God, guns,welfare: conspiracy theories about working class Americans

18 September 2012

Mitt Romney has been caught saying what he really thinks – or in modern journalistic jargon has committed a ‘gaffe’. Serious American commentators believe that his election challenge is all but over after he declared, that 47 per cent of the electorate will vote for Obama no matter what because they were ‘dependent upon government’. They saw themselves as victims, Romney explained. They believed the government had a responsibility to care for them, and that ‘they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it. ..They will vote for this president no matter what. . . . These are people who pay no income tax.’

To Romney’s mind, poor and working class Americans are the corrupted stooges of the left. Democrat politicians rob the taxpaying middle and upper classes and use the proceeds to buy them off. In return, the lower orders vote for those same Democratic politicians, who in turn give them more of other people’s money, and so the cycle of thieving and suborning continues. Many US conservatives – and many British conservatives – feel that way. The old fear that democracy will allow the poor to fleece property owners has never disappeared. Of course, there is a grain of truth in it. Equally obviously, if a politician blurts out his bad opinion of half his fellow countrymen and women as bluntly as Romney did his party might as well brand ‘loser’ to his forehead, and usher him to the nearest exit.

And yet hold on, in the last presidential election Barack Obama blurted out that to his mind small-town working-class Americans in the Mid-West had turned rightwards because they were ‘bitter’. They had seen their prospects decline and decided to ‘cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.’

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The media decided that that was a gaffe too. But once again there had to be a little truth in it. Mainstream Republicans and the Tea Party received significant support from working class white Americans in the 2010 Congressional elections.   Meanwhile the notion that, far from being caught in the Democrats’ dependency culture, white working class voters are the dupes of Republican propagandists has a long history on the US left. A few years ago, my old friend Thomas Frank went back to his home state to write What’s the Matter with Kansas . In a voice of baffled indignation, Frank described how he grew up in the wealthy Kansas City suburbs of Leawood and Mission Hills, whose inhabitants had scorned the lower classes. The lower classes had responded. They had risen like lions from their slumber. But their cause, said Frank, and their interests  could not be further apart. Astonishingly, they had risen to support the Republican right.

‘Americans have experienced a populist uprising that only benefits the people it is supposed to be targeting. In Kansas we merely see an extreme example of this mysterious situation. The angry workers, mighty in their numbers, are marching irresistibly against the arrogant. They are shaking their fists at the sons of privilege. They are laughing at the dainty affectations of the Leawood toffs. They are massing at the gates of Mission Hills, hoisting the black flag, and while the millionaires tremble in their mansions, they are bellowing out their terrifying demands. ‘We are here,’ they scream, ‘to cut your taxes.’’

Well quite. Republicans have been very successful at tapping mistrust of the liberal elite. But the left’s conspiracy theory cannot be wholly true either. If it were, Democrats would always lose in the American heartlands. Yet Pennsylvania and Ohio, the very states whose small towns Obama patronised, look as if they will vote for him in November.

The foreign observer is entitled to be confused.

The American right thinks that the working class have been captured by a dependency culture run by cynical Democrats, even though it wins significant white working class support.

The American left thinks that the working class has been captured by Bible-bashing, gun-toting Republicans who persuade them to vote against their interests, even though it can take that support back.

They cannot both be right. Indeed there are good grounds for thinking that they are equally wrong. It is not just that they regard their fellow citizens as fools or thieves – they have trouble regarding them at all. Elite politicians and commentators appear to look on members of the working class as if they are from another species. They have no instinctive understanding of what moves them. But then what do you expect from a country that talks as if the working class no longer exists, and pretends that nearly everyone is ‘middle-class’ –  most especially when they are not.

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  • ThisOldMan

    If you want to understand a pie, you have to slice it up in the right way. That’s why you’re confused. I suggest you try reading “American Nations” by Colin Woodard.

  • Augustus

    Lower marginal tax rates = higher economic growth = higher GDP = bigger tax base = higher tax revenues at the lower tax rates.

    • RC

      Ummm…., no. Check the statistics.

  • MS61

    The curious thing is that in 2008, Obama won 19 of the 20 wealthiest census tracks in America and got much more in campaign contributions from Wall St than McCain. The CEOs of Lehman, JP Morgan, Goldman were all Dems as was Bob Rubin at Citigroup and that’s not even counting Dem crooks like Bernie Madoff and Jon Corzine. You need to turn Frank’s question on its head and ask why these people are voting against what you would consider their interests.

  • Radford_NG

    22 Sept.c.9.45am.BST….”The old fear democracy will allow the poor to fleece property owners…”was the view of the only historic figure admired by the Left:Lord General Cromwell,who said the poor would dispossess the rich.This was in contrast to the Apostle of democracy whose name is hardly known:Colonel Rainsborough;who declared:”The lowest He should should have as much say as the highest He”.Many on the Right still agree with Lord General Cromwell…..inspite of the Conservatives having been the natural party of government,until wrecking family finances with the €uropean ERM policy.

  • Eli

    The “working class” is divided into those who are employed in the private sector, and those in pay of government. Then there is the unemployed working class, those on unemployment benefits, disability, or who have left the work force. They do not pay income tax. Then there is the “poor”, who do not pay income tax – and who are probably on some form of welfare.
    The point Romney was making should not have been about welfare “victims.” That was mispoken. But it is about the fact that once government is more than half the economy, social democracy has won. Self-sufficiency is no longer worth voting for – as the ever-diminishing number of net-wealth providers have a growing number of government dependents (workers and benefit receivers) to support. Of course, the government can continue to borrow money to pay for government salaries and dole – and we can have our own Eurocrisis here. That will grow the non-working class. Obama bears proudly the title of “food stamp President.”

