It occurred to me earlier this week that there is a Republican view that mirrors Thomas Frank’s puzzlement about why socially conservative people vote
against their economic interests as if they were socially conservative, and it is based on just as much stereotyping and self-serving mythology. This is, of course, the argument made by many Republicans that Hispanics and blacks are “natural” Republicans because they tend to be social conservatives and therefore share the same “values” as the GOP, and indeed this is the logic of the never-ending “outreach” efforts that typically yield nothing except bad immigration policy. The mythology comes in when it assumes that people who have socially conservative views on abortion or homosexuality are therefore “natural” supporters of the party of corporate America; this wasn’t even obvious to white evangelicals thirty years ago, it still isn’t and it wouldn’t be the case except for judicial rulings, government social policy and the cultural radicalism of the left. That is a classic case of a party believing its own propaganda, even though this is the same propaganda that it uses to mobilise the social conservatives whose issues it doesn’t take very seriously, so you have the absurd situation of a party that has taken social conservatives for granted for three decades wondering why it can’t get minority social conservatives to join the party. Then there is the assumption that because people have “family values” that they therefore have the nuclear family, bourgeois definition of those values that entail a certain ethos complete with habits of pursuing middle-class respectability and a move away from tight-knit extended families. Further, there is the assumption that because people go to church and take Scripture seriously that they are therefore on board with particular social and economic policies. This is to treat an artifact of political coalition-building (the working alliance between pro-market and pro-business Republicans and religious conservatives) as if it were a coherent or logical combination of ideas, when there is a good argument to be made that the views of these two blocs are often opposed to one another and should clash much more often than they do. Fundamentally, all of the “outreach” efforts are based on the idea that the GOP has something to offer these voters with its economic and social policies, when these voters repeatedly and consistently affirm that it doesn’t. Just as Democrats have bought into their own myth (i.e., that they are the party that really represents and serves working class America), the GOP seems to believe its own, and both become very frustrated with those voters who refuse to endorse the myth.
The Thomas Frank lament, like the GOP “outreach” lament, sounds very much like the late 19th century Austrian liberal complaint that the mass political movements that competed with and eventually overwhelmed liberalism were “irrational.” In fact, liberalism failed in Austria in a democratic era for the same reason that it failed all over Europe in the 19th century, or else moved in a more activist and reformist (and, in many cases, nationalist and/or imperialist) direction: it represented a very small part of the population and did not serve the interests of most of the voting population. The complaint that political opponents have “irrational” obsessions is the recurring complaint of political movements that cater to one particular set of interests and have no imagination or capacity for speaking to other constituencies in a language that they will find meaningful. Not really understanding these voters at all, activists and partisans substitute their own party narratives as the “correct” voting behaviour that should be happening, and then engage in a great deal of gnashing of teeth when the voters “fail” to adhere to a script they don’t even know exists and wouldn’t follow even if they did.
P.S. I should add that there is an additional level of stereotyping, especially of Hispanic immigrants, who are assumed to be like the family-oriented, toiling Catholic peasants of Poland, and therefore somehow magically a reliable vote for the GOP, despite the fact that most of the actual Polish Catholics who came to America, like virtually every other ethnic immigrant community, were Democrats for almost a century before any of them began to move to the GOP. In fact, even among church-goers, stable families are not necessarily the norm at all. So behind a lot of these arguments there is a preference for stereotypes over empirical evidence. Whether intended as flattering or condescending, the stereotypes may have once been true, or perhaps never were, but certainly are not today.