Amid the economic gloom, it is taken as a given that the state of the economy will surpass all other priorities at the ballot box. But as the American election demonstrates, the relationship between a person’s economic position and their voting preferences is not nearly that straightforward.
The principle of representation is at the heart of the type of democracy which we in the UK share with the United States. In theory, it’s meant to prevent elites from acquiring and maintaining power: it ensures that the legislature mirrors the nation’s constituents.
In practice, however, it doesn’t always work that way. It’s not unusual for people to vote for candidates who are quite unlike themselves, but who they think will represent their interests. I doubt that many people who elect the current Conservative Party front bench would aspire to join their clubs or their social circle. At other times, we vote – in good faith – for candidates who subsequently let us down. When small shopkeepers voted for Margaret Thatcher in their droves, they probably didn’t expect her to unleash a wave of deregulation that would culminate in one of the most concentrated business sectors in the world.
But nowhere has the link between class and voting preferences been as successfully eroded as in the US. The unholy alliance between economic neoliberals and social conservatives means that people will regularly vote against their own material interests for cultural, religious and patriotic reasons. So while 63% of voters said that the economy was their top concern this did not necessarily translate into a vote for the person, or party most likely to represent their economic interests.
Democracy is problematic for elites when 60% of the electorate earn less than $70,000. It’s not that the relationship between income and voter preference is inverse, the very rich also veer towards the Republican Party. It was only amongst minorities – where race played a greater role – that this asymmetry was turned on its head
As well as capturing the language of human dignity and freedom, the right claim a monopoly on morality and national pride however narrowly defined. Hence, guns, God and abortion trumped jobs, insurance and a mortgage even during a month in which another quarter of a million swelled the ranks of the unemployed. This is fiendishly clever because it undermines the saleability of a more equitable system to the very people it should benefit thereby shifting the goalposts further rightward. Whether Obama’s consensus approach can reach those that reject their own economic representation remains to be seen.