  • Will Cooling

    I suggest you go back and look at the full Obama quote. He quite clearly placed his comments in the context of successive disappointments “You go into some of these small towns in Pennsylvania, and like a lot
    of small towns in the Midwest, the jobs have been gone now for 25 years
    and nothing’s replaced them. And they fell through the Clinton
    administration, and the Bush administration, and each successive
    administration has said that somehow these communities are gonna
    regenerate, and they have not. So it’s not surprising, then, that they
    get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who
    aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a
    way to explain their frustrations.”

  • doz

    As a rule, if you tax something, you get less of it. Hence, gasoline and cigarettes are taxed to encourage abstemious use of the former and conservation of the latter.

    At my absolute poorest and most destitute, I never could be persuaded that taxing to punish “the rich” had much appeal. I’ve made use of government benefits, but they are lousy, meager, and stopgap at best. I’ve wanted lower taxes because I don’t want economic activity or economic success to be punished. I, and millions of other poor people around the world, would rather live in a dynamic, expanding economy where the rich are scheming and scurrying to DO things. I didn’t get rich during the economic expansion of the late 90s and early 2000s, but at least I had plenty of jobs to choose from.

    I don’t want to live in a place where “equality” is seen as the government’s priority. In that case the rich still exist, but they scheme to hide their money, put it elsewhere, or cash it into assets they can sit on or export somewhere else. That feels more like what is happening now.

    • RC

      Then you would support greatly expanded estate taxes, yes? Such a tax discourages death (grin) AND the enrichment of those who’ve done nothing more than win the womb lottery.

  • therealguyfaux

    Of course, Mr Cohen, the question being begged by you, and perhaps Mitt as well, is that the putative Obama voters actually VOTE. The US is notorious for its low voter turnout. The polls that consistently predict better are the ones that try to ascertain who those more motivated to vote are, will they vote, and for whom. Someone had better try to find out whether the people who can vote, but don’t, can ever have a fire lit under them to do so. This is not necessarily a “floating electorate” of people drifting in and out; a goodly percentage of people have never registered to vote (“They’ll call me for jury duty!” or some such specious reason). Some are disaffected, and some, let us face facts, are people who make Honey Boo Boo’s family look like brain surgeons. Some may even have religious scruples against voting. Many others may have registered, but have sat out recent elections, based on their desire to boycott what they may see as a false choice between Tweedle Dum And Tweedle Dumber.

    And let me also address the question of why people like Frank miss the point of white working class resentment: If you have a son whom you want to grow up to be President or some such Horatio Alger myth, why would you support a party that says, in effect, it doesn’t matter how relatively disadvantaged your son is, he’s not “of colour,” he is not female, and 90-odd % probability he isn’t LGBT, so he’s already behind the 8-ball as expiation for what whites may have done generations before, even though his family may only have arrived in the 20th C.? And if your daughter doesn’t want to be president of a corporation (which we’ll tax to death anyway), there’s something wrong with her? And if, as many white working class may feel, as Obama says, religious, that’s immediately suspicion-inducing ipso facto? And I’m not even going to get into why “Para Espanol oprima ‘dos’,” when you reach a telephone automated system at some governmental office, rubs some the wrong way. It will not do for the Left to say, well, these people don’t realise what’s good for them from a homo economicus standpoint, so let’s try to take the piss out of them till they catch on– that trick never works, Bullwinkle! You kick a dog long enough, it bites, FFS!

  • Mike

    The reality is that no politician , whether Republican, Democrator union leader has been honest and said as technology advances peoples education and technical skills must improve so they can been employed in more advanced engineering. Vast swathes of the American public school/state school system does not produce enough people who could be employed in the medium to high value technology manufacturing which is the backbone of the German economy. Most of the cars produced in the American market are not saleable outside of the country because they lack the technology of VW, Mercedes or BMW. Where Germany produces white goods they areat the luxury end. If one looks at the computer business , many of the creators/ leaders have been privately educatede.g Gates and Zuckerberg .
    The problem is the middle of the USA is over a thousand miles from each seaboard and the leaders have not understandingthe advances in technology and globalisation which means companies whichdo not evolve rapidly become moribund.

  • Stephen Lindsay

    Ahh c’mon this is a false equivalency. Romney clearly seems to think (well, says at any rate… who knows what he actually thinks) that everyone who doesn’t pay income tax votes Democrat because they are lazy slackers with no intention of ever contributing to their country. Obama on the other hand thinks that SOME small towners are bitter. Ones speculating disparagingly about the motivation of some voters in a certain situation, the other is saying that 47% of voting Americans ARE lazy and vote purely from self interest.

    And that’s before we even start to consider that 47% includes people who have retired, people looking for work who can’t find it, people earning below the minimum to pay welfare and (I learned the other day), most upsetting, people taking voluntary pay cuts to avoid redundancies at their company.

  • Stephen Henderson

    Have a look at the facts. Of that 47% just less than 30% still pay payroll and sales taxes. About 10% are retired and only 7% unemplyed or v low waged are not really paying tax

    It’s also telling to look at where these non-income taxpayers reside: .
    They are mostly in states that will return all their electoral votes for Romney- they are his voters.

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