One of the most perplexing questions for progressives is why so many people seem to consistently vote against their own self-interest? As I traveled around town during the never-ending presidential campaign, I saw several Romney-Ryan yard signs in front of homes clearly belonging to families with average to below-average incomes. The standard answer among progressives (like myself) has been that the plutocracy and their minions have succeeded in using abortion, contraception, same-sex marriage, sex education, gun control, prayer in the public schools, and numerous gender-related issues as a smokescreen to cover up their real motives, which are blatantly self-interested, such as shifting the bulk of the tax burden onto the middle and lower classes, deregulation of the economy, voter suppression, and ravishing the environment, to name only the most obvious. While I tend to agree with that argument, as far as it goes, it only speaks to the motivation of the plutocracy and begs the obvious question of why so many persons--especially white working and middle class males--continue to buy into it.
At least part of the answer probably lies in two recent books: 1) All in the Family:The Realignment of American Democracy Since the 1960s by Robert O. Self, an associate professor of history at Brown and author the acclaimed American Babylon and 2) The Tea Party And The Making Of Republican Conservatism by Theda Skocpol and Vanessa Williamson,, professors of social policy at Harvard. Together, they present a much more complex and nuanced explanation of the millions who, by progressive lights, consistently vote against their own self interest and provide the plutocracy with much of its mass base.
For Self, the answer lies in the emergence of what he terms "Breadwinner Conservatism": "the extent to which laissez-faire economics and social authoritarianism have become intertwined in the past thirty years." When the Tea Party emerged, it was overwhelmingly "the old Christian right in a new guise," so people should not have been surprised "when newly elected Republicans who had run for office on budget-cutting turned their attention to curtailing or eliminating access to birth control and abortion." Although most observers thought that so-called cultural or values conservatives were different from--and even antagonistic toward- -those who focused on shrinking the size and cost of government, "the budget-cutting, anti-welfare state fiscal conservatives found natural allies in the religious right and the pro-family movement." Ever since the 1980s, he asserts, the defense of the autonomous, idealized nuclear family "was intimately linked to the way they also sought to limit government interference in the private market." That insight helps to explain why progressives "so often fail to rally working-class and middle-class voters behind economic policies that would benefit them," and why "even in our present moment of economic desperation, fights over sexuality and family roles keep recurring."
To focus on a specific example, Self cites a feature in last July's NY Times contrasting the situation of two working mothers at a Michigan day care center entitled "Two Classes, Divided by 'I Do' " The differences in their salaries was not very great, but the married woman lived a comfortable middle-class life, while the single mother struggled to get by on food stamps and other forms of aid. One of the authors, Jason DePerle,, estimates that "changes in marriage patterns--as opposed to changes in individual earnings--may account for as much as 40 percent of the growth in certain measures of inequality." We are, according to DePerle, "becoming a society of family haves and have-nots, with marriage and its rewards [such as filing joint tax returns] evermore confined to the fortunate classes." To progressives, it is axiomatic that "family values" requires backing policies that would benefit both women, especially the one without an earning spouse. If small government and traditional families are of paramount importance, however, then opposing food stamps, subsidized day care centers, and after-school programs for kids only serve to emphasize the superiority of nuclear families, private charities, and churches.
As a student of U.S. history and a card-carrying "bleeding heart liberal," such a view turns the clock back to the Gilded Age of the late 19th century, when Social Darwinism, the Gospel of Wealth, "rugged individualism," and the Horatio Alger-type "myth of the self-made man,"--what historian Eric Goldman called "the steel chain of ideas"--dominated social attitudes. It amounts to a repeal of the the Progressive Era, the New Deal, the Great Society, the Civil Rights and Women's Movements and every other landmark designed to make the U.S. part of the civilized world. But I digress. This is about "them," not "us." Simply rehearsing our view of the world--without seriously trying to understand theirs-won't cut it. This post constitutes my first feeble efforts to understand "where they are coming from."
