21 Nov 2012

When The Poor Vote Conservative

By Ian McAuley
Around the world social conservatism is making a comeback, feeding off a fear of change during fragile economic times. Ian McAuley writes from California on lessons for Australia from the US election

People of my generation remember the 1960s for a wave of protest in the USA and Australia directed at our governments' involvement in the Vietnam War and conscription. Even those who were not demonstrating on the streets can surely recall the rhythm of protest in the music of Jimi Hendrix, the Grateful Dead, Crosby Stills Nash and Young, and Bob Dylan.

Some of the strongest protests were at the Berkeley campus of the University of California, where in 1968 violent clashes took place between students and police around the Telegraph Avenue/Bancroft Way intersection outside the University's entrance — a location that became the symbolic centre of the student protest movement.

The day after the recent US election I checked into the Bancroft Hotel, just 200 metres from that intersection. I was there for an unofficial reunion of the Kennedy School class of 1987. The organisers decided on a post-election gathering in Berkeley, a convenient spot for those in the western states, or, in my case, from the other side of the Pacific. It was an opportunity to exchange ideas and experiences among a gathering of friends, all still engaged in politics or public policy, and all with insights on America's political and economic trends.

Berkeley has changed somewhat since the 1960s. It still has an active student community, but no longer can the visitor soak up the atmosphere of drifting marijuana smoke. The dominant scent on campus, familiar to Australians, is now from the grand eucalypts. Its Goldman School, one of America's most respected schools of public policy, was where we were able to catch up with Robert Reich, formerly of the Kennedy School before he became Secretary of Labor in the Clinton Administration, and who is now Professor of Public Policy at Berkeley.

Obama's decisive victory was clearly the dominant theme of our alumni gathering. By now we are all familiar with the electoral map, with the blue states (Democrat) along the Pacific coast and the densely populated north-east, with the red states (Republican) mainly in the south and centre. It's an odd pattern, given the traditional "left"/"right" colour associations, but those associations are losing their relevance. (Does the red now denote "redneck?")

Two days after the election, The Economist had a supplement on the "Poor in America", including a map of persistent poverty. It showed a band of poverty stretching across the southern states and reaching into Kentucky and West Virginia — all Republican strongholds. My curiosity was stimulated, and using data from America's states I looked for any relationship between income and the Republican vote. Income and the Republican vote, in fact, are mildly negatively correlated, as seen in the graph below: the Republican vote was strongest in the poorest states. (The dot in the top left corner is Utah.) So much for traditional political theory.

It's not that the poor have swung en masse to the Republicans or that the rich have converted to the Democrats. Rather, this pattern reflects discontent in those parts where the economy is weakest. As my colleagues said, in America's changing economy "white men" with basic skills are being left behind. The old semi-skilled jobs have gone, and even as America recovers economically, those jobs aren't coming back.

"Take our country back" is the plea of those who feel that their America has been taken over by alien groups, with different skin colour ("What's an African-American doing in the White House?"), who speak different languages, who display different values and sexual preferences, and who drink wine rather than Budweiser.

It's a fear exploited by those who, having unleashed so much destruction by letting Wall Street take the economy to the brink of destruction, are now promising a return to the imagined past of 1950s America. Social conservatism, they believe, can compensate for economic turmoil. That's the basic Republican agenda.

Another observation, going deeper into this division, is that America's cleavages are now even deeper than they were during the years of protest in the 1960s. The conflicts of that era were largely intergenerational, and within small communities and families. The divisions of today are more entrenched. As one of our group said, Americans can live in a world where they no longer have to associate with anyone who isn't like themselves.

In part this is because the divisions are regional: an Australian wandering the streets of Berkeley and Palo Alto could be forgiven for believing that the country is enjoying unprecedented prosperity. There is no need to deploy riot police as there was in the 1960s, because the parties in the conflict live in different worlds. The division is reinforced by traditional media such as Fox News, who are more carefully targeting their audiences, and even by newer media, where we can pick the sources that align with our own ideologies.

