Why You're Losing and How to Win
Why Do Working-Class People Vote Conservative?
To rally a majority, what should you stand for amid today’s voters? This 2012 article is from The Guardian, Jun 5, by the author of The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion.
by Jonathan HaidtWhy on Earth would a working-class person ever vote for a conservative candidate? This question has obsessed the American left since Ronald Reagan first captured the votes of so many union members, farmers, urban Catholics and other relatively powerless people -- the so-called "Reagan Democrats". Isn't the Republican party the party of big business? Don't the Democrats stand up for the little guy, and try to redistribute the wealth downwards?
Many commentators on the left have embraced some version of the duping hypothesis: the Republican party dupes people into voting against their economic interests by triggering outrage on cultural issues. "Vote for us and we'll protect the American flag!" say the Republicans. "We'll make English the official language of the United States! And most importantly, we'll prevent gay people from threatening your marriage when they … marry! Along the way we'll cut taxes on the rich, cut benefits for the poor, and allow industries to dump their waste into your drinking water, but never mind that. Only we can protect you from gay, Spanish-speaking flag-burners!"
One of the most robust findings in socialpsychology is that people find ways to believe whatever they want to believe. And the left really want to believe the duping hypothesis. It absolves them from blame and protects them from the need to look in the mirror or figure out what they stand for in the 21st century.
Here's a more painful but ultimately constructive diagnosis, from the point of view of moral psychology: politics at the national level is more like religion than it is like shopping. It's more about a moral vision that unifies a nation and calls it to greatness than it is about self-interest or specific policies. In most countries, the right tends to see that more clearly than the left. In America the Republicans did the hard work of drafting their moral vision in the 1970s, and Ronald Reagan was their eloquent spokesman. Patriotism, social order, strong families, personal responsibility (not government safety nets), and free enterprise. Those are values, not government programs.
The Democrats, in contrast, have tried to win voters' hearts by promising to protect or expand programs for elderly people, young people, students, poor people, and the middle class. Vote for us and we'll use government to take care of everyone! But most Americans don't want to live in a nation based primarily on caring. That's what families are for.
One reason the left has such difficulty forging a lasting connection with voters is that the right has a built-in advantage -- conservatives have a broader moral palate than liberals (as we call leftists in the US). Of the six concerns that seem to comprise our moral sense -- care/harm, fairness/cheating, liberty/oppression, loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion, and sanctity/degradation -- more of them matter and perhaps more strongly to conservatives. If you want to hire someone to criticize your nation on a radio show in another nation (loyalty), give the finger to his boss (authority), or sign a piece of paper stating one's willingness to sell his soul (sanctity), you can save a lot of money by posting a sign: "Conservatives need not apply."
Are voters really voting against their self-interest when they vote for candidates who share their values? Loyalty, respect for authority, and some degree of sanctification create a more binding social order that places some limits on individualism and egoism. As marriage rates plummet, and globalization and rising diversity erodes the sense of common heritage within each nation, a lot of voters in many western nations find themselves hungering for old-fashioned values.
When people fear the collapse of their society, they want order and national greatness, not a more nurturing government.
Even on the two moral virtues that both sides claim -- fairness and liberty -- the right can often out-cook the left. The conservative media harps on slackers and benefit cheats [in the lower class, not in the upper class]. They are very effective at stirring up outrage at the government for condoning cheating.
Similarly for liberty. For example, can the federal government compel some people to buy a product (health insurance) in order to extend it to 30 million other people? While “liberals” choose care, conservatives who choose liberty are in the majority.
In sum, the left has the admirable tendency to place caring for the weak, sick, and vulnerable above all other moral concerns. But in focusing so much on the needy, the left often fails to address -- and sometimes violates -- other moral needs, hopes, and concerns. When working-class people vote conservative, as most do in the US, they are not voting against their self-interest; they are voting for their moral interest.
To read more
JJS: Wanna-be reformers should think hard about their recipe for success in the 21st century. Specifically, if you want to sell economic reform, you must tailor it to resonate with all six ethical pairings. Fortunately, geonomics has already shown itself able to appeal to people all over -- and off -- the political spectrum.
Editor Jeffery J. Smith runs the Forum on Geonomics and helped prepare a course for the UN on geonomics. To take the “Land Rights” course, click here .
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