Thursday, May 12, 2011

Poor People Have Their Own Ideas about Politics

Jonathan Kay at The National Post recommends this article by Carol Goar in The Toronto Star entitled "Why the poor cast votes for Conservatives" and says that every anti-poverty activist needs to read it. He is right - it is a terrific article and I can't believe it was published in the Star.

Goar begins as follows:

They aren’t ready to hear this yet, but the anti-poverty activists who work tirelessly to promote the interests of low-income Canadians need to ask why so many of them voted for Stephen Harper last week.

They won’t like the answers they get. They won’t understand how food bank users and social housing tenants could think the Prime Minister is on their side. They’ll be tempted to interrupt or object.

But their feelings are not the point. There is a serious gap in their knowledge.

She lists what they don't know, but need to know, if they don't want to keep losing elections:

People in low-income neighbourhoods are the biggest victims of the drug dealers and violent young offenders Harper is promising to lock up. They want relief from the violence they can’t escape. They want to rid their communities of the gangs that lure their children into gun-and-gang culture. Crime crackdowns make sense to them.

What Canadians struggling to make ends meet want most is a job; not government benefits, not abstract poverty-reduction plans, certainly not charity. Harper tapped into that yearning, promising to stabilize the economy and create employment. The New Democrats, aiming to beat him at his own game, said they would cut small business taxes.

It angers low-income voters to see secure middle-class bureaucrats getting pay hikes. Those trapped in entry-level service jobs seethe when public employees who earn far more than they ever will are rewarded simply for showing up. Those living on public assistance — employment insurance, welfare, old age security — dislike being treated with contempt by government officials. In both cases, cutting the public payroll has a lot of appeal.

Canadians fighting to stay afloat often have little regard for the anti-poverty organizers, professors and social planners who profess to speak for them. They don’t appreciate being lumped together and labelled. They don’t want political advice.

Like most people, low-income voters mistrust politicians of all stripes. They don’t believe their promises and they don’t pay much attention to their rhetoric. Many don’t cast ballots. Those who do, opt for politicians who speak in plain language about issues that matter to them.

Goar is here rejecting the Marxist reductionism that boils every election down to which party will profit me most financially and she gives poor people credit for being able to think for themselves, which the Marxist doctrine of "false consciousness" denies.

The truth is that people vote for many reasons and cultural reasons often trump economic ones. But even on economic issues, many people (poor and otherwise) view the ideal as an expanding economy, more opportunity and free enterprise, rather than bigger government, more welfare and a more static economy.

The really maddening thing is that those poor people who think this way seldom have their views expressed in the Star. Usually, the middle class left-wingers who presume to speak for them express views opposite to the ones many poor people themselves hold. This is why this column is such a breath of fresh air.

Congratulations to the Star's editors for running it and here's hoping similar types of analysis pop up again sometime in the Star!

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