It is little wonder, therefore, that to many the Obama victory came as a shock. "I thought Romney was a shoo-in", commented a local politician in Wyoming, one of the poorer states. That perception is quite understandable. He would have been exposed to a world where the prevailing view is that it's all Obama's fault, and his economic incompetence is so obvious that it doesn't even need to be argued — he just "knows" it.

The most insightful aspect of this observation is that it's not about any right-wing ideological conspiracy. Rather, its about marketing strategies, matching media to customers' biases — a self-reinforcing polarisation. In America the profit motive usually trumps political ideology.

Does this carry a message for Australia?

We may be smug about our strong economy, but our recent strong performance rests largely on the luck of mineral resources and China's spurt of economic growth. We have a better "social wage" in terms of education and health care and a much higher minimum wage than the USA. (Our minimum wage, just on $16 an hour, compares with a federally mandated minimum US wage of $7.25, and some state minima in the order of $10.) We have a better system of sharing public revenues between states.

But these institutions are all under threat, and our economic disparities are widening. Even though our material standards are better, we have the same social divisions as the Americans. Ours are in the gap between the urban well-off and those in outer suburban and rural regions. It's the same division but with a different regional manifestation.

Tony Abbott knows how to speak to those who "want their country back", and he speaks with assurance. He doesn't have to argue for his position, because, like the Wyoming politician, he speaks to those who "know" that their living standards are falling, that the government is incompetent and corrupt, that our public debt is skyrocketing, that the planet isn't warming... As David Marr points out in his recent Quarterly Essay:

"Cultivating the fears and harnessing the rage of minorities is a great conservative skill. Abbott has it in spades. His pitch to the fearful is the nameless dread of change in a fragile world."

Such simplified messages, in Australia and in the USA, crowd out any hope of addressing our shared problems — growing inequality, deficiencies in public goods, over-dependence on non-renewable resources and damaging contributions to global warming. America's problems are writ larger than ours, and have some particular characteristics such as racial divisions and an even wackier set of federal-state arrangements than ours, but we are not far behind.

A specific problem facing both countries is inadequate public revenue, reinforced by a consistent message that one of our greatest menaces is "big government". Australia and the USA are both low-tax countries, with taxes at 29 and 27 per cent of GDP respectively, placing us among the lowest-taxed of all OECD countries (which have an average tax of 35 per cent of GDP). It's little wonder that our infrastructure isn't keeping up and that our education standards are slipping.

Even if their federal politicians lack the courage to raise taxes, however, Californians have taken some small steps to restore public revenue. In an initiative which commanded little attention in our press, Californians voted in favour of Governor Brown's proposition to raise state taxes. (States use federal election days to include state proposals.)

These measures raise state sales tax by 0.25 percent, and they raise state income taxes for those 3 per cent of Californians with annual incomes above $250,000. Proceeds of around $8 billion a year will be largely directed to school education. Scaled back to Australia's population (23 million compared with 38 million in California) that would equate to about $5 billion — enough to fund the Gonski reforms.

In Australia, independent MP Rob Oakeshott has had the courage to broach the issue of increasing our indirect tax revenue. He can take comfort from California's example. Californians and Australians may protest when their governments get engaged in futile military ventures, but they may be much more supportive when their governments raise taxes for worthwhile public purposes.

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Posted Thursday, November 22, 2012 - 15:22

Personally I prefer taxing the wealthy (individuals or corporates) rather than the poor (on whom indirect taxes fall disproportionately heavily).

My hope is that people can find issues and campaigns in which they have a common interest. On the basis of this knowledge and experience it may be possible to build collaboration across existing divisions.

p mahone
Posted Thursday, November 22, 2012 - 15:34

Frankly, I'm heartily sick of this analysis from satisfied and self-appointed superiors. It's condescending bollocks.

Maybe it's not so much that increasing numbers of "poor" people are actively embracing the Right as that they are being offered no coherent alternative. Really, in the big picture, where do the US Democrats differ from the Republicans or, for that matter, what is the defining difference between Julia Gillard and John Howard?

