Thus, ideology, broadly speaking, is cultural meaning in service of power. That is, insofar as ruling ideas are internalized by the majority of people and become a defining motif of everyday life, they appear as common sense- that is, as the traditional popular conception of the world. Common sense notions, for example, of small government as a social panacea reflected in Ronald Reagan’s linguistic detritus that “government is not the solution to our problems, government is our problem!” is necessary to explain the contradiction between our country’s espoused ideology of equality and meritocracy and the reality of extreme iniquities.
Further, in culturally diverse societies like the U.S., meanings and ideologies that tend to dominate are those that have been constructed by actors with the most power within the social structure. Therefore, the ideology of “small government” becomes enlisted to make the particular cultural capital of the white and wealthy seem not only more valuable than others. Dominant ideologies provide a coherent and systemic world view which not only influences the mass of the population but serves as a principle for organizing social institutions orthogonal to the interests of those whose voices are most systematically silenced. If politics pluralizes our atomized interiorities, then we must insist upon those that can balance the exigencies of our needs with the satisfactions of our dreams. Let us vote for the lives we have, but organize for those we want.