Why Do Working-Class People Vote Conservative?
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Why on Earth would a working-class person ever vote for a conservative candidate? This question has obsessed the American left since Ronald Reagan first captured the votes of so many union members, farmers, urban Catholics and other relatively powerless people – the so-called "Reagan Democrats". Isn't the Republican party the party of big business? Don't the Democrats stand up for the little guy, and try to redistribute the wealth downwards?
Many commentators on the left have embraced some version of the duping hypothesis: the Republican party dupes people into voting against their economic interests by triggering outrage on cultural issues. "Vote for us and we'll protect the American flag!" say the Republicans. "We'll make English the official language of the United States! And most importantly, we'll prevent gay people from threatening your marriage when they … marry! Along the way we'll cut taxes on the rich, cut benefits for the poor, and allow industries to dump their waste into your drinking water, but never mind that. Only we can protect you from gay, Spanish-speaking flag-burners!"
One of the most robust findings in social psychology is that people find ways to believe whatever they want to believe. And the left really want to believe the duping hypothesis. It absolves them from blame and protects them from the need to look in the mirror or figure out what they stand for in the 21st century.
Here's a more painful but ultimately constructive diagnosis, from the point of view of moral psychology: politics at the national level is more like religion than it is like shopping. It's more about a moral vision that unifies a nation and calls it to greatness than it is about self-interest or specific policies. In most countries, the right tends to see that more clearly than the left. In America the Republicans did the hard work of drafting their moral vision in the 1970s, and Ronald Reagan was their eloquent spokesman. Patriotism, social order, strong families, personal responsibility (not government safety nets) and free enterprise. Those are values, not government programs.
The Democrats, in contrast, have tried to win voters' hearts by promising to protect or expand programmes for elderly people, young people, students, poor people and the middle class. Vote for us and we'll use government to take care of everyone! But most Americans don't want to live in a nation based primarily on caring. That's what families are for.
One reason the left has such difficulty forging a lasting connection with voters is that the right has a built-in advantage – conservatives have a broader moral palate than the liberals (as we call leftists in the US). Think about it this way: our tongues have taste buds that are responsive to five classes of chemicals, which we perceive as sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and savoury. Sweetness is generally the most appealing of the five tastes, but when it comes to a serious meal, most people want more than that.
In the same way, you can think of the moral mind as being like a tongue that is sensitive to a variety of moral flavors. In my research with colleagues at YourMorals.org, we have identified six moral concerns as the best candidates for being the innate "taste buds" of the moral sense: care/harm, fairness/cheating, liberty/oppression, loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion, and sanctity/degradation. Across many kinds of surveys, in the UK as well as in the USA, we find that people who self-identify as being on the left score higher on questions about care/harm. For example, how much would someone have to pay you to kick a dog in the head? Nobody wants to do this, but liberals say they would require more money than conservatives to cause harm to an innocent creature.