Monday, December 26, 2016

America's fundamental divide: The deserving vs. the undeserving

Catherine Rampell (Washington Post) writes about Why the white working class votes against itself. We Democrats are convinced, rightly, that our policies would help those voters that reject our programs even though they gladly accept the benefits of them (e.g., Medicare and Social Security, for example). Clearly there is a continuing disconnect, but what is it?

Rampell defines the problem.

Why did all those Economically Anxious™ Trump voters reject policies that would have helped relieve their economic anxiety?

Maybe they believed any Big Government expansions would disproportionately go to the “wrong” kinds of people — that is, people unlike themselves.

Hillary Clinton’s unexpected loss, particularly in traditionally blue strongholds, has led to lots of rumination about what the Democrats must do to reclaim their political territory. Smarter marketing, smoother organization, greater outreach and fresher faces are among the most commonly cited remedies.

But there seems to be universal agreement, at least among the Democratic politicians and strategists I’ve interviewed, that the party’s actual ideas are the right ones.

Democrats, they note, pushed for expansion of health-insurance subsidies for low- and middle-income Americans; investments in education and retraining; middle-class tax cuts; and a higher minimum wage. These are core, standard-of-living improving policies. They would do far more to help the economically precarious — including and especially white working-class voters — than Donald Trump’s top-heavy tax cuts and trade wars ever could.

Here’s the problem. These Democratic policies probably would help the white working class. But the white working class doesn’t seem to buy that they’re the ones who’d really benefit.

Just as they did as a consequence of the New Deal!

Rampell cites research that exemplify the problem. For example:

In Wisconsin, rural whites are similarly eager to “stop the flow of resources to people who are undeserving,” says Katherine J. Cramer, a political scientist at the University of Wisconsin at Madison …

The people Cramer interviewed for her book often named a (white) welfare-receiving neighbor or relative as someone who belonged in that basket of undeservings — but also immigrants, minorities and inner-city elites who were allegedly siphoning off more government funds than they contributed.

More broadly, a recent YouGov/Huffington Post survey found that Trump voters are five times more likely to believe that “average Americans” have gotten less than they deserve in recent years than to believe that “blacks” have gotten less than they deserve. (African Americans don’t count as “average Americans,” apparently.)

None of this should be particularly surprising.

We’ve known for a long time, through the work of Martin Gilens, Suzanne Mettler and other social scientists, that Americans (A) generally associate government spending with undeserving, nonworking, nonwhite people; and (B) are really bad at recognizing when they personally benefit from government programs.

Hence those oblivious demands to “keep your government hands off my Medicare,” and the tea partyers who get farm subsidies, and the widespread opposition to expanded transfer payments in word if not in deed.

It’s no wonder then that Democrats’ emphasis on downwardly redistributive economic policies has been met with suspicion, even from those who would be on the receiving end of such redistribution. And likewise, it’s no wonder that Trump’s promises — to re-create millions of (technologically displaced) jobs and to punish all those non-self-sufficient moochers — seem much more enticing.

No American likes the idea of getting a “handout” — especially if they believe that handout is secretly being rerouted to their layabout neighbor anyway.

So, are we a nation of Ayn-Randians, simply characterizing others less fortunate than ourselves as “moochers” and “looters”? That’s certainly true of the incoming administration. But here is another psychological view of what is going on.

To paraphrase the white working class voter’s dissatisfaction: I deserve what I get but I don’t get all I deserve because someone else is getting what they don’t deserve. Adding an agent to the mix: I don’t get what I deserve because of the government. Someone else is getting more than they deserve because the government rewards laziness.

This deep-seated view calls to mind Social Psychological biases such as the Fundamental Attribution Error. In the present case, I get what I get because of my hard work but others get what they get because they are lazy. This is an example of a dispositional bias. The reasoning focuses on the individual personality traits and diminishes the role of situational, environmental factors for other people.

I propose that this bias is a fundamental cause of the great division that played out in the 2016 election. “Smarter marketing, smoother organization, greater outreach and fresher faces” alone are not going to cut it come 2018 and 2020. Dems must confront and counter the dispositional bias with a clear economic agenda. But, to the extent that the dispositional bias discussed here is truly fundamental, that will be a very heavy lift. Ironically, Trump may make the load lighter if he follows through on the anti-worker agenda suggested by his cabinet choices.

Update: Rampell’s essay was reprinted as the editorial in this morning’s Daily Star.

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