Fido at the Food Dish

June 21, 2012

“k1f” Kirby Farrell

What we can’t think about:  People vote against their self-interest especially when nobody challenges them

Why do working people vote against their own self-interest?  The question could hardly be more important. In The Guardian ( June 5th ), social psychologist Jonathan Haidt argued that:

In sum, the left has a tendency to place caring for the weak, sick and vulnerable above all other moral concerns. It is admirable and necessary that some political party stands up for victims of injustice, racism or bad luck. But in focusing so much on the needy, the left often fails to address – and sometimes violates – other moral needs, hopes and concerns.”

Hold it.  “The left” isn’t just whining about the needy.  The left is howling because the injustice is systematically poisoning the lives of the 99% of Americans whose living standards are in trouble.  But let the professor go on:

“When working-class people vote conservative, as most do in the US, they are not voting against their self-interest; they are voting for their moral interest. They are voting for the party that serves to them a more satisfying moral cuisine.”

Note the metaphor: morals are a matter of taste.  This sounds trivial or absurd, but he insists on it:

“Loyalty, respect for authority and some degree of sanctification create a more binding social order that places some limits on individualism and egoism. As marriage rates plummet, and globalization and rising diversity erodes the sense of common heritage within each nation, a lot of voters in many western nations find themselves hungering for conservative moral cuisine.”

Now “taste” is a matter of “hungering for conservative moral cuisine.” Usually “cuisine” is artful food, where hunger is the body’s cry for nourishment without which you die.

The problem is that this is feel-good rhetoric.  Laughing gas.  You’d never guess that real hunger means that the number of people needing food stamps has nearly tripled.  In the last 11 years, the number of people living in poverty has risen by a third, from 33 million to 44 million.

Why should “marriage rates” and globalization be more moral than the suffering and damage caused by real hunger or injustice?

Despite being in the wake of a financial crisis that . . . should have buried the cultural issues and pulled most voters to the left, we are finding in America and many European nations a stronger shift to the right. When people fear the collapse of their society, they want order and national greatness, not a more nurturing government.”

Wait.  This is a quicksand of confusion.  The “financial crisis” may be agonizing, but the left wants “nurturing government” as a remedy.  But this isn’t enough for conservatives, who want “national greatness” instead because society may be “collapsing.”  Whew.  Where to begin.

Why shouldn’t conservatives fear the finance and consumer rot causing the financial crisis?  Arguably that’s more fatal than the shine coming off “national greatness.”  One answer is that corporate propaganda is smothering the nation, distracting people 24/7 from real hunger and pain. After all, the financial crisis has destroyed families–their livelihood, their homes, their education, their future.  Why shouldn’t “nurture” be a quality of “greatness”?  If nurture’s not enough, how about policing the executive crooks who’ve been running amok?  In fact, since the crisis has been poisoning people’s belief in their government, their neighbors, and their nation–and paid off egoistic rich predators–why shouldn’t policing the perpetrators and their propaganda be morally imperative?

For that matter, what is “national greatness” anyway? Isn’t it a form of self-congratulation and unearned superiority over other people?  How could it possibly be measured?  Isn’t “greatness” the crowd-sized version of “egoism”?

Could “greatness” be the ability to spend trillions of dollars invading third-world countries while fighting to eliminate food stamps for the poor at home?  Wouldn’t that be disloyalty, disrespect, and evil?

Is politics only about what working class people want?  Aren’t we hearing a lot of anger from conservatives, especially from men?  And directed at women and blacks and immigrants?  This sounds like rage pumping up self-righteous ego.  Help me out with the “morality” here.  Why do working folks get enraged at people treated even more shabbily than they are?  Is it national greatness they want?  If the right protects the predatory rich and flogs the poor, why vote for them?

One answer is to watch the usually affectionate Fido at the food dish.  He snarls at any dog who comes near their food dish– except of course for bigger and fiercer dogs.  They get a pass.  They’ll tear your throat out. They’ll fire you, outlaw your labor union, send you to invade a third-world country and try out luxury high-tech weapons.  Oh, and kill your pension.

You can understand the snarling.  We’re built to associate scarce food with skinny, shrunken bodies and death.  It’s a reason to feel fat and happy with supersized “national greatness.”   Feed me.  Feed me.  But do tell me I’m feeding myself, please.

Well, Professor Haidt works in NYU’s Stern business school.  You could be excused for wondering if business schools find “national greatness” more tasty to contemplate than financial crisis and the predatory rich.

But the man is onto something in wondering about working class fears of the nation’s collapse.  Only he euphemizes it. “Collapse” isn’t cuisine.  Collapse is fear of death and social death.  Collapse is fear of pain and helplessness.  These are understandable fears for financially stressed and cheated working folks. They have an incentive to talk about phony “cuisine” morals because nobody in politics will address their real fears and the practical, problem-solving steps necessary to manage them.

What would help? Meaningful work.  Fair pay for work, for men and women.  Affordable housing.  Add your Santa list here.  Really what’s needed is self-esteem and realistic self-confidence–not easy to find on a planet with 7 billion highstrung bipeds.

More realistic education would help.  Most education is as much cheerleading as it is critical awareness.  Think of the “conservatives” who rant against “big government handouts” while blindly relying on Medicare, unemployment insurance, or social, security.  This is self-deception fattened up for slaughter on a diet of broadcast lies.  It’s a delusion to crave “national greatness” — the snake oil of the bigshot and the Nuremburg rally.  Enough pulpit palaver about the cosmic bigshot.

If you want morals, how about emphasizing that modern nations are fabulously intricate systems, and that people we need to work together and to look out for one another in order to be healthy. Behind conservative moral “cuisine” is a different metaphor: triage.  Get rid of that other dog sniffing at “your” food dish.

Hard for the animals to work together or even eat when your throat is busy growling.


  1. That really is a brilliant post Kirby. There is loads of crap like Haidt in the UK corporate media, “social psychologist” my arsehole, that guy is pre-Freudian.

  2. Thanks, Kirby. I read Haidt’s book on happiness a while back, and liked it, so this is disappointing. No politicians talk about the poor now (except poor John Edwards?!). And the media are only a small cut above video games.

  3. So, why do people vote against their interests?

  4. People don’t vote against their own interests. It only “seems” like they do because you have a poor, or incomplete understanding of just “what” their “IMPORTANT” interests are.
    I live in the South where practically every outright racist I know is a member of the Tea Party. Now, they didn’t join because of economic or political reasons. They joined because it represented, at least locally, their “tribe” and their “tribe” cannot tolerate the idea of a Black President. Racism, for many, is seen as their primary “interest”…… not economics.

  5. I think you do a nice job here in illustrating a culture of denial. One more thing we could use is better use of the bully pulpit by our supposedly progressive leader. He needs a weekend retreat with Cornel West.

  6. In other words, people vote the short term and the emotional, and even that is often based on a poor understanding, following the lead of their tribe. That is their interest, unfortunately. It is sad that most people who do this, act like sheep, & do it with a great deal of pride. It does fit Ernest Becker’s observations.

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