In fact, according to Self, progressives have been unwittingly complicit in forming the mind set of "breadwinner conservatism" and the Tea Party. The New Deal and its lineal descendants, he posits, were based largely on a premise that he calls "breadwinner liberalism," in which liberals tried to "rehabilitate the male breadwinner, who had been devastated by industrialization, globalization, racial and ethnic discrimination, and, above all, by the Great Depression. They set out to return the male breadwinner to his rightful place as head of the nuclear household, regarding working women and child labor as obstacles to building a powerful labor movement. The manpower crisis of World War II necessitated women to enter the workforce, but that was generally regarded--by most men and a lot of women--as a temporary expedient. Efforts to "put the genie back in the bottle" intensified as soon as men began returning to civilian life. With notable exceptions, according to Michelle Goldberg in The Nation, the economic policies of the New Deal and Fair Deal "were understood to support traditional families, and particularly traditional gender relations." As long as "big-government liberalism worked to uphold the nuclear family, it was supported by a fairly broad social consensus." But then came the 1960s and 1970s,when that consensus was assaulted from the left by the counterculture, and the civil rights, anti-war, feminist, poverty, and gay rights movements. Nearly all of these, in some way, challenged the centrality of the nuclear family with the single,male "breadwinner." which was already under attack by mechanization and globalization. Most of these new movements fought to carve out a political political home in the Democratic Party, setting off a prolonged and acrimonious struggle between the old "breadwinner liberalism" and the new "identity politics". The old and the new clashed head-on during the 1968 and 1972 Democratic national conventions--and the party has never fully recovered. Hence the evolution of millions of "George Wallace" and "Reagan Democrats" into Republicans. Having grown up in the 40s and 50s, and coming to political maturity during the 1960s, I realize that I benefited greatly by being white and male, and then had to adjust to a world in which the intrinsic value of those attributes have steadily declined. (Of course, it is still a significant advantage to be white and male in a lot of areas, especially if buttressed by certain socioeconomic attributes.) I like to think, however, that, unlike a lot of my contemporaries, I understand and appreciate the initial impetus given me by my gender and pigmentation, and have consciously worked to adjust to the changing realities. I will leave it up to my daughters, granddaughters, and female friends and colleagues to judge how well or poorly I have done. I am particularly gratified whenever a female colleague says that "I get it."
I admit to being particularly stymied by the millions of women who have become Breadwinner Conservatives and Tea Partiers. I understand, from my own research and reading, why so many women opposed equal suffrage back in the Progressive Era.I also remember the fierce debate among women over the wisdom of the Equal Rights Amendment. I must admit to having qualms about the possible negative effect that the ERA might have on the vast body of child and female protective legislation that progressives, both female and male, fought to enact over the past century. Maybe I have just been fortunate to have been surrounded all my life by women of a different persuasion. Obviously, though, there are a vast number of women who, for a variety of reasons, are just as committed as men to the patriarchal, nuclear family, and just as convinced that a powerful, activist government poses a threat to that ideal. Although Skocpol and Williamson acknowledge that between 55 and 60 % of Tea Partiers are male, they refused an invitation to write a scholarly article on "Sexism in the Tea Party," because "in our field observations and interviews we saw so many energetic women taking the lead in grassroots Tea Party activities." Significantly, they found, that "although men may be more likely to support the Tea Party, women are dominating the organizing efforts." (This really rang a bell with me because, in my experience in putting together dozens of programs with a variety of community ethnic groups, I quickly learned that while men talked, women e organized and implemented. I also belong to Adventures In Lifelong Learning in which more than 80 % of the really active members are women.) Many of the men who tell pollsters that they sympathize with or generally support the Tea Party, according to Skocpol and Williamson, "may be doing so from their armchairs in front of Fox News--or just sitting in the audience with their wives at a Tea Party meeting or event." They found this to be the case in Arizona, Massachusetts, and Virginia, where women in early middle age were in charge, and in Maine, where "older women were at the helm." Even when men chaired the meeting, women invariably prepared refreshments and were usually in charge of the sign-up sheets and tables where literature, pins, and bumper stickers were proffered. They also usually compile the email lists for local groups and arrange for car pools and speakers. As S&W correctly note, this is nothing new in the annals of American civic democracy, citing especially Christian Right organizations where "as the saying goes, female leaders travel the country to preach that women's place is in the home." Included under the broad Tea Party penumbra are the "Pink Slip Patriots" of Tempe, Arizona, who dress in pink and hand out symbolic "pink slips" to offending politicians, and the "Second Amendment Sisters," who are especially agitated about gun control.
