Economic Preferences and Interests as a Tool for Voting Values

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People’s preferences can be broken down into left and right voting preferences. Dalton (2010) characterises a Leftist citizen as “supporting more extensive social services, a larger role of government in managing the economy, and policies to ensure the well-being of the working class.” While “the Right was synonymous with a smaller government, modest social programs, and the advocacy of middle-class economic interests.” These imply that preferences are set by two main factors, the conflict between Free Market and economic intervention and the contrast between social liberty versus authority of the state. This essay argues that it is the economic interests of voters that are the greatest determinant of voter preferences, and that while social liberty can be an important determinant of voter preferences, it is secondary in importance.

Dalton (2010) articulates the concept of voting on a Left-Right scale by his theory of social cleavages. He argues “contemporary issue voting often involves long-standing economic or religious cleavages.” Historically, if you are poorer you tend to vote liberal and interventionist, as it represents redistributive policy. If you are richer you are more likely to support conservatives and free-market policy interpretation due to it being less likely to requisition your assets. It is clear from both supporting stances that people try to maximise their economic interests. Less affluent voters seeking higher taxation become less liable to taxation after implementation as the burden of tax falls more heavily on the rich. Thus, they stand to gain more from redistribution. Richer voters are more likely to want to preserve their assets and so would vote for economic policy involving lower taxation and less costly interventionist policies. Therefore, Dalton’s description of a class cleavage based on economic interests is accurate in determining voter preferences.

Dalton (2010) and Benoit et al. (2006) both argue contemporary issues such as environmentalism, gender equality, multiculturalism and immigration have entered the political agenda, suggesting a move from the cleavage-based system to cater for more socialist policies. However, these issues do occasionally tend to have underlying links to people’s economic interests. Environmentalism is often avoided because of high economic costs, while the gender equality debate is synonymous with the pay gap between genders. Furthermore, as argued by Golder (2003), immigration, when coupled with economic downturn can lead to right-wing populist voting characterised by people fearing its effects on unemployment and wage rates. The rise of the populism, even in affluent countries such as the US and the UK, has challenged contemporary policies on immigration and environmentalism. It is more convincing that people vote in line with their economic interests, given populisms’ ability to harness support based on controversial economic tensions surrounding job security and immigration. Its success shows first-hand how economic interests can successfully be harnessed to alter people’s voting preferences, in significant numbers. Therefore, these contemporary issues are actually somewhat dependent on economic interests.

According to Ronald Inglehart (2008), these welfare issues only become relevant to people when there is a “broader cultural shift from survival values to self-expression values.” He described this as a shift among younger members of society from a materialism associated with “economic and physical security” and Post-materialism associated with “personal autonomy and self-expression” characterised by increased socialist policies. However, in this case, economic interests are still a pre-requisite for people taking an interest in their own or others economic welfare. If these economic interests were to be threatened as per the case of right wing populism, we see a reversal of this trend as people are less likely to be ancillary towards socialist policy.

There are examples of voters acting in line with economic interests in the US, Andrew Gelman’s (2008) book studying 2004 US election data argues “In poor states, rich people are much more likely than poor people to vote for the Republican presidential candidate, but in rich states, income has a very low correlation with vote preference.” The book uses the example of Mississippi as a poor state, which theoretically should vote Democrat, however, Gelman’s data displays a correlation between increasing incomes and increasing votes for the Republicans. Gelman’s argument that these voters with increasing wealth are voting in their economic interests focuses on the richest members of poorer states, however, and doesn’t represent the entirety of the American population. Given the Correlation of the rich state Connecticut between increasing wages and voting Republican is weak, and arguably slightly negative, it is therefore not a strong argument in favour of economic interests as the greatest determinant of voter preferences. Gelman’s arguments broadly collate with that of Inglehart’s in that those voters in richer states tend to vote Democrat against their economic interests, however Inglehart’s views don’t seem to hold in poorer states, where increasing wealth still leads to Republican voting. If Ingleharts’ theories do not hold in America, arguably one of the most advanced Western Democracies, it is difficult to see them holding across less democratic countries globally who are less likely to have witnessed his argued “broader cultural shift from survival values to self-expression values.”

Rob Ford argues that the party we support or identify with can influence our preferences. He displays that the approval ratings for the 10 Downing Street cat are determined by which Party is in office and whom you support. Labour supporters tended to show less approval for the cat when Thatcher was in power and likewise Conservative supporters tended to show less approval when Blair was in power. However, Ford’s data does not represent voters’ views on policy. While Partisan ties may affect views surrounding the cat, people may not necessarily choose to continue to identify with a party that begins to change its policies. This is more difficult to quantify as it is difficult to observe whether people are voting the way they do based on a lack of political knowledge and partisan ties, or if they vote based on genuine belief in policy. Ford’s data is therefore informative, but not decisive in refuting economic interest as the primary determinant of voting behaviour.

