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Conservative Economics and the Lower Class

Ezra Klein has a long post about the perennial question of why poor (white) people vote for Republicans. He contrasts Thomas Frank's famous thesis that they're distracted by cultural issues with his own hypothesis that they're distracted by security issues. But like most discussion of this question, his post makes a crucial assumption -- that Democratic economic policies are better for the poor, and therefore poor people voting on economic issues will rationally prefer the Democrats. But I think this is an unjustified assumption. I've listened to my share of lower-class Republicans, and they emphatically do not agree with a strong liberal economic program. In fact, I've heard far more negative commentary from these folks about Democrats economic policies than about their cultural or security policies, far more worry that Obama was a socialist than that he was a Muslim. Joe the Plumber wasn't enough to win the election for John McCain, but he clearly tapped a strong vein of support for conservative economic policy among a significant portion of the lower class.

Sometimes this arises from believing that they themselves are -- or may soon be -- above the cutoff such that they'll be among the people that money is being taken from in order to be redistributed down the scale. But there's also a powerful moral component. Many poorer people believe that liberal economic policies (particularly raw money redistribution, which is the first one to come to mind for such voters) are unjust, even if they benefit from them. "I've always worked hard; I don't need a handout from the government" is the mantra here.

Imagine a political party ran on a "give Stentor Danielson a million dollars" platform. I would not vote for that party, despite its clear economic benefit for me, because I think such a policy is unfair. Lower-class (white) voters often think the same thing about liberal economic policies in general.

The Frank, Klein, and Danielson hypotheses are not mutually exclusive, of course. But liberals would be better off if they admitted the possibility that conservative economics can appeal to lower class voters, and therefore were willing to make a moral rather than just self-interest appeal.


Blogger Joel Monka said...

Congratulations! In my twelve years as a UU, you are only the third I've ever heard of to come to the conclussion in your final paragraph- and I'm counting myself as one of the three!

5:53 AM  
Blogger fancycwabs said...

I understand that "conservative" economic principles might appeal to lower-income voters in theory, but when expressed as a reality ("We're gonna take your money, give it to the richest guys we know, and they'll slowly give it back to you in the form of jobs. And by 'jobs' we mean jobs for overseas workers without union protection who work for $2 a day") it seems ridiculous that lower-income workers would buy it. That doesn't mean they don't buy it, but it seems ridiculous that they would.

8:24 AM  
Blogger Alon Levy said...

Stentor, there's another assumption there that is wrong. Poor people don't necessarily vote Republican. In fact, the poorer an American is, the likelier he is to vote Democratic. Poor whites may not vote as Democratic as Ezra Klein would like them to, but they vote Democratic more than Republican.

CNN's exit poll doesn't have data for poor whites. However, it says Obama lost the under-50k white vote by 4, won the overall under-50k vote by 22, and won the overall under-30k and under-15k vote by 31 and 48 respectively. This set of data makes it reasonable to assume Obama won the under-30k white vote.

9:22 AM  
Blogger Stentor said...

Alon: Even if Obama won a majority of lower-class whites, there are still a lot of them voting Republican. There are lots of races that the Dems would lose while still getting 52% of the poor white vote that they could win if they got 60% of it.

11:38 AM  
Blogger Alon Levy said...

Of course there are - not everybody thinks economic issues are the most important. That's why many people who make $500,000 a year voted Obama and many people who make $20,000 a year voted McCain.

The point is that poorer people are much likelier to vote Democratic than richer people; there's no nationwide demographic that's poor and predictably Republican. Of course each demographic will have variation. Some people really do think immigration/abortion/foreign policy is more important. Others may be concerned with socioeconomic issues but don't think of them the way the mainstream does.

10:40 AM  

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