At least the Right has a coherent-ish viewpoint.

This user is a New Matilda supporter. outrider
Posted Thursday, November 22, 2012 - 18:25

I am just reading 'Coming Apart'. The Democrats are the party of the New Upper Class who have harnessed the minorities. The middle states are simply left behind and got themselves alllied with the remnants of old money.
Most peculiar mixes.

Posted Thursday, November 22, 2012 - 19:00

Also interesting to read on these themes is "Fear of a Black President" by Ta Nehisi Coates in the 'The Atlantic' September issue: (See: http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2012/09/fear-of-a-black-pres...) written just before Obama's re-election.

Although Coates' focus is on contemporary racial issues, he also identifies the deep but irrational resentment within many Republican-supporting voters to 'The Other' of any kind. Had Hilary Clinton been elected in 2008 I believe she would have inspired the same negativity - though for issues of gender rather than color, as we now see (in a relatively milder level) in Australia.

Posted Friday, November 23, 2012 - 00:35

"It’s not that the poor have swung en masse to the Republicans or that the rich have converted to the Democrats. Rather, this pattern reflects discontent in those parts where the economy is weakest."

Interesting to note that Napoleon the 3rd was elected by a huge swing in the peasant vote in France. The Bourbons and the Orleans were not in the race.
He then became 2nd Emperor of France and set stage for the 20th Century in the Pacific Region-

China-Japan-Vietnam-Korea-Mexico-The civil War in America; were all engaged by France in what looks like an attempt to equal his ancestor.

It is little surprise that those who can least afford the rising cost of living are the most discontent, and therefore looking for some big change, and someone or thing to scapegoat the problems.

Something that Ian seems to have missed in America is the backlash against Agenda 21 which is probably the best thing to have come out of 20 years of Conservative Politics Globally.

The entire thrust seems to have come from business supporting the New Right and whilst credit should be given for creating things like Sustainable Resource Management, it is also true that the Environment became a Media Political Football whilst jobs were being lost particularly here in Australia where Deregulation and Globalisation were flat out.

The Western World was so comfortable in the New Right that when France changed government to Centre Left Alarm bells went off everywhere.

I could find not one objective article in Western Media about the French Election, forcing me to conclude that the New Right was a political fad that thought they had won the right to exclusive rule and we could now live in a world "Where the buffalo roam and the deer and the antelope play......"

So much for 'The best things of the French Revolution" The american War of Independence and The Westminster System"
Lets rally for the Magic Ferris Wheel at the end of the Agrarian Field called the GDP, mineral resources and the stock market.

In as much as the word Socialist is the demon lets drop that word and use Centre Left.

With Germany in Centre Right and France in Centre Left, I think democracy has solved the problem in the EEC.

I say that because even an elementary investigation of the Treaty of Elysee reveals that we are not just talking about a piece of paper.
France and Germany have actually become Friends and many a joint initiative has been successfully embarked on since 1967 when the Treaty of Friendship[sic] was signed.

I personally think that Germany will probably stay in Centre Right and watch what changes France makes.

I really hope that the Treaty Stands because Two Trains Running with One Agenda is what the World should be doing, I thought that in 2000 when I studied Agenda 21 at University, I said it in the 2001 election but unfortunately to deaf ears.

Whereas our next election is looking towards America, so I can appreciate the thrust of this article, I wish Australian media would get a bit more politically savvy and broaden the debate to something with Global Meaning in terms of the real facts.

eva cox
Posted Friday, November 23, 2012 - 13:30

eva cox

I think there is a much deeper question here. I have been saying for some time we need to discuss living in a society, not an economy, and the data used here confirm that need to look at social causality, not primarily material connections. Both Marx and markets are not working for predicting voting behaviour. The USA and local data suggest that people vote according to many pressures including financial ones but the emotional appeals to anger and anxiety overide self interest.