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There is not a perfect correlation between partisan ties and how voters set their preferences. Dalton argues that our political preferences tend to change as we get older, ageing comes with a tendency to vote more liberally, while older voters tended to vote more conservatively, suggesting that these political preferences are not set, as they are susceptible to change. The weakening of partisan ties has contributed to this; however, economic interests also play a key role here. Young people have their highest earning years in front of them, the burden of taxation falls less on them A their average salaries are lower, meaning they are more likely to identify with the higher taxation and greater interventionism of liberal parties. As you get older you become more conservative, self-preservation may becomes prevalent over welfare extension as have to financially prepare for retirement. In this case, while Fords’ finding can show how contemporary partisan preferences can alter views on issues in the short term, these views are not fixed in the long run and are liable to change when factoring in the economic interests of voters.

Grasso argues that while “normally we would expect younger generations to be more leftist and liberal than older generations” she theorizes that “‘Thatcher’s Children’ may be less Thatcherite than ‘Blair’s Babies’, as Thatcherite values became entrenched across society.” The conservatives’ electoral success over an 18 year period spanning 1979-1997 arguably meant that the conservative values of Thatcher’s period in office became ingrained into members of society. This led people to intuitively accept more conservative values as they became more associated with economic and political prosperity at the time, which is reflected in the need for Labour to realign itself to a more centrist position on the left-right spectrum in the 1997 election in order to compete. The political preferences of these young adults therefore appear to be set based upon the success of policies they are exposed to in their youth rather than their economic interests.

However, it could be argued that this ‘Thatcherism’ could be merely down to economic interests. The Labour party would undoubtedly see the electoral success of the conservative party and associate the conservative values of the time, and their greater appeal to voters, as conducive to their success. This could lead voters to perceive economic stability as directly resultant of conservative policy and therefore necessitates labour incorporating these policies into their manifestos. The general acceptance in the UK of Thatcherism among voters displays its’ possible association with economic stability, especially after the economic crisis of the 1970’s. The party manifestos arguably merely realigned themselves with voter preferences in cementing these values as the new norm of British politics. It was in voters best economic interests to vote for the party and policies that lead to greatest economic stability.

Nattavudh and Oswald argue that parents with daughters tend to vote more liberally and corroborate their argument with that of Warner and Steel (1999), who argued “child rearing might provide a mechanism for social change whereby fathers’ connection with their daughters undermines … patriarchy”. Both parties suggest that having a daughter can represent parents voting against their own economic interests because they care positively about the welfare of their daughters and recognise that voting liberally can help to stem the perceived gender equality gap, or general inequality of opportunity. However, while it cannot be considered in this case that parents vote with their own economic interests at heart, they arguably vote based on economic interest in their succession, even if it is their daughters’ economic interests they are basing their vote upon.

We have seen that in the western democracies of the US and the UK economic interests play a key role in determining voter preferences, however Dalton and Downs suggest alternatives to economic interests as determinants of voter preferences in less developed countries. Dalton argues “traditional class and economic issues are more strongly related to left-right preferences in western democracies, while religious values, national identity, or democratic orientations display stronger correlations in Latin America and East Asia.” These countries outside of western democracies have arguably seen a less comprehensive decline of the religious cleavage, which has repressed their ability to vote based on their economic interests. Downs furthers this argument by suggesting that “elements of the political context do have a significant influence in defining the framework for electoral choice.” He argues the polarisation of political parties is important in determining left-right voting, as it represents the depth of choice voters have in elections. The religious cleavage arguably suppresses this polarisation in these less developed economies, while its decline would theoretically lead to a similar effect as has been seen in western democracies. However, it is impossible to ignore the evidence that there is less voting based on economic interests outside of western democracies.

Broadly speaking preferences can usually be summarised into a two-dimensional space, the idea of economic intervention versus free market, and the idea of social liberty versus government authority. Although voting based primarily on economic interests is on the decline in western democracies, as class lines become less defined, it is still the primary determinant of voter preferences in more developed western economies. Voter preferences can still largely be implicitly linked with economic interests, such as the tendency for young people to vote more libertarian possibly being linked to them being less directly susceptible to taxation, or more likely to benefit from social policy given their greater future longevity in the political system. Parents, meanwhile would surely hold some economic interest in maintaining the class status of their succession. Furthermore, while Inglehart argues declining voting based on economic interests can be explained by post materialism and its significant shift from economic interests to social libertarian interests, the fact remains that economic interests being fulfilled are a pre-requisite for people beginning to take more interests in their or others’ social welfare, as displayed by the rise of the populist right in times of economic uncertainty. Therefore, while recent literature has observed a shift from voting based on religious and class-cleavages, this doesn’t change economic interests’ position as the greatest determinant of voting preferences in an electoral system; its position in determining voting positions is still tangibly strong, if diminished.

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