Usually people do not pay attention when academics talk. Well, students in our classes may pay attention, but I wonder if even that is true. We go to conferences to discuss the latest theories, innovative methodologies and/or new data sources. I enjoy that interaction and the new information but know that most working in the social sciences do not care. I cannot blame them. I once went to a dissertation recital for a graduate music student. When she talked about the social history of the composer, I found it interesting. After all, I am a sociologist. But then she talked technically about the measures used in his approach. I am not an academic in a music field. At that point, I wanted to fall asleep. Academic jargon is usually only useful for other academics in that particular field. That is a major reason why the general public usually ignores our discussions with each other.
But then comes Jonathan Gruber who reminds us that perhaps at times it is good for us that the general public usually ignores scholarly talks. The first comment I heard was at a panel discussion at the University of Pennsylvania when he talked about how the stupidity of the American voter helped ensure passage of the Affordable Care Act (ACA). He went on to say that while it was regrettable that the law was written in a “tortured” way that he preferred a confused type of writing versus not having the law. Of course such statements have fed into a nationwide criticism of Gruber. Some of his other statements have come out to feed into this criticism, but these few statements are enough to allow me to speculate about the dynamics behind Gruber’s attitude.
I am not interested in arguing about the ACA. Like most educated individuals, I have an opinion about it but do not think that my research provides me with any special insight into that particular political issue. But my research does provide insight into the type of perspective exhibited by Gruber. It is similar to some of the attitudes I found in my research of cultural progressive activists. I do not know if Gruber is a cultural progressive, although there is at least some writings of his that seem supportive of abortion. But his support of ACA definitely puts him on the side of progressives on certain political issues.
His statement about the stupidity of voters and affirmation that he wanted the ACA even if he had to fool those voters reminded me of a certain set of comments I read from my cultural progressive respondents as they described individuals in the Christian right. Here are a few of those comments.
Bafflement that they can mobilize millions of adults to vote against their economic interests.
The most negative thing, out of many negative things I could say is that they get people to vote against their own self-interests. An example of this is getting poor evangelicals to vote republican when the party does nothing to help the poor. Or opposing universal health care which would be in their interest.
… the Republican Party uses religion (esp. Christianity) to control people and fool them into voting against their best interests.
As can be seen in the comments, my respondents do not believe that conservative Christians, or perhaps conservatives in general, know what is best for them. This was not a rare sentiment among the respondents. It is a sentiment that comports with their belief that conservative Christians are irrational and ignorant. Such stereotypes help explain to my respondents why people would vote for policies they see as unacceptable.
This indicates an attitude among cultural progressive activists that they know better what is good for others than those people know themselves. I am not sure if this sentiment is relatively unique to progressives or if it is an attitude that activists in general tend to have. I tend to believe the latter as such attitudes can be quite useful in justifying activism. One can legitimate activism as not only good for oneself but as beneficial for others. But since I only studied cultural progressive activists, I cannot rule out the possibility that conservative activists somehow escape having this type of paternalistic attitude.
The similarities of my respondents’ comments to Gruber’s comments caught my attention. Like my respondents, Gruber assumes that he knows what is best for others and is so convinced that he is right that writing the ACA in a misleading, or tortured, way is acceptable. The comment about the stupidity of the American voter supports the notion that he is willing to fool voters because he does not think that they know what is best for them. He does not trust the voters to make the right policy decisions for themselves. He would rather not deceive voters but to him having the policy is so important that he does not have to respect their opinions. This is very similar to the attitude of my respondents who believe that Christians vote against their own personal interest. Some of them argued that the reasons why such individuals vote against their own political interest is their ignorance and stupidity. These are some of the same reasons given by my respondents for why such individuals should not have a voice in the public square. It remains to be seen if they are as willing to act upon their beliefs as Gruber.
It strikes me as wrong, and fairly arrogant, to assume that we know more about what is best for other people than they do themselves. Christians have been accused, sometimes fairly, for presuming that they know what is best for others. To be clear, it is perfectly fair to make a case for one’s social, political and/or religious philosophy. I know that I do. Trying to convince others of the rightness of our position is part of what rational discourse is supposed to be about. Of course we believe we are right when we make assertions because if we do not believe that we are right then we would not argue about our social, political and/or religious beliefs. I am not arguing that others are wrong for aggressively arguing for what they believe. But to assume that we should speak for others because they simply do not know what is best for them disrespects their right to agency. It is fine for me to believe that others are wrong. It is fine for me to attempt to convince them that they are wrong. But it is incorrect for me to assert that I know what they need more than they do. I do not live their lives; they do.
Let me use an illustration to denote the difference between asserting that others are wrong and asserting that they are not mature enough to make their own decisions. Several years ago I knew of a lady who was struggling to hold down a job. Her desire was to find a husband and to be a good wife to him. Knowing her, I came to believe that she would be happier if she could find a guy to marry and to work at being a wife rather than at a job. But, at the time I was making this observation, I was also in graduate school and learning more about feminist theory. While I am critical of some of the excesses of feminism, it has much to offer to our society. This lady was not a feminist. She probably would not agree with me in my support of some of the reforms in this ideology. We probably would have different voting behaviors on those issues. But feminism was not useful for the struggles she faced. The feminist fight for women in the marketplace was not something that helped her. She would be better off not focusing on a career, but building a traditional marriage. If she acted in ways that discouraged feminism she would be acting in her own personal interest. Some individuals would argue such actions would be to the disadvantage of all women and thus to her disadvantage. But I reluctantly disagree. A feminism that encourages, although not requires, women to enter the workplace creates an atmosphere that makes the type of traditional lifestyle she wants more difficult to sustain. To respect her agency, I came to accept that I think some of her ideas about public policies are wrong, but that she is making the best political decisions for herself. It would be fair for me to try to convince her to support certain policies but it is arrogant for me to presume that she does not know which policies are best for her but that I do.
Are there times where people vote against their own self-interest? Of course that occurs. But I suspect that it happens a lot less than Gruber and the social progressive activists think. Their attitudes are similar to a Marxian perspective of class consciousness with the focus on how the lower classes (proletariat) are misled by the upper classes (bourgeois). But often when we try to interpret the self-interest of others, we use our values and our priorities instead of theirs. The Marxian perspective focuses on the economic interest of different groups in our society. But not everybody prioritizes economic aspects above others. I respect the right of someone to vote according to their own priorities. Demanding that others vote according to our own priorities strikes me as ideological imperialism.
Many of my respondents talked about lower class and/or religious voters voting against their own economic interests. For the sake of argument let us say they are correct and the progressive economic polices they endorse are indeed better for lower class religious voters. Are those religious and/or lower class voters wrong in their nonsupport of progressive politicians? They are only wrong if their highest voting priorities are based on economic priorities. But perhaps they prioritize being able to express their religious beliefs in the public square and have concluded that progressive politicians are less likely to support their right to do so. Their lack of support of progressive politicians would fit solidly in how they have prioritized their own group interest. People are free to complain as much as they want that these individuals are voting against their own group interests, but in doing so they are requiring that individuals adopt their own priorities. I trust those lower class and religious individuals to make their own decisions about what their priorities should be.
As I stated above, Christians have been criticized for attempting to impose their own values upon other individuals. But Gruber’s actions and the comments of my respondents suggest that such tendencies are not limited to Christians. Wanting to impose one’s values on others seems to be a general tendency with whom occurs in other social groups as well. Recognizing this tendency within ourselves and/or within others that we agree can help us to be more forgiving when others engage in such tactics. However accomplishing such recognition is extremely difficult in a culture that does not encourage self-introspection.