Here is an inconsistency for which I think there’s a reasonable explanation. There are many Americans today who will cut their own economic throats and vote against their own interests. The very poor, the very rich and the upper middle class rarely make this mistake. But a majority of white citizens without college educations and lower middle class incomes ($30,000 to $50,000) vote mostly Republican today. Of the ten states with the lowest household incomes, all have voted Republican in the past several elections. What convinces these people to cut their own throats and vote against their own economic interests?
Democrats have traditionally supported a higher minimum wage, union bargaining rights, government-assisted health care, higher taxes on the wealthy, keeping Social Security afloat and maintaining various other social programs. The Republicans have generally taken the opposite position on these issues. Republicans also contend that lower taxes on the wealthy stimulate investment and produce more income for everyone, the "trickle-down effect." But few economic growth studies support this theory. Lower taxes for the wealthy produce few trickle-down benefits for the workers, but rather a generous sucking up of income for the wealthy. Top executive incomes compared to worker incomes increased from a generous 30-1 ratio in 1978 to an obscene 296-1 in 2013, by far the largest disparity in history or in the developed world today. Then why does the lower middle class/working class support policies that sustain this inequity? Why are they loyal to GOP candidates whose promises generally turn up bogus? Some observers suggest that the highly emotional issues of abortion, school prayer and gay rights have trumped self-interest. On the surface that makes some sense, but it’s not the whole story. At the core, I think, is a long-existing social pathology.
From largely unfounded fears, resentments, passions and animosities a significant minority of Americans is easily convinced that mysterious conspiratorial forces are at work to threaten our nation’s very existence. These anxieties trace back decades prior to Civil War times. Back then the Masons were thought to entertain loyalties foreign to our national interests and values. Later the Jesuits were accused of plotting against American values and planning to extend the Vatican’s authority to Washington. This led to the forming of the Know Nothing Party to check the immigration of Catholics from Ireland and Italy. Today Donald Trump has substituted "Mexican" for "Catholic" to revive these latent fears. In the 1850s a Know Nothing Party spokesman warned "America has become the sewer into which the pollutants of European jails are emptied." Sound like anybody we might know today? This paranoid, xenophobic mindset has persisted largely uninterrupted and was alive and well at the 2016 Republican presidential campaign convention.
Using the same basic fear-mongering strategies, in order to convince the southern working class and yeoman farmers to defend slavery in 1861, the southern plantation aristocracy seduced them into believing the Yankee "Black Republicans" were coming down to Dixie to take away their homes, their livelihoods and their women. Throughout our history the names and places have changed, but the mindset of unfounded fears remains essentially the same.
George B. Reed Jr., who lives in Rossville, can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.