During the 2008 Presidential election, 51% of white voters who earned less than $50,000
a year voted for John McCain. The Pew Research Center reported that, during the 2012 election, the GOP held a 54 percent to 37 per cent advantage over Democrats among whites without a college degree -- which correlates with income at a lower level. While people at the very bottom of the income level vote Democratic, a majority of white people in the lower middle class (those earning from $30,000 to $50,000) vote Republican. Of the ten states with the lowest household median income in 2008, nine voted Republican.
Why should this be so? Based purely on self-interest, such lower wage earners should vote for the party that would help them the most economically. The Democrats favor a higher minimum wage, protection of union rights, generous, if not free, medical care programs for working class Americans, safety regulations for the working place, reducing global warning (which effects the health of everyone), higher taxes on rich people to pay for even more generous social programs, and maintaining if not increasing social security payments. Republicans, on the other hand, want to reduce taxes on the rich, restrict union rights, repeal Obamacare, privitize social security benefits (which could undermine the program's reliability) and eliminate various regulations on business, including safety requirements and efforts to deal with global warming.
Of course, the Republicans argue that reducing taxes and regulations would help workers because the rich would increase their investments in new businesses and bolster the economy. That investment in turn would increase wages for everyone. The facts and economic theory does not bear this out. There are no trickle down benefits for the poorer, only sucking up benefits for the rich.
Over the past decades, almost all the gains in the growing economy went to the rich. Income for the middle 60% of the population grew by 40% from 1979 to 2011 , an average of 1.8% a year. On the other hand, the income of the top 1% in that same period grew over 200% , an average of over 9% each year. The ratio between CEO income and worker income rose from 30 to one in 1978 to 296 to one in 2013. The top 10% of the population received 32% of the nation's total income in the 1960's and 51% in 2014. In terms of wealth, the top 3% owned 44% of the total wealth of the nation in 1989, but this increased to 54% in 2013. The wealth of the bottom 90% fell from 33% of the total wealth in 1989 to 24% in 2013.
So why does the white, lower middle class, population continue to favor the Republicans despite the fact that the economic promises of the party have been shown to be bogus? Partly it is a cultural phenomenon. The Republican platform is against abortion and gay marriage and for gun rights, important issues for lower middle class whites. Various studies also show that Americans who attend church frequently are significantly more likely to be Republican and less likely to be Democratic. Only 25% of white Protestants who attend church once a week vote Democratic. And 61% of the religiously unaffiliated vote Democratic. These statistics suggest that ideology trumps self-interest.
There is a darker element to this division. Richard Hofstadter has referred to the "paranoid style in American politics." He refers to the "animosities and passions of a small minority" who believe that mysterious conspiracies are threatening their lives. http://harpers.org/archive/1964/11/the-paranoid-style-in-american-politics/ These ideas go back to the earliest days of the nation when the Masons were believed to have established a separate system of loyalty to their own group that interfered with loyalty to the nation. Then the Jesuits were thought to be center of an evil plot against American values. The Know-Nothing party was formed in the 1850's precisely to counter the influx of Catholics from Ireland and Italy whom the party accused of undermining the nativist values of the nation. One of the party's newspapers complained: "America has become the sewer into which the pollutants of European jails ae emptied," a statement that could be published today by Republican candidates for President, if one substituted "Mexican" for "European."
This paranoid style in American politics is still alive today. We have a questioner of Donald Trump telling him that we have to get rid of all the Muslims in the United States. Almost all of the Republican candidates for President seem to support the idea - similar to the platform of the Know-Nothing party -- that immigrants are the true source of evil in our society. They do not speak our language, take away our jobs, pollute our neighborhoods with their dirty ways, spread diseases, murder our children and rape our wives and daughters.
The Tea Party is the true successors of the Know Nothing Party. The origins of the name came when a correspondent on CNBC, Rick Santelli, complained about a government program to make payments to homeowners who could no longer make mortgage payments. He condemned the idea that the government would "subsidize the losers" and asked for a tea party to be formed to object to government social programs. So the "losers" the poor, the racial minorities, the immigrants, the 47% are the problem, not the owners and bosses who demand and receive the biggest cut of the pie and refuse to share their wealth with the middle class.
But all of this plays into Republican hands. Rather than accurately explain the true economic issues facing the middle class, they invent bogus tax plans that have no basis in reality -- shrinking the tax code to three pages and reducing taxes to everyone (mostly those on top) which will somehow trim down the national debt and bring untold benefits to everyone. When these benefits do not emerge, Republican leaders barrage the lower middle class with attacks on the bad people (immigrants, Muslims) who do not look or talk like them and threaten their lives and jobs. They play on the lower middle class' impulse to believe themselves better than some other group which becomes the basis for their own self-esteem. The Republicans insist that the presence of Latino immigrants and Muslims are the reasons for the lower class' dissatisfaction with their life. Such arguments divert the middle class from insisting on higher wages and better programs that will adversely affect the rich supporters of the Party.
The Democrats must counter this nonsense with concrete programs that would improve the lives of the lower middle class. Since family values count very much for this group, Democrats should emphasize how the social programs supported by them - health care, free college education - would improve the lives of their children. And they must counter the paranoia that is so much a part of the Republican program.
Leon Friedman is a Professor of Constitutional Law at the Maurice A. Deane School of Law at Hofstra University.