By Peter Weisberg
The headline that jumped out at me after seeing the results of the Wisconsin recall election this past spring was the 38% of union households that voted for Gov Walker, an out of the closet anti-union cheerleader. I was not the only one looking wide eyed at this statistic. Everyone interested in the outcome of elections looks at these numbers and asks why. Why do working class and middle class whites vote so consistently for Republican candidates, when we all know it is not in their economic interest.
A common explanation we hear on the left is, “They were duped” or tricked by those nasty conservatives. But this explanation falls far short of a more rigorous examination and in fact does a real disservice to mounting any kind of viable movement whose goal is to create a more socially just and truly democratic country/world.
The Wisconsin election is a good jumping off point for exploring this social phenomena and seeing whether we might even come up with some strategies for moving the population to the left. Many progressives believed Wisconsin would be a great unmasking of the conservative agenda. A turning point in the fight against austerity and for fairness in the USA. A quick summary of some key statistics shows the following;
- 53% vs 46% was the overall result in favor of Walker. This is similar to the 2010 election.
- 59% white voter turnout vs 50% non-white turnout. The differential is consistent with national figures.
- 73% turnout in suburban and rural areas which are over 93% white. Led by 4000 out of state Tea Party members going door to door, Republicans got out the vote in the white suburbs. Their rallying cry was “Save Wisconsin, save the country”. Their messages were; anti-union, anti-environmental, pro Christian nationalism, anti-gun control, anti-tax and yes, racist. “White flight”, the migration of whites from urban centers, has been leaving the larger cities like Milwaukee in dire economic straits for the past 20 years. Infrastructure collapse, jobs, many of them union, and money have fled the cities, while the suburbs have grown economically and politically.
- 51% urban turnout which is 39% non-white in a state that is 91% white; Barrett was the mayor of Milwaukee. His candidacy did not excite the cities African American voters nor did it get the youth vote out. The urban vote only accounts for 21% of the total Wisconsin vote.
- 38% voted for Walker in union households This figure is not inconsistent with national figures, which surprised me. There was very weak support for Barrett from the National Democratic Party and the national union leadership. Moreover, the public unions; teachers, fire-fighters, state government workers, etc were unsuccessful in getting the private sector union rank and file to get behind the recall. There seems to be a lack of solidarity between public and private sector unions both local and national.
- 47% turnout of 18-29 year olds see #4 Additionally, there was a concerted effort to block college students from voting, specifically those that were out of state students in Madison. Voter suppression continues to be a Republican strategy as the country moves closer to a non-white majority.
- 59% of men voted for Walker vs 47% of women. Women get it while men continue to vote for the strong authoritarian figures.
- 56% of voters with an income of under $50k voted for Barrett and 56% with incomes between 50 & 99k voted for Walker. The poor and lower middle class continue to vote for Democrats but not by overwhelming numbers. Again we are scratching our heads over the number of lower income voters who vote Republican.
- Independent voters favored Walker, 54% to 45%. On the national level, many analysts think that the number of truly independent likely voters is as low as 6-7%.
- We are all aware that the Republican machine outspent the Democrats by approx 8 to 1. This is a issue for another day and one that needs to be addressed if we want to hold on to any notion at all that the US is a democracy.
Given the Wisconsin results, I thought it would be interesting to gain an understanding of the factors that account for voter decisions from the point of view of several well known writers. Thomas Frank, George Lakoff and Jonathan Haidt. And more importantly, I wanted to see whether their theories might assist us in winning the hearts and minds of larger numbers of the 99%. After all, it does us no good if a significant percentage of the 99% do not identify as being part the movement trying to wrest control of the worlds future from the 1%.
