Why do members of the middle class vote against their own economic interest by voting for the party that is doing its best to diminish and degrade the middle class while further enriching and empowering the very rich? In one form or another this question has arisen in many Fogbow (and Politijab) threads. It is not a new question; both political philosophers and empirical political scientists have tried to deal with it. It is also a focus within the field of political sociology. The current dominance of a historically aberrant sect of the Republican Party has made the question salient as never before.
Sophisticated theories discuss the fact that voters do not necessarily see their economic well-being as the paramount issue. Some are single-issue voters, often in opposition to a woman’s right to choose or a fear that no one except an extreme conservative can or will protect their rights and liberties. Some see the “war on terrorism” as the imperative of this age, with support for the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and (soon?) Iran as crucial. Unquestioning support for Israel is decisive for some. Others vote on the basis of complex clusters of issues in which is embedded the idea that the Federal government has grown too big and too powerful; they see Democrats as primarily responsible for this.
As Wall Streeters stand on the balcony and sip champagne, taunting the 99%/Occupy Wall Street protesters far below them, the question becomes even more urgent. Their mocking of the protesters was politically stupid, but I doubt that the party which they symbolize will suffer any loss of votes for this. They have seen angry young men and women, angry mature adults, and angry elderly persons protesting their practices and policies before. They have seen one of their own, John Corzine, speak out in favor of financial reform while in public service, only to return to the private sector to build a firm that would take even bigger risks than Goldman Sachs. Corzine had played their game plan very well — speak loudly and do nothing. In fact, the Tea Party made some of the same points about TARP and Wall Street bonuses. They were also ignored by Wall Street. (TARP has been a mixed success, so some people across the political spectrum approve of its results, perhaps for different reasons.)
The Republicans seem to be yearning for someone who will proudly proclaim that he is the Koch brother’s brother by a different mother — or for anyone who will beat Barack Obama, no matter what that victor’s principles might be. They accuse the President of having a Socialist agenda, even though his acts and words have been barely to the left of the center of American politics. They accuse him of deceit, corruption, and incompetence, whatever will peel a few more votes away from the President.
Their candidate might win the White House and help to shift the Congress further to the right. If the election were today and Romney were the Republican nominee, the results would be too close to call. Romney’s very lack of principles might make the great middle of the American electorate comfortable with the guy who promises much running against the guy with upwards of 8% unemployment hanging over his head.
Why would the middle class vote for the party that has taken every possible step to harm them? The more complex theories sketched above may explain this. However, I suggest three simplistic reasons account for such a decision by many: (a) a specific sense of morality or religious principles, (b) a fundamental misunderstanding not only of economics but also of society, and (c) a lie that is widely and repeatedly told. The lie seems to me the strongest explanation. It may well be that more knowledgeable and rational reasons account for some people acting against their economic self-interest; I am not dealing with those reasons.