Posted Sunday, November 25, 2012 - 08:38

Stripling and eva cox


White Anglo's lost the plot 100 years ago, when we failed to see the Enemy within. GREEDY INDIVIDGULES who exploited and Corrupted systems to suit their vested Interests.

85% of the Worlds Manufacturing was in the Hands of the Big Four.

Even within this privileged group there was extreme unevenness: France fell badly behind the others in the 1870’s;
and between 1870 and 1914, while Britain’s manufacturing output doubled, that of Germany increased five fold, and that of the United States seven fold.
The astonishing progress in the United States meant that by 1900 the industrial center of gravity of the world had shifted away from Europe. GOT THAT, NOTICE THIS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
1860 Britain France U.S.A. Germany
1870 Britain U.S.A. France Germany
1880 U.S.A. Britain Germany France
1890 U.S.A. Britain Germany France
****** 1900 U.S.A. Germany Britain France********* This is why England wanted war, that is why France joined the English.

After Germanies Defeat it was no longer the big 4, but big 3. America benefitted most from Germanies defeat Economically and this led to the Heady, Greedy 1920's which led to the 1930 collapse. Why, because the Greed was unsustainable before WW1, marginally after WW1 only because we had wiped out 60 million people that no longer needed to be fed or listened to, worried about, we put the Brakes on after WW2 because there were those who knew. Thatcherism and Reaganism took the Brakes back of and now we have hit the Wall.

It has always been the Enemy within and Winston Churchill knew because he was, just as it is Family who commit most of the Pedophile Crimes. Crime by/because/through Association is/was humanities biggest Problem. The Crime and stupidity here is that we have learned nothing after slaughtering 150 million people between 1915 and 1945.

And those Dumb Yank Bogans still have learned nothing and even those who have can't change anything because they are small in number and the Corrupt Media nullifies their voices.

The American ruling classes are like Domestically Violant Husbands, Pedophile Fathers, they use/employ the very same tactics to rule and exploit us. We breed ourselves into a no win situation, the minute we stop breeding they bring in outsiders. Europe is flooded with them, they are called Boat People, they are no accident, they are created, refugees are the ruling Classes Greatest Modern Weapon to control the masses. Economic and Racial refugees were Europes greatest problem and Englands best weapon against the second most successful Nation out of the big 4, Germany and European Jews allowed themselves to be used by an American Crime Gang/Gangs that wanted the State of Israel and now what is, is. So go to the ABC BigIdeas and see what is, now.

China is the new Germany of post WW1 Vintage, the raising Star because of Yank design. American Railways expansion created the new Raising Star of Germany, when the Railwyas expansion collapsed so did the world.

Economy and economics to feed the masses and keep the rich rich is the problem, consumerism drives it, but is unsustainable.

Posted Sunday, November 25, 2012 - 09:01

I know somebody will come and say that

"marginally after WW1 only because we had wiped out 60 million people that no longer needed to be fed or listened to"

is incorrect it was only 11 million.

No, it was 60 because the Allied side very conveniently did not count the 50 million that died during the Flu Pandamic that followed hot on the heels of WW1 because of all of the destruction of so much infastructure like sanitation etc.

Same as they didn't count the millions that died after WW2 because of the deliberate starvation, Sexual Deseases, because of all the rape that occured at the hands of the Allied Glory Hounds.

Spoils of War.
Pedophile Wankers!

Most of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs in the U.S came about because of the so called War Hero's needing some more excitement after WW2.

The Jewish, Catholic, Irish Crime Gangs etc. etc. Al Capone and his War Hero buddies, came about due to extreme Poverty in all the Ghetto's created in America's Major Cities because of European Boat People arriving like a flood.

So Refugee's are a problem, the question is are they or the Refugee problem created willfully or accidents of Nature that the poor or rich Nations have to compete with through no fault of their own.

Answer that and you might just get somewhere.

Posted Tuesday, December 17, 2013 - 09:29

I think it's a divide-and-conquer tactic at best.

We load all the less well off people as unemployed and immigrants in some areas can afford to continue to live in then pour fuel on the fire. Theory of Constraints