Corey Robin concludes in The Reactionary Mind that working and middle-class white men1 derive tangible benefits from conservative governance and therefore are acting rationally when they vote for plutocratic business off-shorers like Republican Mitt Romney. Historians Mark Lilla and Shari Berman have retorted that Robin really believes that less affluent Republican voters are victims of a “false consciousness” that prevents them from seeing that their economic interests conflict directly with those of the ruling class. Lilla and Berman deride this supposedly absurd Marxist explanation for otherwise inexplicable proletarian voting patterns. Is Robin right or are Lilla and Berman, despite their unpleasant tone, onto something?
Robin identifies conservatives by two salient characteristics: 1) their need to order hierarchically individuals within every group and 2) a strong often violent reaction to any challenge to an existing hierarchy. Describing the benefits that accrue to some non-wealthy individuals in a conservative society, he writes: “In the family and the factory, fathers and foremen get to play the part of a lord.” He notes further:
Conservatives also court those talents that can be demonstrated on the battlefield and the barricades. That’s one of the reasons it attracts outsiders from the Irish-born [Edmund] Burke to the immigrant neoconservative. Far from hiving off oppressor from oppressed, I argue that the right succeeds by turning paupers into princes and beggars into Bonapartes.2
I take this to mean that in a hierarchical society non-elite men may benefit in two ways. First, a tiny number of them or their children do succeed spectacularly. The less successful can still lord it over their families and, if they become mid or even low-level supervisors, subordinates. This explains, says Robin, working-class conservatives.
Robin has a point but so do those who see false consciousness at work. While less affluent Republicans may gain from living in a hierarchy even if they’re just a few notches from the bottom, they also have no idea just how much better the rich have it.3 Moreover, to the extent that they believe that they or their children will climb the income latter, they are likely mistaken.4
Since the 1930s, Americans have seen their quality of life improved because of Democratic policies and laws. During the Great Depression, government programs, funded by very high marginal taxes on the wealthy, rescued millions from ruin. Over the ensuing 40 years, union-friendly laws resulted in livable wages and the promise of a comfortable retirement for most working Americans. In recent years, the conservative movement has cut the top tax rate by over 50%, reduced the number of government employees, and marginalized organized labor. The results have decimated the American working and middle classes.
In short, poor, working and middle-class Republican voters are not necessarily irrational but they’re hardly fully rational political actors either.
1The voting behavior of this cohort is of particular interest because its members, who are mostly Republican, seem to vote counter to their economic interests. http://www.brookings.edu/research/papers/2012/11/05-america-white-working-class-jacobs