The significant other asked a question the other day.  SO said “I understand why the rich people accept that extreme inequality is legitimate and vote for the conservatives that want to preserve the existing system with all its inequalities, but why do the poor people accept it’s legitimacy? Why do they accept things the way they are? Why do the poor and working class vote conservative?”

A statement like this assumes certain things as givens, things my SO assumes, things I assume.  I’m not going to try to convince you of these things, but I will spell out what the key assumptions are: 1) our society is extremely unequal, more so that almost all other advanced, highly technological, capitalist industrial nations (i.e., most of Europe, Canada, Australia, New Zealand). 2) it has gotten more unequal over the past thirty years, with a growing gap between those at the top and those at the bottom. 3) Our political system is skewed to provide benefits to those who already have money, and help them make more money — doesn’t mean that the ordinary person and the poor person never benefits, but that the scales tip way, way on the side of those who already have millions or billions. 4) The answer to the question is NOT why shouldn’t they accept our wonderful, beautiful, marvelous economic and political system, its the best there could possibly be.  No definitely not the answer.

Your old fashioned, material Marxist is going to say that the answer is “false consciousness.” That is that poor and working people have been so brain washed they don’t even know they are being screwed. Totally disagree with that. Ordinary folks really do know the difference between piss in their ear and rain.

So my initial answer is, the folks at the bottom, the ones who are on the losing side of the economic contest, who work and work and never quite get ahead, or even for that matter caught up, these folks do not in fact accept the way things are. They don’t think its legitimate or fair or right that the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. So the question isn’t why they accept things the way they are as legitimate, but why, knowing that they are getting screwed they don’t stand up and fight and change things.

I think that the answer to that question is very complex and multifaceted. There are actually multiple reasons.

One of the first answers is that those at the bottom of society make a realistic assessment of what happens to  people like them when there are major changes in society — even if the changes will ultimately, over the long run,  create a better and fairer society, getting there is highly disruptive even without violent conflict, and the lower you are in the food chain the more you and yours are likely to suffer in any disruption.

Another, related answer is that most people, certainly those in the working class, even if they are deprived in a relative sense, have some level of material well-being and security. They have a job, even if it isn’t a great job, they have some income, they have a place to live, they have a family to nurture and protect. In other words, they have a stake, albeit a small stake, in the existing order of things.  Their primary concern in life is not about how to get more, but rather how to avoid ending up with less.  They have little or no experience with social changes that result in improvements in their way of life.  In their experience or observation of the world, changes are more often negative than positive.

Liberalism is essentially a forward, future looking philosophy; conservatism is a backward, past looking philosophy — a desire to preserve or conserve that which already exists or existed in the past. In the 1960’s American had experienced more than a decade of positive economic growth, more jobs, higher real incomes, declining inequality, some expansion of civil rights, opening up of opportunity for education.  This bred a forward looking mentality, liberalism in the American people. Day to day, year to year experience said that change was good, life improved with change, new things were possible and could make life even at the bottom better. This prompted even greater positive changes in the 1960’s, the Voting Rights Act, the desegregation of schools, the expansion of opportunity for education and jobs for women, blacks and the poor. 

Then, for a variety of reasons, way to complex to go into in this post (never fear I’ll get to them one day), the world caught up with America, the economic climate changed.  A new type of change began in the early 1970’s, one in which men’s wages stagnated, traditional high paying blue collar jobs went else where in the world, and the new service sector jobs either required higher levels of education (for the good paying ones) or were poorer paying jobs often with fewer benefits, and often in areas traditionally dominated by women.  Family incomes kept up with inflation only by putting more family members to work. Whole manufacturing sectors (basic steel production, textile production, television production) started to disappear from the American scene.  The new jobs were at Walmart where cheap goods from other countries, helped families cope with declining times.

A new conservatism emerged — Reagan conservatism — one that proclaimed “morning” in America, that promised to make things better by going backwards. Conserving the past. Today’s poor and working class, tend to vote conservative because their experience is that the past was better than the present.  They have little hope for change to create a better future. Only the past seems to offer a better outcome, and the past is what conservatives offer voters.  Let’s go backward, to when women and blacks knew their place, to when no one expected us to respect diversity in religious belief or sexual orientation or lifestyle, to when there was prayer in the schools and teachers exercised corporal punishment. Things were better back then. 

The fallacy of course in that thinking is not the assessment that things were better back then. Because, at least economically for most white Americans they were better. There was a lower level of inequality, a man with a high school diploma could support a family, while his wife stayed at home with their 2.5 children.  The fallacy comes from asserting that what made things better was the prayer in the schools, or the repression of blacks and women. What made things better was a constellation of world political and economic factors that cannot be reproduced. A world in which the United States was the only major economic power not physically devastated by World War II.  That world doesn’t exist any more and cannot be recreated, no matter how many prayers are said in the classrooms, or how obedient wives are to their husbands, or how thoroughly folks attempt to undo affirmative action.

Barack Obama made a speech in California that drew fire from all sides, in which he said:

“in a lot of these communities in big industrial states like Ohio and Pennsylvania, people have been beaten down so long, and they feel so betrayed by government, and when they hear a pitch that is premised on not being cynical about government, then a part of them just doesn’t buy it. And when it’s delivered by — it’s true that when it’s delivered by a 46-year-old black man named Barack Obama, then that adds another layer of skepticism.

But — so the questions you’re most likely to get about me, ‘Well, what is this guy going to do for me? What’s the concrete thing?’ What they wanna hear is — so, we’ll give you talking points about what we’re proposing — close tax loopholes, roll back, you know, the tax cuts for the top 1 percent. Obama’s gonna give tax breaks to middle-class folks and we’re gonna provide health care for every American. So we’ll go down a series of talking points.

But the truth is, is that, our challenge is to get people persuaded that we can make progress when there’s not evidence of that in their daily lives. You go into some of these small towns in Pennsylvania, and like a lot of small towns in the Midwest, the jobs have been gone now for 25 years and nothings replaced them. And they fell through the Clinton administration, and the Bush administration, and each successive administration has said that somehow these communities are gonna regenerate and they have not. So it’s not surprising then that they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.”

The only thing I’d disagree with Obama with is the use of the word “bitter.”  A far more accurate word would be “disaffected” or even better “alienated.” Because people aren’t bitter (an emotional state), they go about their everyday lives with a sense of humor and often good cheer. But they have become disconnected or disaffected from the political world, they have developed a sense of powerlessness or alienation. And when things are going badly, and one has little expectation that change will bring improvement, because recent history says things are getting worse, people do cling to the past, they do become conservative. And they do accept inequalities that they know hurt them and their families, and that they know are unfair, but things could be worse.

This isn’t the end of the story, but it’s the end of this installment of Lian going out on a limb.