Why people vote against their own interests is a classic conundrum, a veritable unknown, old as democracy itself.
One might as well ask: Why am I here? Is there life after death?
I called to muse on it with my old pal Dewd MacDougal, who studied political philosophy for decades.
“I’ll wax Plato anytime,” Dewd said. “But first you need to tell me what you’ve got against pit bulls.”
Dewd was bothered that I had recently compared San Luis Obispo County supervisors Debbie Arnold and Lynn Compton to pit bull dogs.
“First,” he said, “you unjustly stereotyped pitties as biters. Not cool. Second, it’s offensive to contrast such lovable animals to politicians.”
OK. I apologize: To all pit bulls and their loving humans — sorry.
“I think it was Aristotle who said, ‘Dogs usually act in their own interest,’ ” Dewd ruminated, just as another call came in. “But voters often don’t. So there’s the rub. Sorry, gotta go.”
He disconnected, leaving me solo to wonder: Why would folks vote for a politician like Arnold when they know she’ll bite them, as she did a while back by voting for an industrial gravel mine next to sleepy Santa Margarita, even though most of its inhabitants had objected?
Ironically, everybody who voted for her knew — or should’ve known — she would. She megaphoned her property rights dogma throughout her 2012 campaign. She’s voted that way since — supporting unbridled development at nearly every turn.
The cognitive dissonance: Most voters in San Luis Obispo County want it unspoiled by urban sprawl — some more than others. They like it the way it is. They don’t want their communities ruined by traffic congestion, polluted air, lack of water and depleted natural resources.
Yet many vote “conservative” anyway, out of habit. And, politically, “conservative” in San Luis Obispo County for decades has meant being pro-sprawl.
What does being “conservative” actually mean? That’s like asking, “Why does the dryer eat my socks?” No one truly knows.
Most commonly, “conservative” is defined as being fundamentally resistant to change, keeping things as they are, sticking to tradition. If so, then most conservatives in SLO County should be, by extension, anti-sprawl. Because sprawl equals permanent change.
But they’re the opposite. In fact, our most conservative elected officials are unambiguously pro-sprawl. This means, by definition, they believe the character of our county should change. It’s core orthodoxy with them — an article of faith.
Ironically, local conservatives excoriate “liberals” who want our county to remain unchanged. For conservatives, it’s abjectly “liberal” — even “radical” — to resist the corrosive creep of urban sprawl that would turn our county into the kind of place many inhabitants fled.
Most local conservative officeholders spend much of their time trying to convince people that converting open land into more houses, mini malls or mines is in the interest of each individual voter.
Clearly, it’s not. Certainly not for the majority, but many buy into the lie.
Arnold isn’t the first, nor the only, politician who poses as a “conservative” but votes for big changes to their communities. Compton’s test will come with the huge, elite, ex-urban Laetitia Winery housing development and the Phillips 66 oil mega-train rail spur project — permanent, change-inducing proposals for her district.
Compton has signaled where she’s headed. With her pro-quarry vote and her obdurate resistance to regulating dust pollution emanating from the Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreational Area, her constituents might want to buckle up.
And what of voters’ interests in the 3rd District, where three challengers assert that Supervisor Adam Hill should be ousted?
The top reasons for opposing Hill offered by San Luis Obispo Councilman Dan Carpenter, former Grover Beach Mayor Debbie Peterson and Pismo Beach Mayor Shelly Higginbotham? They say Hill is sometimes ill-tempered — and gruff.
Tellingly, none of the three right-leaning, pro-sprawl pols has attacked Hill’s positions on issues, which for years have been in sync with his left-leaning district:
Hill and Pismo Beach voters opposed development in Price Canyon, while Higginbotham favored it.
Hill supported the winning Measure Y city sales tax extension in San Luis Obispo, and the winning bond measures for Cuesta College and the San Luis Coastal Unified School District. Carpenter campaigned against all three.
Hill voted for regulating dust caused by ATVs at the Dunes, which Peterson vigorously opposed.
This stark conflict with majority sentiment leaves the trio to persuade 3rd District voters that Hill’s “temperament” — not his votes, business development acumen nor constituent service record — is why they should vote against their own interests in 2016.
The mystery of why people vote against themselves — it’s ancient Greek to me.