The wealthy build fortunes by buying off lawmakers, then exploiting the favorable tax system and deregulated business environment which results from their purchase. But there’s something else that they’ve got working in their favor, and that is the frequent political complicity of the poor and working people at whose expense they make their money. Why is this so? Why do poor and working class people, especially poor and working class white people, so often think and vote along conservative lines? What causes so many of them to endorse the thinking of the very people and politicians who blame and despise them? The answers are disturbing and, as always, complicated.
Despite unprecedented inequality, the masters of the universe have had a silent weapon against a mass uprising. Remarkably, as inequality rises, the poor tend to think more conservatively about how to deal with it. One study, based on 54 years’ worth of data, found that when inequality rises, lower income people become less supportive, not more supportive, of efforts by the government to address income redistribution via measures like modifying the tax code. This made them no different than their higher income counterparts. They aren’t stupid about what’s going on; the evidence also showed that they were well aware of rising inequality.
One of the theories offered by the study’s authors as to why the poor and working class were forming opinions that worked against their own economic best interests was that the media was helping to form public opinion. This may be the case, but there is a common misconception that consumers of conservative media, where inequality is most likely to be dismissed, are disproportionately lower income or less educated. Using both measures of education and income, Pew Research Center has found that there is no more Foxification among the poor than among higher income, better educated audiences.
However, media influence is far more pervasive than just the news. A recent documentary, “Class Dismissed: How TV Frames the Working Class,” narrated by Ed Asner (a clip) has exposed a disturbing trend in entertainment that renders the poor and working class culpable for their own inequality. Pointing out that a mammoth 62% of the American workforce is working class, the video first demonstrates the relative invisibility of this group in television. True enough, there have been shows like Sanford & Son, Good Times or Roseanne, that have accurately portrayed life in economic hardship, but these have been rare in the overall picture. Still, near invisibility might be preferable to the representations that do occur.
The common portrayals of the poor and working class are that they are not intelligent, that they are lazy, have poor taste, and that they suffer from backward beliefs. For example, this dubious relationship between behavior and social class is amplified in shows like COPs or the Jerry Springer Show where trashy poor people are displayed as the norm without a counterbalance of decent, principled poor people. They simply aren’t entertaining. The viewing public is bombarded with messages about inequality on a regular basis, and most of the messages say, “Things are as they should be because of how people behave, and not because of how society is structured. If you haven’t made it to the top, you have only yourself to blame.”
The “temporarily embarrassed millionaires” thus internalize a great deal of disgust toward members of their own class. Given that the poor and working class are bombarded with media messages that they belong to an inferior and dysfunctional group, it isn’t surprising that they frequenting forego solidarity in favor of what many call aspirational thinking. They buy into the myth of the self-made man, despite living in a country where upward mobility is less likely than in Pakistan. They deny using social programs, despite ample evidence to the contrary. They’re even willing to see their own benefits cut so that “those people” (the undeserving, often racialized Other) are denied theirs.
However, the members of the 47% who will vote for Romney are driven by more than just their class perceptions, sense of exceptionalism, and views on economic mobility. There are also the millions of people who easily succumb to authoritarian hierarchies, and are thus Republicans, based on their personalities, regardless of their race or social class. These people are constitutionally prone to vote for Romney, driven by the neurological make-up of their brain, no matter how much he stabs them in the back.
Researchers have been asking Americans for generations about how much they value obedience to authority, independence, or curiosity. Conservatives consistently endorse respecting elders and obeying authority as more essential and valuable than independence or curiosity. In fact, when researchers examined the relationship between voting for Obama and valuing obedience or hierarchy, they found that those white people who endorsed these values were far less likely to vote for him. One could easily wonder how a white conservative interprets “hierarchy” with regard to a black president. On the other hand, white people who valued independence or curiosity were likely to be Obama supporters.
Researchers have measured how people respond to ambiguity. For example, in one study, research participants were presented with pictures of cats and dogs, as well as pictures of animals that could not be easily distinguished as either a cat or a dog. People who were more authoritarian actually became angry or disgusted at the pictures in which the image was ambiguous, and these folks are the Republican base. In another study, researchers measured the attentional differences of conservatives and liberals. They found that when shown positive images (puppies, bunnies) and negative images (maggots, spiders), the conservatives looked more quickly at negative images and focused on them longer. The reverse was true for liberals who focused on the positive images more quickly and for longer.
Thanks to the U.S. Census Bureau, we have the numbers to show that nearly 50% of Americans live in households that can be classified as poor or working poor. Indeed, a startling number of families are a minor disaster away from destitution. Nevertheless, an unfortunately high number of these people are still going to cast a vote for Romney-Ryan, despite the fact this pair is assured to push policies that harm them. Whether they are alienated from their own class interests or neurologically compelled to support an authoritarian, they represent the voters willing to be kicked in the teeth by their own candidate.
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