«Oops--they did it again»
- Tageszeitung (Germany), upon re-election of George W. Bush in 2004
«How can 59,054,087 people be so dumb?»
- Daily Mirror (London), upon re-election of George W. Bush in 2004
The shock and dismay with which so much of the world greeted the reelection of George W. Bush as President in 2004 was entirely genuine. It seemed incomprehensible to political observers outside of the United States, even savvy ones, that the country would choose to leave in power a transparently fraudulent clique, guilty of massive military aggression, systematic abuse of human rights, widespread corruption, disregard of constitutional constraints on executive power, reversal of civil liberties, frenzied upward transfer of wealth as a principle of national policy, dismantlement of social safety nets, undermining the civil service, etc., etc., etc. The great majority of those 59,054,087 Americans who voted for Bush in 2004 were voting against their own economic (and other) interests, as a similar number does in virtually every US election, national and local. This is a conundrum that requires some investigation if we are to understand the upcoming Obama vs. Romney presidential election and foresee the political trajectory of the country across subsequent elections. Along the way, we may find that the self-destructive voter of today is not exactly the same as he was in previous elections.
According to voluminous polling data, nearly half of all likely voters intend to vote for Romney and other Republicans this year, notwithstanding the party's now slavish devotion to 1) supply-side economics (cutting tax rates, especially on the wealthy and on corporations, on the avowed assumption that this will generate economic growth, and thus serve to enhance tax revenues to compensate for the taxes lost by virtue of lower rates) and 2) trimming the public sector of the economy (because, as they insist categorically, the public sector is wasteful in everything it does). It is not possible to square the GOP's approach with the economic interests of the overwhelming majority of voters. Thus, supply-side economics is so discredited as to be unfit for honest discussion. To begin with, the correspondence between lower taxes and faster economic growth is dubious. For instance, no one has been able to demonstrate a link between lower capital gains tax rates and investment. (1) The threshold above which individual federal income tax rates impinge on economic activity is at least 50 percent, and quite possibly 70 percent, or double the highest marginal tax rates in the US right now. And historical data from around the developed world do not show faster economic growth where tax rates on high earners have been reduced. (2) Further, in scholarly forums even the spokesmen most sympathetic to supply-side economics admit that any growth that might conceivably issue from reduced tax rates cannot replace more than 32 percent of the revenues lost because of the lower rates (unsympathetic estimates are far lower, naturally). (3) Finally, the tax cuts Romney and his running mate Paul Ryan are proposing will accrue overwhelmingly to the richest Americans, while middle class taxpayers are almost certain to receive tax hikes. (4)
In conclusion, therefore, Republican voters should have no reason to expect faster economic growth for the country or lower taxes for themselves. They should be able to see that they are voting for huge upward transfers of wealth, together with a dismantlement of social safety nets and all manner of protections against commercial and environmental abuse (not to mention many other Republican pathologies). Nor can Republican voters expect ideological satisfaction or vindication in the form of a shrinking of the public sector in the US economy. The demographic pressure of an aging population, the overhang of federal and state debt, and the huge, accumulating backlog of deferred infrastructure maintenance guarantee an expanding economic role for the government over the next generation, at least. (5)
«Can there really be fascist people in a democracy. I am afraid so».
- Bob Altemeyer (6)
How, then, are we to understand the decision of approximately half of the country to vote against its own economic interests? Various forms of delusion and ignorance are at work, but the list of candidate explanations is substantial. Let us consider a few examples.
First, for a layer of people just above the poor, rivalry plays a role. Moderately poor people fear the possibility of government programs lifting people below them up to their level, at which point they would become part of the poorest segment of the population. Next, as we have posited in earlier contributions to this forum, the stagnation of working class Americans' wages over the last 40 years has deprived them of hopes to better their condition through work. The only lifeline visible to them is lower taxes, a promise Republicans bellow at every opportunity. The scholarly determination that Romney's plan is highly unlikely ever to deliver tax cuts to working people does not penetrate widely in the population, which brings us to a third explanation for economically irrational voting: the authoritarian personality.
"When misinformed people, particularly political partisans, were exposed to corrected facts in news stories, they rarely changed their minds. In fact, they often became even more strongly set in their beliefs."
