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, (http://wonkette.com/453955/heres-the-video-of-those-wall-streeters-drinking-champagne-above-the-protest
), 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 knowledgable and rational reasons account for some people acting against their economic self-interest; I am not dealing with those reasons.
(a) A specific sense of morality or religious principles: Being rich is a sign of virtue; being poor is a sign of sloth. Calvinism still holds power in American thinking even for people who are not religious. It is the moral obligation of a good American to work hard and succeed financially; as a corollary, it is immoral to accept help from the government. One's virtues are seen in one's financial success; the rich are the Elect of our Puritan forebears. Any hurdle can be overcome with sufficient effort, and gawd might be asked to lend a hand. (The Prosperity Preachers among today's Evangelicals are simply preaching an exaggerated version of this belief, founded upon "Ask and ye shall receive.")
A side note to the above is that Calvinism provides a safe refuge for the racists among us. African Americans, Hispanics, and some other racially or ethnically identifiable groups are poor because they are slothful and deserve to be poor. The supposed proof that the racists are right is Herman Cain -- one of the few admirable African Americans because he made it high in white-dominated society. Some racists offer a Biblical justification for their racism, just as their Puritan forebears proclaimed that slavery was mandated by gawd.
(b) Lack of understanding of economics and society: Many Americans insist that anyone, no matter what their origins, can make it in modern society. Racism is simply a fiction perpetuated by sociologists and other Socialists. The Horatio Alger myth is real, and his success is still attainable. Their's is a mythical economy in which everyone works with full information, everyone faces no friction in achieving legitimate goals (or overcomes those hurdles encountered along the way), and everyone operates in a free market in which willing buyers reach fair agreements with willing sellers. If what one is selling is labor, the seller recognizes that the buyer has no obligation to hire, much less an obligation to look out for the laborer's welfare. The free market dictates that some people will forever be at the bottom, because capitalism requires a reserve of desperate and willing laborers. Society's rewards are thus justly divided among those who have made themselves eligible for rewards. The top 20% who control 85% of the nation's wealth have earned every penny, as have the top 1% who control more than 42% of the nation's wealth. The fact that all this neoliberal economic nonsense is widely believed is evidence of how far to the right the nation's "political center" is.
(c) The lie: The Senate has just rejected a part of the President's jobs program because it would be funded by an increase of about $13,000 in the taxes paid by people who are making more than a million dollars each year. The reason for the rejection? The tax would hit the very people who create jobs, the owners of small businesses. It would thus lead to job losses.
That is the big lie that has worked so well for the Republicans: it is the rich business owners who create jobs in America, and anything that imperils a fraction of their wealth imperils the creation of jobs. That $13,000 in added taxes would doom the economic recovery.
Perhaps because they have not been clearly and repeatedly told, many Americans do not know that very few small businesses net their owners a million dollars a year in taxable income. Most new jobs are indeed created by small businesses, some of which are themselves new, but these are small
businesses. Those small businesses that actually create the jobs would not have been affected by the Democrats' effort to raise taxes on the very rich by a small fraction -- a 0.7% increase in taxes.
Who would believe the nonsense spouted by the Republicans in their rejection of this part of the President's jobs bill? Among the believers would be those who insist that the major issue facing this country is jobs and who have no understanding of who creates jobs. Among the believers would be those who think that reversing America's plunge into increasing income and wealth inequality would be a Socialist program, the "redistribution of wealth" that "Joe the Plumber" clumsily condemned. Among them are those who equate the raising of taxes on the very rich with class warfare.
Maybe Elizabeth Warren can destroy that lie. She has the brains and the guts to pound the Orrin Hatches of the world into their finely groomed lawns. If Massachusetts did not need the Senator that Warren would become, she would make a fine candidate for Vice President, replacing a good man who is past his prime.
We need warriors for the middle class, as the President has sometimes claimed to be. I think he is afraid to trumpet that slogan widely, fearing that the great American political center will see it as a Socialist or even Communist goal.
Economic inequality is the biggest domestic problem facing this country today. It ought to be at the center of 99%/Occupy Wall Street. It ought to be at the center of the Democrats' platform. If Democrats lose because of that, they will have lost fighting for a noble cause -- one that will soon come roaring back into American politics. Champagne on the high balcony will be something that the 1% come to regret.