Why Do Poor People Vote as if They Were Rich?

Democrats have long had trouble understanding why certain people who stand to benefit from the social safety net vote for Republicans. Many chock it up to "values" and identity interests trumping economics. Last year, Tom Jacobs at Alternet argued that conservatives live in a different "moral universe" from liberals, which makes them immune to liberal rhetoric.

This may account for "values voters," but this doesn't account for those who extol the virtues of the market that shortchanges them. In his response to the National Review cover story that Mori previously mentioned, Damon Linker stumbles onto a possible reason for the disconnect:

Like many conservatives, Lowry and Ponnuru appear to be untroubled by the chasm that separates [the rich and poor]. Sure, it’s a source of “political tension.” But it’s nothing to be overly concerned about, because, they tell us, a 2003 Gallup poll showed that “31 percent of Americans expect to get rich, including 51 percent of young people and more than 20 percent of Americans making less than $30,000 year.” That’s right: Lowry and Ponnuru think it’s a very good thing indeed that millions of Americans are deluded about their future life prospects—in fact, these senior editors of National Review give every indication of hoping to perpetuate the delusion.

Linker is right to note that the "delusion" prevents social unrest. What would it be like if this 31 percent woke up one day and realized that despite their aspirations, they have -- statistically speaking -- little chance of getting out of Skid Row? Some social psychologists theorize that unrealistic expectations like these shield one from the psychic burden of being poor, but voting for Republican policies makes the goals of poverty reduction harder to attain.

It's a bit uncharitable to say the American Dream is just another opiate for the masses is, but it is a useful fiction: In promising a payoff, the Horatio Alger myth motivates hard work and self-advancement. The problem is that in order for the American Dream to be realized, government has to put policies in place that promote social mobility. As Republican policies have dismantled the social safety net and allowed wages to stagnate while corporate profits rose, the dream is a fiction that is now more useful in the Nordic countries and Europe than in America.

-- Gabriel Arana

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