Thomas Frank wrote the book “What’s the matter with Kansas” in 2004. The book attempts to understand how Kansas went from being a state with a long history of left wing populism during the late 19th century to become the poster child for conservative populist politics. His description of this shift to the far right is in many respects a mini-history of the Tea Party. For many years, the Republican Party in Kansas had a strong moderate wing, whose main emphasis was on fiscal conservatism. A smaller segment of Republicans were “social conservatives”. This latter group focused more on several hot button moral issues; abortion, Christian ethics, gay marriage, gun control. Up to the 1990′s, the mods controlled the party and could count on the cons vote, even though the social issues they were most concerned about were only given lip service. The mods blamed the “liberal elites” in Washington DC and the Democratic Party for the failure to legislate on the “traditional” moral issues. By 1992 this started to change. Frank calls this process “a panorama of madness and delusion worthy of Hieronymus Bosch: of sturdy blue-collar patriots reciting the Pledge while they strangle their own life chances”. The number of Kansas voters who put moral issues at the forefront of their concerns grew rapidly and candidates who previously could get away with just paying lip service to these “fringe” issues now had to embrace them if they wanted to be elected. The entire party accepted fiscal conservatism as the norm. Political battles became focused on the explosive social issues. Working class voters put their own economic interests on a lower priority than their moral interests. Sound familiar? This micro history looks a lot like the broader political landscape currently unfolding in the US. Were the issues underlying the left populist movement of the late 19th century the same ones fueling the “Tea Party” movement of today? Additionally, it’s my view that accepting “fiscal conservatism” is no longer the domain of just the Republican party. The majority of Democratic representatives also seem willing to embrace austerity measures as the correct medicine for debt relief and economic stagnation.
I did come across a study written by Larry Bartels in 2005, an associate at the Dept of Politics at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public & Int’l Affairs at Princeton, which refutes the main Frank thesis. Bartel’s research, uses data from the NES(Nat’l Election Study) survey. He states that the statistics do not bare Frank out. He summarizes that white working class voters have actually become more reliable Democratic voters, altho they identify less as being Democratic Party members. He also says wwc voters have not become more conservative over the past 30 years, and that economics does not trump social issues nor religious beliefs. The major shifts in voting patterns he states, are in the wmc and upper income voters. Again, this study was done in 2005, before the current recession started eroding the ranks of the middle class and causing greater strain on the lives of the working class as a whole. Bartels insists that the strategy of the Democratic Party must focus on appealing to the more affluent whites who are more socially liberal without alienating the core wc voters who are drawn to the party for economic reasons. In the 7 years since this study was written, I believe the Dem Party has all but abandoned the wc in deeds for sure, and increasingly so even in words. As stated earlier, the backing of Barrett by the National machine was anemic at best. The main difference between the DP and the RP in regards to austerity measures that overwhelmingly punish working people is one of degree or severity.
The next person I selected for insights was George Lakoff, the intellectual leader at the Rockridge Institute,a progressive think tank in California. He urges us to think about the decision making process in terms of “frames”, which he states, are the way humans think. Frames are the conceptual end point of neural pathways that establish themselves in the brain, almost like a desktop icon on your computer. Frames are strengthened thru repetition, almost in a Pavlovian manner. You hear or see a word or phrase and your brain immediately takes you to that “frame” in your brain, bypassing a long rational thought process and jumping to an associated conclusion.
The process is easier describe by way of an example; take, “tax revolt”. The word revolt brings to mind a group being treated unfairly and they are rising up to correct the wrongs being perpetrated on them by their rulers. When you place “tax” in front of revolt, one might think that the taxes are an unfair penalty and the people must rise up to correct this wrong. The words elicit an immediate value set in the mind of the individual. Lakoff says that conservatives and progressives have different frames. The conservative frame is built around the strict father. Since the 1970s,(and in response to the culture wars of the 60′s) conservatives have been reinforcing and building on their frame sets. They have done this thru a focused and coordinated effort centering around their numerous think tanks and disseminated thru conservative political candidates, media outlets and religious institutions. The strict father morality says that; the world is a bad place and needs a strict and punishing father to make it better. Thru discipline a child learns right from wrong and self-reliance. Thru discipline one can make the right choices and become rich. In fact, wealth is an indicator of righteous living. The government, thru welfare and other entitlement programs, spoils people and makes them dependent on programs that unfairly penalize those who have worked harder, are self-reliant and have earned their success by listening to the strict father morality. Government should exist only to promote and protect the family, discipline those who are not willing to be self-reliant, and maintain order so that the well behaved can continue to accumulate wealth. Gov’t money acquired thru taxes should never be given to the undeserving and undisciplined children, who are too lazy or willful to be successful.
