Off the beat: Will Politify work?

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It’s always bothered me that UC Berkeley doesn’t get nearly as much tech press as it deserves. The media give the impression that our southern, cardinal and white neighbor is the source of all young entrepreneurs and every tech startup in the country, even though Berkeley has produced more top tech CEO’s than any other U.S. university.

But I digress. Today I want to talk about Politify, a website founded by UC Berkeley alum Nikita Bier and current student Jeremy Blalock that is finally generating some tech buzz for the campus.

Politify describes itself as “a platform that provides Americans with data-backed financial projections of political scenarios.” Using Census and IRS data, the website says “Politify is setting out to solve one of the oldest problems in democracy: which candidate best serves our individual interests?”

In other words, you enter your tax filing information — income, filing status, etc. — and Politify will project the net financial impact of Mitt Romney and Barack Obama’s economic policies on your finances. You can also enter your zip code and view the percentage of people in your area who would benefit financially from each presidential candidates’ plan.

On its face, Politify looks like a boon to liberals. According to the site, Obama’s economic plan would benefit about 70 percent of Americans and reduce the deficit while Romney’s plan would benefit about 30 percent of Americans (especially the wealthiest) and increase the deficit. Perhaps that’s why Politify was able to recruit left-wing intellectual rock stars and income inequality gurus Robert Reich and Emmanuel Saez to its team.

Bier has expressed his hope that Politify will encourage people to vote for candidates on the basis of their economic interests and those of their community instead of “unrelated criteria like the appearance or morals of a candidate.” Saez voiced a similar opinion in a Politify promotional video.

Bier and Saez’s pitches for Politify represent a version of the argument liberals have been making for decades to explain why working-class middle Americans tend to vote Republican: that if only low and middle income voters understood that conservative policies would slash their benefits while cutting taxes on the rich, they would change their minds and vote for Democrats. Some liberals view ignorance as the only explanation of working class support for the Romney-Ryan ticket.

Commentators have offered other explanations for the political predilections of the working class. Conservatives make the debunked trickle-down economics pitch: working class voters, Republicans say, understand that massive tax cuts for those at the high end will spur investment and growth, and ultimately benefit those at the bottom.

But intelligent moderates, like New York University professor Jonathan Haidt, have advanced reasonable alternatives to the liberal charge that the working class has been duped into voting Republican. The research Haidt cites in his book The Righteous Mind suggests that Bier is naive to hope that voters will disregard candidates’ “appearance and morals.” Haidt argues that peoples’ politics are inevitably derived from their cultural and moral worldview, and that the Republican Party’s emphasis on faith, patriotism, valor, chastity, law and order resonates with the working class. These values, according to Haidt, are respectable and fit well with human nature, and Democrats should try to touch on them.

Politify’s prospective success rests on the assumption that liberal explanation for why people vote against their economic self-interest is correct. In that sense, Politify’s ability to “redefine the red and blue electoral map,” as Bier hopes it will, is an empirical test of two explanations of working class conservatism. If Politify is successful at bringing working class voters to the Democratic party, then liberals may have been right all along. But if Politify is widely circulated and fails to have an impact — as I think will probably be the case — then Haidt’s case for a cultural and moral, rather than self-interested, view of political preference will be strengthened.

To be clear, the site is a valuable and impressive contribution to our political discourse: it’s sleek, easy to use and it provides an important service to voters who want a better understanding of how they will be affected by each candidates’ policies. It’s also a lot of fun to play with.

But whether or not Politify works the way Bier, Blalock and Saez envision may depend on a factor far outside their control: the source of Americans’ political ideology.

Contact Jason Willick at [email protected]