Why do poor people vote Republican?

By Raymond Freeman 12/20/2012

The 10 poorest states all voted Republican. Why do poor people vote against their own economic interests? One obvious reason is Republican lying. Republicans also use “framing” to manipulate them.

Liberals assume that political thinking consists of classical logic about economic self-interest, using neutral language. So if one presents the facts, people will reach the right conclusion. This does not happen. Most political thought is unconscious.

Conservative communicators know this, having studied marketing. Emotions are involved. People think in terms of metaphors, images and narratives, such as “sound bites.” Framing is like the viewfinder of a camera, helping to focus on issues. Notably, facts outside their frames are rejected.

Framing is the process of selective influence over the individual’s perception of the meanings attributed to words. It is a propaganda technique. Political framing uses morally based arguments, fears, emotionally based language, repetition and rejection of the opposition’s frames. “Climate change” seems less scary than “global warming.”

Wasting money is “wrong.” Hence, conservatives have framed all taxation as money taken out of decent taxpayers’ pockets by evil “big government” and wasted on “welfare queens,” implying that all taxes are wasted.

The Affordable Care Act has provisions that most Americans like. Conservatives never attacked them directly. They changed the framing from economic to social, using misdirection as a magician does to get a gut reaction. They repeated the slogans “government takeover” and “death panels” endlessly. It worked like magic. Less than half of Americans supported “Obamacare.”  But when polled, around 70 percent supported its actual provisions. Logical argument was pushed aside by emotional “hot buttons.”

“Obamacare” cut $716 billion from Medicare intended for extra corporate subsidies. In Obama’s frame, this cut out “waste” and was thus good. Romney framed this as “taking $716 billion out of Medicare” and thus bad, insofar as funding for a popular program was cut. The same number became two different “facts,” depending on framing.

The impact on the body politic is perverse. The peasants vote for the interests of the aristocracy.

America is a frightened country. It has lost its confidence. China may soon become No. 1. The white population will soon be a minority. Republicans are experts at appealing to nostalgia for a simpler past. Simple folks feel more comfortable voting for simple candidates, such as Sarah Palin. They believed she “understood” them and rejected attempts to point out her ignorance. Tea Party candidates are proud of their ignorance and appeal directly to ignorant voters.

Thomas Frank found in his book What’s the Matter with Kansas? that simple folks in Kansas treated politics as having no connection with economic affairs. They feel victimized by “liberal elites” who destroy simple old-fashioned values. They feel they are in a world over which they have no control. Their overriding interest is not economic. It is security. So they vote for Republicans, who frame themselves as the ones to bring back the good old days.

Yet Republicans have done the most to destroy the good old days. Productivity has soared but wages have stagnated for 30 years due to Republican policies. These policies have sent jobs abroad to increase profits. America’s economy is not run for everyone’s benefit. It is run for the benefit of today’s plutocrats. Attempts to point this out are framed as “class warfare,” with Democrats as “socialists” wanting to make America into a new Soviet Russia, making the poor even poorer. Are you aware of any rebuttal to this?

Republicans frame today’s Gilded Age barons as “job creators,” warning that taxing them more would increase unemployment. This is entirely false. Shortly before the 2012 election, the Congressional Research Service joined a large group of economists and found no relationship between upper-income tax rates and economic growth. Republicans had the report suppressed.  Are you aware of any furor over this?

These economic arguments are not easy to make, but Democrats hardly try. Republicans pose as being “good for business.” Bill Clinton’s convention speech showed this to be pure mythology. But poor people are still fooled into believing they will get richer if they vote Republican. In fact, they will get richer by voting Democratic. When did you last hear this pointed out?

Religious arguments are easier to make. America is the country of that old-time religion. Almost half of the population believes the Bible is literally true. They will vote for someone professing the same belief.

Voting for a candidate against abortion is logical if someone religious believes abortion is murder. Republicans are brilliant at tapping into cultural “wedge issues”: gay rights, abortion, race, immigration, guns, “family values,” etc. Poor people may care more about these than about their financial self-interest. This is not irrational: it is a function of what is more important to a given individual — moral issues or financial issues.

Finally, many people do not vote at all. Poverty is related to low turnout. Nearly 100 million people did not vote in 2012. Democrats could not motivate them. But how Democrats could reach these people, and poor conservatives, is another topic for another day.

Raymond Freeman is a resident of Thousand Oaks.


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Very nice to see this opinion piece. It contains many interesting points but misses one I think is important. Republicans hold out the remote fantasy to Americans that, "You, too, could be rich some day so don't screw it up for when you get there." They offer their version of the "American Dream" when - in an honest dose of reality - it is likely the "Impossible Dream." Republicans look at their own poll - not the one you think. It's all those people who buy raffle and lotto tickets again and again when the odds of winning are tiny. Republicans see this behavior and say, "Vote for us. You, too, could be rich some day."

posted by Rick_Closson on 12/26/12 @ 09:24 p.m.

This is the best article I've ever read in terms of the reasoning why so many people choose to vote against their own self interests. Republicans have known for some time that the only way to get poor people to vote for the wealthy politicians that despise them is to convince these voters that they stand for the same principles and want the same things. In other words, lie.

posted by volumecorps on 1/16/13 @ 05:33 a.m.

Poor people vote Republican because you don't have to be poor to realize getting crumbs from Dems is a lifetime ticket for poverty.
It's corny but true: " Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime."

posted by Scapegoat on 1/26/13 @ 01:04 p.m.
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