As we all know, ever since the 1980’s working class electorates in Europe have opted for far right parties in great numbers. Indeed, parties like the Front National in France or the British National Party went from being ultra-conservative to advocating a statist and economically protectionist platform.
This strategy has paid off and has helped far right parties to enter coalition governments in Italy and in the Netherlands. In the United States, although Republicans continue to adopt a free market stance and defend big businesses and deregulation, it seems that the Grand Old Party attracts a significant working class vote. This raises the question: why do these working class American folks vote conservative when it is by all standards against their self-interest? It seems that they do for a set of various reasons: Republican ideals of liberty and emphasis on certain moral values play for one part; social policies that derive worker’s attention from fundamental economic issues have worked very efficiently; a patriotic and aggressive foreign policy completes the bill. Lastly, we should not underestimate the lack of attention from the Democratic Party towards the working class, especially since the Clinton era.
Liberty and personal responsibility
The first issue I would like to address is the concept of liberty. Republicans are very attached to liberty, while Democrats prioritize equality and fairness. America was constructed on principles of liberty and the idea that liberty fuels upward social mobility. As we have seen during Obama’s presidency, workers responded extremely well to the republican argument whereby healthcare programs jeopardized Americans’ personal liberty, which is guarded by the constitution. The strategy paid off, and thus when Democrats try to provide assistance to the needy, they are perceived as trying to replace values of personal responsibility and family solidarity with government programs. By focusing on liberty and not on “caring” Republicans appealed to workers’ moral needs. And just like certain Forbes 500 CEOs vote democrat because they subordinate their economic self-interests to their ideals, workers subordinate their potential healthcare and wage benefits to this precious “liberty” which may one day help them move up the social ladder.
This notion of liberty has been crucial in the gun control debate. Indeed, many working class Americans live in more dangerous neighborhoods, and feel entitled to the defense of their families. Where the police fail, the second amendment intervenes, and allows workers to bear weapons and protect their families. “Liberals in the upper east side don’t need guns, but we do!” On this contentious topic, Democrats are challenging this fundamental right, and albeit all the evidence against gun possession, the right of self-justice is a component of this precious liberty which workers enjoy. Republicans and the NRA have grasped the electoral vitality of this argument.
The flag, religion
The second major issue is that of religion, which is no longer as important in Europe. Workers remain in the United States the most tedious and faithful Christians. In addition to liberty, the United States was founded under religious principles, and this is why “under God” is mentioned in the pledge of allegiance which school kids recite every day at school. Workers despise progressive platforms that offer marriage to homosexuals and abortion rights for women. In the poorer realms of American society, religion helps define one’s identity. Especially during tough times, religion has become the only remaining structuring element, and it seems that Republicans have secured that when we observe Mitt Romney’s projected results in the Bible bell.
The third inevitable component of this moral vision that unifies workers is the idea of the flag. In the hearts of Americans, conservatives have a better record when it comes to defending the United States’ interests abroad, or reaffirming its leadership and values. One must remember that when George Bush announced the “war on terror” he earned the highest approval rating in the history of the United States. Many Europeans wonder: “Why is there an unconditional love for Ronald Reagan in the United States?”. Domestically, Reagan earned the credit for the collapse of the USSR. His battle against communism is consensually praised. Progressive politicians seem to forget that American workers have the least international exposure and are usually the most devout patriots. They usually associate pacifism with betrayal. Let’s put it this way: in 1977, workers voted for Jimmy Carter; four years later, Reagan swept the election.
In the 1980’s Regan combined de-regulation with tough measures against immigration. According to recent polls, the most important issue amongst working class families is that of illegal immigration. Republicans and especially neo-conservatives have tackled Democrats for being over-protective of minorities and immigrants, and that the true social protection would be acquired by removing and deterring illegal aliens from crossing the American border. Similarly to Europe, many American workers are destabilized by globalization and the erosion of multiculturalism, and are trying to preserve deep-rooted traditional values. It is highly important to remember that Democrats haven’t received a majority of white votes in decades, and are rightfully associated with Hispanic and African-American voters. This has prevented a growing majority of working class white people from identifying themselves with the Democratic Party. In the United States the race card works both ways.
In Europe traditional left wing parties have distanced themselves from workers and turned towards free market economics and social-liberal policies. Why would workers have voted for Gerard Schroeder, who imposed severe austerity packages, or for New Labour in the UK? In the United States, a similar trend is growing. If it is true that those workers are attracted by conservatives for their social policies, and that strictly economically speaking they shouldn’t vote republican, it doesn’t necessarily imply that lately Democrats have had much more to offer. We must remind ourselves that Democrats like Bill Clinton enacted drastic cuts in public spending, and promoted the North American Free trade agreement; that under the current Obama administration employment levels have stagnated, and that industrial sector jobs continue to be outsourced. Although it would still make more sense for workers to vote Democrat, they shouldn’t be blamed for prioritizing their moral and social values, given the current political context.
Republicans seem to have found a magical recipe, combining free market policies with conservative moral and social values in order to attract two different electorates. All these elements have prevented the progressists from dominating the Democratic Party and could explain the persistence of the Blue Dog Democrats, which strongly appealed to workers when they contested Obama’s healthcare reform. However, the United States is going through unprecedented demographic changes. In 2008, one of the decisive factors for Obama’s elections was the Hispanic vote for example, which secured Obama’s victory in many swing states such as Florida. And if Republicans appeal to workers, they perform poorly amongst ethnic minorities (90 percent of African Americans vote democrat) which have become key in recent elections. Lastly, Republicans’ societal policies on abortion for example, may be well regarded amongst workers, but deeply irritate women. Under these conditions, Republicans will have to rethink their strategies, and when libertarian candidates like Ron Paul emerge, will workers even care to vote?
To go further
On Nouvelle Europe
On the internet
- Newspaper article from the Socialist Worker
- Radio show from France Culture, Les ouvriers français et américains ont-ils disparu du champ politique?
- Andrei Cimpian, Amanda Brandone, and Susan Gelman: "Cognitive psychology research helps us understand confusion of Jonathan Haidt and others about working-class voters", Journal of Cognitive Science
Photo source: AP Photo/Charles Dharapak for Yahoo News.