Republican Paul Ryan, like most other members of the United States Congress, is a millionaire.
Christa Patton is 68 years old. She is frail and no longer able to leave her home. She lives on a fixed income. Patton told Van Jones on a recent episode of his CNN show “The Messy Truth” that she would not be able to eat without the Meals on Wheels program.
Paul Ryan is the speaker of the United States House of Representatives. By his own account, in college he used to hang out with his friends and drink beer while sharing his dreams of cutting Medicaid. When Ryan was 15 years old, his father died from a heart attack caused by alcoholism. Ryan and his family then received his father’s Social Security survivor’s benefits. Ryan used that money to attend college. This was not the only money that Paul Ryan received from federal government. His family built its wealth from receiving government contracts.
Like his idol Ayn Rand (who argued against the very idea of government and the commons yet received social security and Medicare). Paul Ryan has combined meanness, cruelty and callousness towards the weak and the vulnerable with gross and unapologetic hypocrisy.
Republicans like Ryan — along with the millionaires and billionaires who comprise Donald Trump’s Cabinet and inner circle — literally want to take food, shelter and health care away from poor people like Christa Patton. Today’s Republicans view these Americans as useless eaters to be disposed of by means both passive and active.
It is normal to feel aghast at and disgusted by the Republican Party’s war on the poor. The more challenging and perhaps even more disturbing task is to ask why today’s conservatives feel such antipathy, disregard and hostility towards poor and other vulnerable Americans. Certainly greed and a slavish devotion to a revanchist right-wing ideology are part of the answer. But they may not be sufficient
Conservatives are more likely to exhibit social dominance and bullying behavior. This is a function of their authoritarian tendencies. The election of Donald Trump exemplifies this phenomenon.
American political elites often use language that robs poor and other marginalized people of their individuality, humanity and dignity. This language also creates a type of social distance between “middle class” or “normal” Americans and the economically disadvantaged.
Conservatism is a type of motivated social cognition that by its very nature is hostile to those groups located on the lower rungs of the social hierarchy.
Conservatives are more likely than liberals or progressives to believe in what is known as the “just world fallacy,” where people who suffer misfortune are viewed as somehow deserving their fates. Conservatives are also more likely than liberals or progressives not to use systems-level thinking as a means of understanding that individuals do not exist separate and apart from society. Conservatives are also more likely to defend social inequality as “fair and legitimate.”
Social psychologists have shown that, in effect, poor people are invisible to the rich and upper classes.
The psychological dynamic known as the “diffusion of responsibility,” in which individuals tend to ignore people who are in crisis — especially if they are perceived to be a member of a different social group, race, ethnicity or class — also encourages a lack of empathy and concern. It undercuts policies meant to offer direct assistance to vulnerable and marginalized individuals and communities. A perverse corollary to the “diffusion of responsibility” can also be used to legitimate punitive policies that target specific individuals and groups.
The myth of meritocracy and its cousin the myth of individualism exert a powerful hold over many Americans. This is especially true among conservatives. Social scientists and others have repeatedly demonstrated that American society is not a true meritocracy. Other research has shown that intergenerational income and class mobility are also relatively uncommon in the United States.
Likewise, the concept of the self-made person whose success is a function of “rugged individualism” is also a fantasy better suited to its dime-store origins than as a serious way of understanding American society. Nevertheless, these cultural mythologies do the practical political and social work of legitimizing the Republican war on the poor.
Race and class are intimately linked together in American (and Western) society. As such, poor people are incorrectly stereotyped as being overwhelmingly black and brown. In the United States, the intersections of race and class also impact the media narratives and cultural scripts that dictate who and what groups have historically been considered “deserving” (widows of war veterans, the disabled, single white mothers, children, the elderly) and “undeserving” (adult men and people of color).
Conservative media — and sometimes mainstream media as well — routinely uses false and misleading information to discuss the social safety net. For example, President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society as well as President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal initiatives were extremely successful in terms of alleviating poverty and improving the general welfare of the American people. Yet right-wing media consistently tells its public that such programs were failures, a narrative that intentionally ignores the Republican Party’s efforts to undermine the effectiveness of those programs.
Among evangelical Christians, what is called the “prosperity gospel” has become increasingly influential. This grotesque interpretation of Christian doctrine assures its adherents that poor people deserve their circumstances because God has chosen not to bless them with money. Conversely, rich people have more money because God has deemed them worthy. Christian evangelicals — especially those who believe in the prosperity gospel — were a key constituency in Donald Trump’s winning coalition.
The brain structures of conservatives and liberals are quite different. Conservatives are capable of being empathetic. However, conservatives focus those feelings on their in-group such as immediate family and community. Liberals have a different biological inclination: They are able to feel empathy for those people and groups who are not part of their close social circle and community.
What can be done?
The bad news is that there is no evidence to suggest that the brains of conservatives can be modified to make them more empathetic and sympathetic towards their fellow human beings. Nor is the harmful messaging and narratives from the right-wing media about poor folks — and the Other more generally — likely to change in the foreseeable future.
On the level of practical politics, there have been no substantial negative electoral consequences to Republicans’ decades-long war on the social safety net and the common good. Thus, there is no reason in terms of electoral calculus for the Republican Party to stop pursuing such policies. Moreover, it is unlikely that conservative red-state voters will “wake up” and stop supporting a political party that actually leaves them less economically prosperous and financially secure. Here, poor and working-class Republican voters are like Pavlov’s dogs, seeking out abuse from their masters in the hope that the latter will hurt other Americans even more so.
But maybe there is hope. Americans must reinvigorate their social and political institutions across divides of race and class. This is the social glue that can be used to transcend the culture of cruelty that the Republican Party and the regime of neoliberal economics has imposed in the United States. Political messaging is critical: America should be a true “we the people” democracy that meets the needs of all people and not just those of the rich and the powerful. The Democratic Party must improve the way it communicates that vision to the American people.
Unfortunately, the Republican war on the poor is but one sign of the deep moral rot at the heart of American society. This crisis extends well beyond the election of Donald Trump and the cruelty both promised and so far enacted by his cadre and the Republican Party. If a society is judged by how it treats the most vulnerable and weak, America is a country in decline, a country whose citizens should be ashamed of their leaders — and, in some cases, ashamed of themselves.