Why do blue-collar workers vote against their economic interests?
© Greg Nash

Republicans have once again shown their disdain for the interests of all but a few of their constituents by voting to end the estate tax. What is worse, if they are successful in the effort now or in the future, the Republican Party will have done economic damage to essentially everyone who voted them into office.

On April 16, the House of Representatives voted 240-179 to repeal the estate tax. While there is little expectation that the bill will survive the Senate, and it is certain it would be vetoed by the president if it did, Forbes News Service reports that "anti-death tax advocates say it sets the stage for possible repeal in 2017."

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The men and women who voted for this tax break are the very same people who are deficit hawks bent on cutting all government services other than the military, and who insist on budget programs that will bring the federal budget into balance within 10 years. Despite the fact that it is estimated this tax break will cost the Treasury $270 billion over 10 years, there appears to be no one within the Republican Party who questions its wisdom.

There is however, no question in the minds of critics as to what is going on. More ominously, for those who seek to preserve democratic traditions, this latest move is one more indicator of the invidious impact that money on the political process.

It seems evident to the outsider that Republicans feel completely comfortable in voting against the interests of their constituents because they know they have either short memories or no memory at all.

Take, for example, Speaker John BoehnerJohn Andrew BoehnerFive GOP lawmakers mulling bid to lead conservative caucus Ex-lawmakers see tough job market with trade groups Veterans are left out of medical marijuana protections MORE (R), who represents Ohio's 8th Congressional District, which has a total population of 721,486. One percent of the households in his district earn over $200,000 per year. The median household income is $50,750. Over 220,000 of his constituents receive publicly sponsored healthcare (ObamaCare), and 71,000 have no healthcare coverage. Twenty percent of his constituents live below the poverty level. The unemployment rate runs above the national average. The mean value of homes in the district is $135,000 and only 506 houses in the district are valued at over $1 million. In 2014, Boehner received 67 percent of the 185,000 votes cast, meaning that a mere 23 percent of the eligible voters in his district elected him.

Even under the most generous set of assumptions, it is clear that virtually none of his constituents will benefit from this latest vote. If anything, given the Republican Party's efforts led in part by Boehner in ending the estate tax, services to 40 percent of his constituents would be cut as the result of his efforts. This level of indifference to the needs and interests of his district raises questions as to why he has been reelected 10 times with no substantial opposition.

But there is no question as to why he cast his vote as he did. In the 2014 election cycle, according the Center for Responsive Politics, Boehner's campaign spent $17.1 million versus his opponent, who spent $192,079 — and that was actually down from his 2012 election, when he had no opposition but spent $21.2 million. When you consider that the median household income in his district is $50,750, it doesn’t take much imagination to figure donations came from outside the district. And they did. The Federal Elections Commission data from the 2013-2014 election cycle indicate that, directly or via PACs, contributions, starting at a high of $150,000 per contributor, came from the petroleum industry, hedge funds, banks, insurance companies and the telecommunications industry.

What we have here is a man who voted directly against the economic interests of his constituents but clearly in support of an issue of importance to his donors. This is America, and the courts tell us that is permissible. The question is: Why do his constituents allow it? It is true that Boehner is a prolific fundraiser and in a position to outspend the opposition almost 90 to one. But it once again frames the question raised by reporter Thomas Frank in What Is The Matter With Kansas? Why do blue-collar workers vote against their own economic interests?

The other concern is much more philosophical. There are two parts to this. First, large inheritances are manifestly dangerous to the future of a democratic state, as they breed a class of people who have no connection to merit, work effort or social progress. They do not favor intelligence as much as indolence. If one believes in equal opportunity — a favorite Republican meme — the abandonment of estate taxes does nothing to enhance it. In fact, it violates the American concept of a social contract. To quote Wikipedia: "Where these powers are unequally divided from birth, questions of fairness arise. The same arguments that justify wealth disparities based on individual talents, efforts, or achievements, moreover, cannot support the same disparities where they result from the dead hand (inheritance)."

The second philosophical part is the Republicans' attitude toward society and the community at large. To quote the British historian R.D. Tawney: "A society which reverences the attainment of riches as the supreme felicity will naturally be disposed to regard the poor as damned in the next world, if only to justify making their life a Hell in this."

Much can be said for the indifference that the wealthy have for the rest of society, but two points are germane here. It is difficult to understand how Republican leaders can conscience votes that actively disadvantage their own constituents and their presumed philosophical underpinnings. Second, and more importantly, it is positively mindboggling that their constituents allow them to get away with it.

Russell is managing director of Cove Hill Advisory Services.