It’s a sleepy Sunday morning in San Anselmo, but Patrick O’Heffernan is already outside the supermarket registering new voters. Though he is with the Marin Democratic Party, he is quick to add that he will “register anyone of any party.” Not that there are many Republicans to register. Not in Marin.
Meanwhile inside the supermarket there was a line at the deli, as people waited patiently to purchase pre-made mashed potatoes. No matter that the store sold raw Russet potatoes at the price of 50 cents a pound. No matter that the pre-made spuds rang up at 11 times that amount ($5.99/lb). No matter because Marin, located just north of San Francisco, is the wealthiest county in California. In 2002 the average price of single-family homes sold was an astounding $859,215 and in 2001 the total personal income per capita was $63,083, nearly double the statewide figure of $32,655, according to the Marin Economic Commission.
But statistics do not tell the whole story. It is a place where millionaires call themselves middle class and where one BMW is simply not enough. In 2002, CNN reported that there is one hot-tub for every twenty-four American homes. But in Marin County, one out of two — yes, half the households — have a hot-tub.
Yet Marin is consistently among the three or four most Democratic counties in all of California. In 2000, George W. Bush garnered a mere 28 percent of the vote, and few expect that percentage to grow this fall.
On its face, this simply does not make sense. After all, who has more to benefit financially from the reelection of President Bush than the well-to-do? Senator Kerry has explicitly promised to raise many Marinites’ taxes. Bush, in contrast, has pushed for the elimination of the dividends and estate taxes, both of which disproportionately give money back to the wealthiest among us. So why do these economic elites vote against their self-interest? What’s the matter with Marin?
The question is not a new one. Thomas Frank in his recent book What’s the Matter with Kansas? wrings his hands about why working class Kansans so consistently vote Republican when (in his opinion) it behooves them financially to side with the Democrats.
For Frank, the voting pattern of poor conservatives is “so improbable and so self-contradictory” that it is a “panorama of madness and delusion worthy of Hieronymous Bosch.” How could blue-collar patriots “strangle their own life chances”? They must have been conned, Frank concludes, by Republican rhetoric on cultural issues “whose hallucinatory appeal would ordinarily be far overshadowed by material concerns.”
But Mr. O’Heffernan did not seem conned.
A lifelong Democrat and member of the vaunted top two percent tax bracket, he not only intends to vote for Mr. Kerry, he is working full-time for him. Besides registering new voters, he sets up fundraising house parties for Mr. Kerry and will travel to the swing state of New Mexico on Election Day as a poll watcher.
It was about taking a stand on issues, he told me, even if it was not in his financial interest. “We [Marin Democrats] are not as individualistic as Republicans.”
Nor did Dana Mills seem conned.
A San Anselmo resident, she was registering to vote with Mr. O’Heffernan. And she, too, was voting for Mr. Kerry. Though Ms. Mills whispered to me that she “did not fit in here ” — Marin-speak for not being a millionaire — she said such voters are driven by a “sense of social consciousness.”
“Look at where we live, look at what we have,” she said, motioning first towards the scenic hillside and then towards the parking lot stuffed with luxury cars and high-end SUVs. “We can afford to give something back.”
There was a sense that somehow a vote for Kerry was about more than money. Nearly everyone I spoke with identified the same three major issues on which Kerry and Bush diverged: the environment, abortion-rights and the war in Iraq. And for each issue, voters believed that a vote for Mr. Kerry, though it would cost them financially, would be better for America. And that was a cost-benefit analysis with which they could agree.
Frank derisively describes such non-monetary calculations among poor and rural Kansans as “good people gone astray.” To Frank, a poor person in Kansas voting for a Republican has bought into the “Con gospel,” even if that voter is willing to make financial sacrifices to defend the sanctity of marriage.
But what would Frank say about the Marinites? What would he say to Laurie Mott, a mother on her way to pick her daughter up from soccer practice, who said that though she was in the top two percent of the tax bracket she would vote for Senator Kerry. Ms. Mott was passionate about her vote to protect gay rights, abortion rights and good environmental policy. Not only that, but she had donated money to the Democratic National Committee, America Coming Together and Mainstreet Mom’s Against Bush.
It is not just a matter of liberal elites for Kerry and backwards bumpkins for Bush, as misguided partisans of both sides see it. Voters, in Marin and Kansas alike, are putting aside economic interests and voting their values.
According to Bruce Cain, Professor of Political Science and Director of the Institute of Governmental Studies at UC Berkeley, the two cases are similar because both “Kansans and Marinites choose culture over class.”
Republican consultant Dan Schnur also sees Marin and Kansas as parallel cases, “There is no difference at all, politically speaking; they are mirror images of each other. In both cases voters have decided that social and cultural issues are more important than economic issues. It’s simply a choice that every citizen is free to make for themselves.” And increasingly, at least in Marin, the choice has been in favor of non-economic issues.
“I am not voting for myself, I am voting for what is best for the country,” said Sharon Hamilton, a Marin resident, nurse and mother of two. Her husband’s business has been successful in recent years, bringing in a large increase in income. Yet this fall she is voting against her economic self-interest and for John Kerry: “Yes, Bush is better for us [my family], but he is not best for all of us.”
Mr. Schnur, who served as former Governor Pete Wilson’s chief media spokesman and Director of Communications for the presidential campaign of U.S. Senator John McCain, still sees Marinites as potentially salvageable voters, “If Walter Mondale were running for president saying I promise to put your taxes on steroids and raise them until I cant raise them anymore, I think some of those voters might reconsider their affiliation.”
But Republicans will face an uphill battle. An astounding 84.6% of registered voters in Marin went to the polls in 2000 — so there are not too many disengaged. Kerry is already directly promising to raise taxes. And Marin continues to be populated by voters like Trigger Wagner.
Ms. Wagner is a registered Republican. She is white. She is a born-again Christian and self-described true believer. She is Mr. Bush’s base — at least statistically. And yet she is voting for John Kerry.
“We live in a fairy tale land here in Marin,” said Ms. Wagner. “I don’t feel like the needs that rich people have are as important as the needs of the needy. So what if they couldn’t build another tennis court in their backyard. So what.”
Her co-worker, Naaim Karkabla, with whom she was sharing a Sunday coffee, agreed. Although he was not currently in the uppermost tax bracket, he once had been and “I really didn’t care” — it had not impacted his vote.
Naaim mused out loud about our “missionary military,” and how the war in Iraq was not a cause he was willing to die for, but rather, “I am willing to fight to stop it.”
Thomas Frank has it wrong. People from Kansas to Marin aren’t being conned. They are looking out for a good greater than themselves, greater than their economic self-interest. And that is not what’s the matter with Kansas or Marin. It is what’s right with America.Posted by Shane Goldmacher at November 1, 2004 02:41 PM