Summarizing their conclusion, S&W argue that the combination of grassroots activists, roving billionaire advocates (the Koch brothers, Coors, Scaife, Olin), and right wing media purveyors (Limbaugh, Hannity, Glenn Beck) "create the Tea Party and give it the ongoing clout to buffet and redirect the Republican Party and influence broader debates in American democracy." The "media mavens" keep the Tea Party people "in a constant state of anger and fear about the direction of the country and the doings of government officials." Most of the 18% of American voters who identify themselves as Tea Party supporters are Republican, white, male, married, suburban, and over 45. The vast majority are middle-aged or older. They tend to be better-off economically and
better-educated than most Americans, and regular church-goers, most likely evangelical Protestants. Many of them are retired and living at least partly on Social Security and Medicare, despite their antipathy to "entitlements." ("Make the government keep its hands off my Medicare.") Nearly all of them have some college education, even the stay-at-home Moms. The plurality tend to be small business owners, often in fields like construction, remodeling, repair, technology, insurance, or real estate. very few have worked in the public sector, except for the military.Almost none of them have ever belonged to a labor union or know very many people who do. Indeed they blame much of the country's economic problems on union "thugs" and "bosses," especially those in the public sector. Although they live in every section of the country, the largest contingent live in the South and Southwest, where they have moved since retirement. Needless to say, they tend to believe in conspiracies of every kind and profess political views that are even farther to the right than mainstream Republicans. While they probably have a much better grasp of the nuts and bolts of the electoral process than most Americans, their grasp of social and economic issues ranges from ignorance to narrow-minded.
It is impossible to know how many Tea Partiers subscribe to "breadwinner conservatism," but I am sure that there must be considerable overlap. They tend to live in patriarchal, nuclear families and are deeply suspicious--even contemptuous---of those who do not. They are very careful not to use derogatory terms in referring to non-whites, at least in public. They generally refer to them in code words, such as "inner city" and "minorities."
(I get a particular kick out of blatantly racist men who are rabid NFL fans, conveniently ignoring the fact that fully three-fourth of the players are African-Americans.) They get most of their news from Fox TV and "talk [yell] radio, or from literature and programs emanating from right-wing organizations. While they are actively hostile toward government in any form, they admire and place great trust in corporate America, regarding it as the champion of free enterprise, competition, and-- incredibly--small business. They harbor a particular animus toward younger people, despite the fact most of them have children, grandchildren, and even great-grandchildren, Many regard government programs that benefit younger people as coming out of their pockets. (Ryan knew what he was doing when he promised those over 55 that their Social Security and Medicare benefits would be exempt from any restructuring or privatizing.) Maybe it is unfair to single them out in this regard since a certain amount of schadenfrude seems to be endemic to "the American Dream." Many would rather destroy public sector unions, for example, than build their own in the private sector. Many would rather eliminate other people's benefits rather than working with them to gain those benefits for everyone.
In the final analysis, perhaps the emotion that most animates and unites Breadwinner Conservatives and Tea Partiers is FEAR. Truth to tell, we are all afraid to a greater or lesser degree. The only real question is what do we do about it? Do we blame others at least as vulnerable as we are, and try to curtail what limited power and benefits they have managed to accrue? Or do we try to overcome our biases and work together to create a society in which every American--regardless of skin color,ethnicity,religion, age, gender, or political persuasion--has access to a decent standard of working and living? Our future--very literally--depends upon how we answer that question.