Taking on a Big Question: Why Embrace Plutocracy over Working Class Heroes?Posted: June 9, 2012
The UK Guardian has always been one of my favorite papers. One of my high school social science teachers–Steve Wiitala–introduced me to the paper when I was taking an honors world history seminar class. I’ve been reading it ever since. Jonathan Haidt–a psychology prof–asks a question that I’ve been wondering for years. Why on earth would any working class person support some one like Ronald Reagan or Mitt Romney? Why would they even consider voting for reactionaries funded by the likes of the Koch Brothers? Why would they vote against their own interests?
I’ve always looked to the slave plantation model for answers. White overseers for rich masters were given just enough special favors and made to feel above the plantations’ slaves that they felt better thinking “well, at least I’m not one of them”. White working class people have a history of indentured servitude and sharecropping. Why go back to people that really would like to re-institute these things? Haidt says that fear of the collapse of society sends them look for order and anything national greatness. I wanted to explore his arguments here. (You can also watch this interview with Haidt by Bill Moyers. ht/ to EcoCatWoman.)
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.
Brain research is beginning to find that folks that tend to call themselves “conservative” tend to be more fearful. Chris Mooney–Author of The Conservative Brain–explains it like this.
Looking at MRIs of a large sample of young adults last year, researchers at University College London discovered that “greater conservatism was associated with increased volume of the right amygdala” ($$). The amygdala is an ancient brain structure that’s activated during states of fear and anxiety. (The researchers also found that “greater liberalism was associated with increased gray matter volume in the anterior cingulate cortex” – a region in the brain that is believed to help people manage complexity.)
That has implications for our political world. In a recent interview, Chris Mooney, author of The Republican Brain, explained, “The amygdala plays the same role in every species that has an amygdala. It basically takes over to save your life. It does other things too, but in a situation of threat, you cease to process information rationally and you’re moving automatically to protect yourself.”
Haidt says that this kind of thinking has some disturbing impact on people that tend to obsess on fear. Group loyalty can drive people who want to feel safe. Does this explain the effectiveness of Willie Horton ads and all those Rovian tricks that seem paranoid and some what zombieland-like to us?
But on matters relating to group loyalty, respect for authority and sanctity (treating things as sacred and untouchable, not only in the context of religion), it sometimes seems that liberals lack the moral taste buds, or at least, their moral “cuisine” makes less use of them. For example, according to our data, 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.”
In America, it is these three moral foundations that underlie most of the “cultural” issues that, according to duping theorists, are used to distract voters from their self-interest. But 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 conservative moral cuisine.
Does our place in Maslow’s hierarchy really determine our susceptibility, vulnerability, and motivation at the voting booth? Haidt says yes and sums his thesis up this way.
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. They are voting for the party that serves to them a more satisfying moral cuisine.
So, these are the same motivators that drive people to guns, bibles, and tribal thinking that demonizes the ‘other’. Is the angry right just a bunch of folks that are scared shitless? It’s an interesting theses. Dr. Bostonboomer probably has more information on some of this than me. I am interested in hearing your thoughts. What is the appeal of voting for your own servitude?