U.S. Rep. Jared Golden of Maine's 2nd District listens to lobstermen speak at a rally on the Portland waterfront on Wednesday, Oct. 12, 2022. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

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Michael Cianchette is a Navy reservist who served in Afghanistan. He is in-house counsel to a number of businesses in southern Maine and was a chief counsel to former Gov. Paul LePage.

Jared Golden kicked a hornets’ nest.

A few weeks ago, he picked a fight with the progressive wing of his party by announcing his opposition to their plans to “cancel” student debt. Unsurprisingly, they fired back with volleys launched from several quarters.

The Debt Collective” called him “an elitist taking handouts from Sallie Mae.” Closer to home, former Democratic Portland Mayor Ethan Strimling levied a similar charge of “elitism.” Some local progressives sought to enter the fracas with different ammunition, noting around 92,000 people in Golden’s district stood to benefit from the loan forgiveness. For the record, that’s only 14% of the 2nd Congressional District.

Golden, a Marine veteran, didn’t lie down and take it. He engaged in his own words.

In the midst of this repartee is an old political saw. Golden noted that progressive activists decry people who supposedly “vote against their own interests.”  

It is a common trope. In essence, it is an attack on voters in rural areas who might support the GOP. The pseudo-intellectual take is that Democrats’ social spending plans will be better for rural populations. The subtext is that those voters are simply too ignorant or otherwise emotionally caught up in cultural issues to realize what’s really good for them.

Progressives extend it to other issues, too. White women who dare to be Republican are said to be voting against their “reproductive interest.”

The attack – almost always levied by the left against the right – reflects a pretty cynical and shallow understanding of both people and our political system. And while it may help the speaker feel superior, any surface substance to the saying evaporates under examination.

Take this example. Should your property taxes go up or down?

Now, it is in your interest for you to pay less in taxes, right? So the answer is “down.”

But the reason they are going up is because the local fire department needs a new pumper truck. It is in your interest to have a strong fire department, right? So taxes should go “up.”

Competing priorities means it isn’t so easy to determine what is in one’s own interest. There are tradeoffs.  

The real world is nothing if not complex. And so are people.

“Voting against your interest” as a concept would warm an economist’s heart. In a world populated by the uber-rational homo economicus, people would be able to determine each choice that would be perfectly in accord with their own self-interest and then choose it. Policymaking would become a giant sudoku puzzle.

Yet, sometimes, we act in ways that are seemingly against our own interests in order to meet a higher, intangible value. Take charitable giving. One analysis found that political conservatives are significantly more charitable than liberals. Much of that correlates with religious belief.

Giving away your own scarce resources would seem to be against your own interest. But how do you evaluate a moral imperative, particularly one aligned with faith?  

Or take tax policy. If you live in a high tax state but argue for higher federal taxes by eliminating special deductions available to those living in high tax states, are you arguing against your own interest? What if you just think it is good policy?

Golden’s opposition to “canceling” student loans is against his interest. It would have been much easier to vote in favor of the bill, which was never going to pass, and offer some mealy-mouthed milquetoast statement about the importance of working families. There are probably some Democrats who did just that.

But anyone who tells you that you must vote a certain way because it is in “your interest” is probably just trying to sell you something. Or make themselves feel better. Or both.

Michael Cianchette is a Navy reservist who served in Afghanistan. He is in-house counsel to a number of businesses in southern Maine and was a chief counsel to former Gov. Paul LePage.