-Bob Altemeyer (7)
According to a prominent authority in social psychology, Bob Altemeyer, a substantial proportion of the population is locked in what he terms an «authoritarian personality» These people prioritize authoritarianism so strongly that they are impervious to reason. They will not recognize refutations or inconsistencies of their beliefs, and will support right-wing authoritarian political candidates even when a sober assessment would reveal this to be detrimental to their personal economic interests. (8) John W. Dean, a leading analyst and critic of American conservatism, and very well acquainted with Altemeyer's work, recently estimated that 23-25 percent of the country fall into this category, implying a huge reservoir of intransigent support for the Right. (9)
Predictably, racism overlaps to a significant extent with authoritarian personality, but it deserves independent mention as we close our incomplete catalog of explanations for diseconomic voting. American sociologists estimate that «...up to a quarter of whites are still unrepentant bigots». (10) Racism waned significantly in the last decades of the twentieth century, as Hall and Lindholm relate. But there are reasons to believe it is retreating more slowly of late. As Paul Krugman summarized the last fifty years of electoral success for a GOP that has sprinted far to the Right on economic issues: «...the ability of conservatives to win in spite of antipopulist policies has mainly rested on the exploitation of racial division». (11)
The persistence of diseconomic voting patterns is not just discouraging, but ominous. Recent research on political psychology has confirmed the common sense suspicion of a linkage between authoritarian proclivities and economic anxieties, and also low self-esteem. (12) Sure enough, the financial crisis and recession has seen the rise of the authoritarian Tea Party and also a measurable erosion of empathy in much of the population. (13) In 1937 George Orwell succinctly expressed the political ramifications when a substantial portion of a middle class suffers a rapid decline, and effectively becomes part of the working class:
«All of these people have the same interests and the same enemies as the working class. All are being robbed and bullied by the same system. Yet how many of them realize it? When the pinch came nearly all of them would side with their oppressors and against those who ought to be their allies. It is quite easy to imagine a working class crushed down to the worst depths of poverty and still remaining bitterly anti-working-class in sentiment; this being, of course, a ready-made Fascist party». (14)
The upshot is that the mean-spirited, vindictive politics of the Right is finding increasing support in the American electorate. The trend could be reversed. Political proclivities are malleable. A government that respected its people, promoted security of employment and health care, and adequately countered the barrage of right-wing fear mongering would go far towards shaping a healthier political climate. Judging from his first four years in office, it does not appear probable that President Obama would energetically steer the electorate towards political sanity in a second term, and a President Mitt Romney would clearly accelerate the descent into vindictive politics. It would seem, therefore, that regeneration depends on the population itself—that part of it that still values regeneration, that is.
(1) See, e.g., Bloomberg Business Week, October 8th, 2012.
(2) Peter Diamond and Emmanuel Saez, «High Tax Rates Won't Slow Growth», Wall Street Journal, April 23rd, 2012.
(3) See, e.g., discussion in Bruce Bartlett, The Benefit and the Burden: Tax Reform—Why We Need it and What it will Take, Simon and Schuster (New York), 2012, pp. 43-44.
(4) A succinct and updated overview of how Romney will cut taxes radically at the top and raise them in the middle is George Zornick, "Romney's Seven Bigest Debate Lies," The Nation, October 17th, 2012.
(5) A useful summation is Lawrence Summers, «America's state will expand whoever wins», Financial Times, August 19th, 2012.
(6) Bob Altemeyer, The Conservative Specter, Harvard U. Press (Cambridge, MA), 1996, p. 8.
(7) Quoted in David Sirota, «The Deception of Real-Life 'Inception'«, TruthDig.com, July 30th, 2010.
(8) Altemeyer does not deny the existence of left-wing authoritarians, but says he has not been able to find them, and concludes they must be very rare (John Dean, Conservatives Without a Conscience, Viking (New York), 2006, p. 48.
(9) Braulio Campos, «Former White House Counsel John W. Dean lectures about authoritarian conservatives», The Daily Sundial, September 23rd, 2011.
(10) Quotation and discussion in John A. Hall and Charles Lindholm, Is America Breaking Apart?, Princeton U. Press, 1999, p. 134. Racism waned significantly in the last decades of the twentieth century, as Hall and Lindholm relate. But there are reasons to believe it is retreating more slowly of late.
(11) Paul Krugman, The Conscience of a Liberal, Norton (New York), 2009, p. 197.
(12) One discussion is Paul Street, «When Facts Don't Matter», Zcommunications.org, February 17th, 2011.
(13) Thus, «...the proportion of Republicans who agree that 'it is the responsibility of the government to take care of people who can’t take care of themselves' has slipped from 58 percent in 2007 to just 40 percent today». (Nicholas D. Kristof, «Scott's Story and the Election», New York Times, October 17th, 2012). Similarly, in the last few years support for torture has come back among Americans at large, exceeding levels under Bush ("Winning Message? 'If You Love Waterboarding, Vote for Romney'" CommonDreams.org, October 2nd, 2012).
(14) Quoted in Chris Hedges, «Why I am a Socialist», TruthDig.com, December 29th, 2008.