Progressives on the other hand, see the world as being basically good. It is thru a nurturing relationship, be it the father/mother or the gov’t that we can build a better world or create a better life for the individual. Gov’t promotes this process thru fair use of the commons; public schools, civil liberties and an even playing field upon which we can all enjoy opportunities for personal success. Responsibility goes beyond individualism, encompassing everyone, including the less fortunate, because we share a moral obligation to care for each other.
In this scenario, taxes thus become looked at as the dues one pays for being a member of our society and are to be used to promote and maintain the common infrastructure upon which both society and individuals can succeed. It takes a huge amount of money to protect and promote our commons. Paying your fair share is morally correct. Evading your fair share of taxes is “stealing” from the commons and deprives other members of society at the opportunity to participate in this social treasure trove.
If we wanted to develop a progressive frame for taxes, consider those who; off-shore income, use tax havens to shelter profits, create and abuse loopholes for the corporate strata and wealthy, as “tax thieves”, greedy entities, both individuals and corporations who are willing to hurt their country and the 99% by stealing from the common good, upon which we all depend.
Gay marriage is another wedge issue that has been framed by the right. Lakoff thinks that the conservative frame for gay marriage is tied closely to the sexual act. The idea of gay marriage horrifies many on the right. If the issue was re-framed from the progressive moral foundation, it should be seen as an issue of “the right to marry”. He believes this would garner a lot more conservative support. In the battle over entitlements, such as Medicare and Social Security, a more effective frame might refer to these programs as “Earned Benefit Plans”.
Candidates can get voters to identify with them thru effective framing. Effective framing can build a moral pathway to progressive values. To date, conservatives have made framing their tool, and they use it effectively and often. Every year they update the phrases and key words that persuade voters to their perspective. Progressives, he says, need to get into the game. It is not something that can happen over night. A coordinated progressive framing effort will take generations to become an effective tool for changing the course of history.
Economic systems have a deep morality. Policy and laws are human constructs, and express a distinct moral/values viewpoint. We live in a society of warring viewpoints; individual greed vs collective advancement, the self-made man myth vs the reliance on the collective for the advancement of the commons and the common good upon which one measures the overall health of a nation. For progressives, the Private is dependent upon the Public. For conservatives, the Private is considered to be self-sufficient. “i can make it on my own and if I don’t make it, it’s my own personal failure”. Those in the 99% who vote for conservative candidates, identify with the conservative frames, frequently in conflict with their economic needs. Gov Walker and Paul Ryan are the embodiment of the conservative morality. Cut funding to the public sector, an undisciplined and spoiled segment of society. Austerity is the economic tool used to discipline these unruly children and impose a conservative economic morality. At the same time, reward the deserving 1%, who by their discipline and hard work, have achieved economic success. Punish the 99% thru government imposed austerity. Reward the 1% thru laisse fair policies and self-serving tax loopholes
For Lakoff, hope lies in independent voters and convincing Democrats that his theories are accurate. Individuals who have both conservative and progressive frames in their brain. They can be reached by a constant re-enforcing of the progressive frames. The correct language stimulates liberal morality which can lead to an economy for the 99%.
A word to the Democrats here today. It takes more than words to create change. Words and rhetoric alone are just another source for cynicism. Lakoff and the Democrats can frame all they want in their rhetoric. Obama can try and gather all the support he had in 2008 with campaign speeches in 2012. Chances are that will not happen again. His rhetoric far surpassed his actions the past 4 years. We all know it takes real policy development and the implementation of real plans to make concrete change. Progressive framing is nothing without progressive legislation. Obama and the Dems have shown little inclination to fight for progressive values.
Jonathan Haidt is the last of the writers I explored for this presentation. Up to 2009, he considered himself a partisan liberal. Since then, he calls himself a centrist. He is a social psychologist who recently published a new book, “The Righteous Mind, Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion”. As with Frank and Lakoff, he notes the phenomena of people voting for their moral interests. Where Lakoff looks at “frames” as learned values, Haidt implies that all humans have an undergrid of shared common morals. He examined a broad cross cultural sampling and determined that in most situations, people make decisions based on these core moral values. He believes that humans are generally intuitive, not rational. He quotes David Hume, “reason was fit only to be the slave of the passions.” All of us no doubt have first hand experience in trying to communicate with someone who holds a different political or religious belief. It’s beyond difficult. Haidt says that people reach their conclusions quickly and produce reasons later only to justify what they have already decided. If you want to change someone’s mind, he says don’t try and appeal to them thru reason. Reach them thru their underlying moral intuitions, whose conclusions reasons defends. He sees humans from almost all cultures having 6 basic and common moral cornerstones; care/harm, fairness/reciprocity, liberty, in-group loyalty, authority/respect and sanctity/purity. As these are shared values, effective politics than becomes a process of appealing to as many of these core values as possible. Republican’s do this much better in his opinion. Liberals are focused primarily on fairness and caring, while conservatives hit on all moral cylinders.
