rural voters do actually vote in their self interest

It is often said in the media and academia that rural voters do not vote in their interest when they vote for Republican or conservative candidates. For example, there is a famous book called What’s the Matter with Kansas? which takes point of view. I think this is incorrect. I think rural voters are rational voters in the sense that they vote for parties that give them concrete social and material benefits.

Traditionally, the idea that rural voters do not vote in their self-interest – let’s call it the misguided rural voter hypothesis – hinges on a crucial assumption. Namely, that the only, or main, way that states benefit their populations is through welfare state spending. Thus, when conservative politicians appeal to voters through demagoguery (e.g., don’t support poverty alleviation because of “welfare queens”) they persuade voters to oppose policies that might actually help them in a very concrete way.

The flaw with this argument is that is overlooks the many different ways that states can transfer and redistribute wealth. Schools, poverty relief, healthcare subsidies and unemployment insurance are only part of the story. There is also tax relief, infrastructure spending, and spending on national defense and police. These are all tools the states can use to transfer tax funds to specific groups.


To see how this applies to rural communities, consider the following. First, rural communities rely on a vast system of roads for their survival. These roads are infrequently traveled compared to urban roads and they rarely have tolls. Thus, tolls and gas taxes are rarely enough to cover road costs. This great map from City Lab shows that the most rural areas of the country do not cover their road costs from tolls and taxes alone. My state, Indiana, only covers 43% of road costs this way. More rural areas, like the deep South and the Dakotas, only cover about 20% to 30% of their road costs. Thus, the building of maintenance of roads, and related infrastructure, represents a direct transfer of funds form wealthier urbanized areas to more poor rural areas – a spending stream that is rarely criticized by either party.

Another form of wealth transfer involves the criminal justice system. The expansion of incarceration benefits a lot of people – mainly in rural areas. In a recent book called Big House on the Prairie, John M. Eason talks about the massive construction boom required by mass incarceration and how most of the new construction is to be found in rural areas. Once again, this represents an enormous transfer of wealth from urban centers to rural communities and it is staunchly defended by conservative politicians.

A third form of income transfer involves defense spending. One might expect any nation to have some level of defense spending, but the United States towers above the rest of the globe in terms of quantity and quality of spending. And much of this spending affects rural areas. For example, this blog reports on well known data about how rural recruits are over represented in the armed services. There are also many military installations in rural areas. The spending on defense is a important transfer of wealth to rural areas.

Cultural politics are certainly important. I am not a materialist and I don’t think all politics boils down to financial incentives. But in the case of rural voters, their material interests and voting do align very well.

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Written by fabiorojas

March 26, 2018 at 4:01 am

2 Responses

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  1. I thought that’s what everyone did in politics, isn’t the greater problem that we tend to vote on our short term interests which in the long run tend to be less beneficial for society?



    March 26, 2018 at 7:47 am

  2. T.S.M.: You are correct – the real question for policy is the difference between short term self interest and social benefits. But in the sorts of analysis that I alluded, the claim is that rural or working class voters would get immediate benefits if they voted the right way (e.g., better health care or schools).



    March 26, 2018 at 3:00 pm

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