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Frankly, Cohen, You're Duped

Writing in today’s Washington Post, columnist Richard Cohen argues against the notion – advanced by the likes of Thomas Frank – that the millions of middle- and working-class people who voted for George W. Bush were "duped" into doing so.

The Thomas Frank thesis (as I’ll call it – see this op-ed of his in the New York Times, as well as his book What’s the Matter with Kansas) is that these voters are so gulled by cultural issues, such as fear of gay marriage, that they’ll vote against their best economic interest in order to be on what they think is the virtuous side of the moral or cultural divide.

As summarized by Cohen, it is

the fairly common view that cultural conservatives have no idea what they are doing. For a little piece of heaven, they will sacrifice a better standard of living, health insurance and a chance to live their retirement in splendor.

Cohen disagrees with this "Frank" explanation of the motives of red-state voters. Cohen’s own explanation is that middle- and working-class people who vote for the G.O.P. do so because they believe that the Democrats’ economic policies, in fact, will be quite akin to the Republicans’ economic policies. Why not cast your vote along cultural lines if the economic policies of tweedle-dee differ only slightly from those of tweedle-dum?


What I find remarkable about both the Frank thesis and the Cohen thesis is that proponents of both dismiss with nary a mention the possibility that higher taxes, more redistribution, more protectionism, and greater government regulation and control of the economy might actually dim the economic prospects of ordinary Americans. That is, neither Frank nor Cohen seriously consider the possibility that freer markets and lower taxes might benefit middle- and working-class Americans.

Perhaps Frank and Cohen are correct; perhaps it’s true that only the "core big-business constituency" (as Frank alleges) of the G.O.P. benefit from freer markets. I doubt very seriously that they are correct, of course, but even if they are correct the proposals for freer markets and lower taxes are ones based upon well-respected theories and a goodly amount of empirical evidence.  These are not merely comic-book like apologetics for corporate greed and plunder. Simply to ignore the case for freer markets and lower taxes is inveterate intellectual blindness.


Addendum: I do side with Frank, and against Cohen, on one small matter: voters can be duped. See this column, and this column, by my colleague Bryan Caplan. Also, for a fuller treatment, read the most important book that I’ve read in the past dozen years, Democracy & Decision, by Geoffrey Brennan and Loren Lomasky.