Friday, May 20, 2005

The Sorest Loser: Why is the working class voting Republican?

Hey kids,

I've been especially lazy / busy / burned (burnt?) out this week, what with a hanging cold (there might be some chads up there as well, hard to tell) and Conspiring Forces compelling me to do such things as watch Undercover Brother into the far reaches of the night instead of Toiling in the Usual Manner.

That said, look for Cathode Ray Fray - The Week in TV later today and Dumpster Bust Radio #8 early next week. Lots more in store as well, including the first edition of The Perfect Film Series (Goodfellas vs. The Godfather, EB vs. The Duke: You just can't beat that).

In the meantime, I give you another brilliant foray into the political realm by our friend The Sorest Loser. He's talking pure politics today, which is right up my alley. Enjoy...


What possesses poor Kansas meatpackers to vote Republican? Why would they vote for more tax breaks for the rich and less social insurance? To be sure, poor Republicans aren’t the only ones voting against their economic interests. Many rich people vote Democratic. But, unlike their poor conservative counterparts, rich liberals can afford to vote against their economic interests. But why would people who are barely scraping by vote against someone who wants to help them out?

In a recent column, David Brooks suggests that it’s because the Republicans are the party of optimistic individualism. As evidence, he presents a recent Pew Center survey according to which 76% of poor Republicans, and only 14% of poor Democrats, believe that most people can get ahead with hard work. Brooks argues that this difference in perceptions explains why Republicans are winning over the working class.

But this explanation is flawed for at least two reasons. First, it doesn’t explain why more and more working folks are becoming Republican. Gore lost white working class folks by 17% while Kerry lost them by 23%, and yet the working classes have lost ground during the Bush presidency. Why do more and more working class people believe that they can get ahead when they’ve been falling behind for years? In short, Brooks’s “explanation” only deepens the mystery.

A second flaw with Brooks’s analysis is that merely believing that most people can get ahead with hard work should not sway one toward the Republican party. After all, there’s nothing incompatible about believing in the powers of hard work but also wanting some help. Even if the average Joe believes that he can get ahead with hard work, it still seems irrational for him to refuse assistance.

In a recent article in the New York Review of Books, Thomas Frank argues that the Democrats are losing working class whites because they are seen as a party of effete intellectual snobs who sneer at the values of working folks. Republicans have effectively propagated this image, portraying Democrats as elitists and themselves as down home populists.

This sounds like a plausible explanation for why Democrats are losing white working class votes. But what should Democrats do about it? One option is to try to dispel this perception. The problem with this approach is that the perception is more or less accurate. Shedding this image would be difficult since, as I'll explain in a moment, the image corresponds to reality.

A better approach would be to tar Republicans with the same brush. After all, Republicans have about as much in common with working folks as Democrats do. Bush was born into one of our country’s most prominent political families, he attended Andover, then Yale, and then Harvard Business School. You don’t get much more elitist than that. But somehow Republicans have convinced the unwashed masses that Bush and the other Republicans are one of them and that the Democrats are elitist snobs.

Indeed, there’s something peculiar about the notion of a non-elitist politician. Politicians, after all, are in the business of telling people how to live their lives. Everyone in congress is engaged in crafting legislation that attempts to govern people’s choices. Anyone involved in this enterprise must assume, at least tacitly, that he knows better than the person whose life he’s governing. This is the essence of elitism.

Some might argue that, unlike Democrats, Republicans are struggling to get the government out of people’s lives. But nobody who’s been paying attention can honestly claim that that is what Republicans have been up to.

So, my advice to Democrats is not to try to shed the image that they are elitist snobs. This will fail because they are elitist snobs. The better strategy is to portray Republicans as elitist snobs. This shouldn’t be too difficult. Start publicizing pictures of them on their yachts, strutting around private country clubs, etc. Keep reminding people where Bush went to school and who his best friends are (e.g. Ken Lay). This should take the wind out of their sails.

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