Looking at a couple of concrete examples will help us get an understanding of how his theory works in practice. The reason why so many voters accept the idea that welfare is bad, lies in the notion of fairness; people do not support equal benefits when contributions made are unequal. In an article entitled “How to Get the Rich to Share the Marbles”, he suggests that rather than focusing on “distributive fairness”, liberals should make their argument based on “procedural fairness”, that is, how the rich acquired their wealth thru a rigged system that unfairly legislates to their advantage at everyone else s’ expense. He also states that most people support order over equality. Anything that endangers the fabric of a society is disruptive to authority and therefore discouraged . Taxes interfere with the natural process of reaping what you sew. Gay rights interfere with the sanctity of marriage. In a time of economic uncertainty, people cling more closely to their moral core. Obamacare challenges the sense of individual liberty, as it makes mandatory the purchase of healthcare insurance. Caring lies in the domain of the family, not the state, so “why should I have to buy insurance so that other people outside my group should get the benefit of healthcare coverage?
Haidts work implies that humans put more faith in smaller social units than larger social configurations. Family, tribe, community. Beyond that, bonds seem to lack the moral adhesive. Anything that challenges the authority of these smaller groups is viewed with fear and anger. “Parochial altruism” is the term he uses to describe this behavior. His idea of Human nature is the cornerstone of his theories and pivotal to changing human activities.
Liberals, according to Haidt, do not understand conservative values and they have no awareness that this is even an issue. Liberals pride themselves on being rational and open-minded and it is this pride that blocks them from accepting the idea that other people might be motivated by other underlying values. This is one of the underlying reasons for the effectiveness of the hatred directed at the liberal elite. And isn’t their some level of irony that it is liberals who want to define an individuals “interest” in economic terms? Commodification anyone?
Haidt does not have many practical solutions to bridging these cultural gaps. He hopes his writing will help us “understand and overcome our instincts”, thru an evolutionary process of increased “sociality.”
So where do our three writers agree? Well, all 3 acknowledge that voters frequently make choices based on their moral values, not economics. Even if economics were the key to the vote, when asked which candidate was more apt to advance their families economic interests, research polls done by the Washington Post indicate that amongst white voters with no college education, they still chose Romney over Obama 58% to 37%. Sobering thought… All 3 also agree that the Republican party has greater moral clarity and that these core values tend to be more parochial in nature as opposed to global.
Where do we go from here.
In the face of economic instability and the lack of a strong movement with progressive vision not to mention progressive institutions, these entrenched moral values might be more conducive to and lead toward solutions that are conservative by nature. The left remains splintered and ineffectual in the US.
Democrats need to look closely at these findings and find a way to fight for a strong progressive vision and platform within their own party. (Good luck with that.) There has to be more of a reason to vote for Obama than the composition of the Supreme Court, a non-democratic institution. Most voters rightly see both parties as bought and paid for by the 1%.
For those like myself, who believe that capitalism does not hold the answers to the long term problems facing the world, another language and vision needs to be born; one that will provide real solutions to the economic, environmental and social challenges we all face. Building a mass movement is essential to creating real change. Democratic solutions that encourage everyone to participate in the process are essential. Economic solutions that address the quality of work as well as the distribution of wealth is also critical. Building progressive frames that clearly show the real connection and interdependency all of us on this globe share is essential to a new value system. Truth like perspective, is an ideology.
Is the Wisconsin recall election a portend of things to come? One way or another, change is happening now and deeper changes are coming. All of us have a say in the shape of that change. The challenge is made even greater if as all 3 writers are correct in their assessment that logic, statistics, and rational thought(the liberals tools of choice) are ineffective tools in the battle for changing how people vote. We must reach hearts as well as minds if we are to make the 99% a cohesive mass force that is moving toward a participatory democracy.