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ChangingMinds Blog! > Blog Archive > 05-Feb-17


Sunday 05-February-17

Understanding American Politics: It's Self vs Social, not Haves vs Have nots

A classic understanding of the political system in America (and generally in Western, democratic countries) is of the Haves vs the Have-nots. But this is not accurate, even as a simple model.

Classically, the Haves sit on the political right. In America they are called Republicans. Elsewhere they are called Conservatives. They have most of the money, and are focused on keeping it and getting more. In life, they are the senior managers and business owners (or perhaps their families). They like power but not taxes. They live expensively and away from the common people.

In opposition, the classic Have-nots are on the political left. In America they vote Democrat. Elsewhere they may be called Labour. They have relatively little money and are focused on survival. They live close to one another in small houses. They gain power through banding together in large numbers. When in power, they seek to protect jobs and increase welfare.

Yet if this was the simple truth, a democracy would always be run by Democrats. By definition, there are many more Have-nots than Haves. So what's up?

A key factor is that there are third and fourth groups.

The Haves can be broken into two groups. The Have-lots are the 1% elites who are wealthy enough to buy much of what they want without worrying about cost. They may have inherited wealth, been successful in business or been in a high-paying job for many years. In politics, they are likely to be Republican, where they seek low taxes and limited regulation. Their concern for others is seen in their foundations and charity balls. Tax-deductible, of course.

The Have-enoughs are the classic middle classes who have achieved the aspirational independence, picket-fenced home and all. They work hard in professional jobs or as reasonably successful business owners. They live comfortably but are still prudent. Politically, they may well be Democrats, with liberal views around preserving the environment and helping those less fortunate than themselves. They may also be aspirational to become a Have-lots (or fear becoming. Have-little) and so adopt a Republican position.

The Have-nots can also be divided into two. The real Have-nots are actually Have-nothings as and include vagrants, those on welfare and those who depends on charity. The may fall into this category for various reasons, including being runaways, having disabilities, and having fallen on hard times despite doing their best to support themselves (and possibly dependents too). While not a small group, they are not huge either and often lack direct political power. Their cause is often championed by those in higher groups, most typically Democrats. The Have-nots are unlikely to be politically active and may not even have voting rights (which means they are not attractive to political parties).

A large group who are often called Have-nots are more accurately Have-littles. These are the mass who work in low-paid jobs and for who life is a touch-and-go struggle as they try to avoid becoming a Have-not. They include people who have worked hard for many years and who are tired and disillusioned. In political communications they get patronising labels, such as 'hard working families' which tacitly recognizes the survival trap that keeps them near the bottom of the pile.

A further group that spans several levels are the 'Vulnerables' and include all groups containing people who can be the recipient of bias and unfair treatment. These include migrants, ethnic and religious groups, those with different sexual preferences, people with disabilities, women, older people and so on. Their disadvantages can be a spur to action when they define their lives through fighting through adversity. In this way they can become Have-enoughs and, occasionally, Have-lots. Overall, though, they are largely spread through the Have-littles and into the Have-nothings.

While opportunity still exists, it's not what it was. A common experience is of hard-working Have-littles losing their jobs as globalization led to cheap imports and industrial wastelands. Where they can, many have clung on in lower-paid and insecure jobs, as zero-hours contracts and the 'gig economy offer them scant lifelines. And, to add insult to injury, they see Vulnerables getting preferential treatment as liberal-minded Have-enoughs implement 'fair' policies that erode what little advantage they had. Vulnerables get welfare as the Have-littles struggle to make ends meet and, paradoxically, seethe at the unfairness of it all. Women and people of ethnic and diverse groups get promoted as positive action policies rebalance management ranks. To add insult to injury, Have-littles may see Environmental, health and safety laws as laudable but dangerous as they destroy jobs and are yet another thing that gets treated as more important than the ignored Have-littles.

A paradox of the Have-littles is that while they might be expected to vote Democrat, many vote Republican. This is the Republicans' secret sauce. By selling an anti-liberal message, promising greater security, and crafting evocative emotional appeals, including against welfare and environmentalism, they acquire a rich harvest of votes. While this may not be popular with Vulnerables, it gives voice to the fears of the many non-vulnerable Have-littles, in particular communities which are dominated by non-vulnerable men whose authority is accepted by others around them.

This creates an interesting skipping pattern, where Republicans skip liberal Have-enoughs in pursuit of the Have-little majority, while the Have-enough Democrats skip many of the Have-littles to try and help the more deserving Vulnerables and Have-nothings. A reverse effect happens too, as the Have-littles envy and rail against Have-enoughs who are their immediate seniors or an annoyingly well-paid professional, from dentists to consulting engineers. Out-of-reach Have-lots, however, are idealized and idolized as celebrities and potential champions who will save the Have-littles, just as the Have-enoughs seek to save others.

The perception of fairness has a particularly polarizing result as different groups believe themselves entirely right in wanting what they think is fair. Have-lots think it fair that they keep their high but hard-won incomes and to run their businesses as they think fit. Democrats seek a balanced fairness, where Vulnerables get special treatment to compensate for the bias they receive (Vulnerables of course agree with this). Have-littles want jobs and to not be the victim of Democratic bias that gives Vulnerables unfair advantage.

An electoral dilemma with Have-littles and Vulnerables is that their disillusionment with politicians and the state means that many do not vote. This can harm political parties, particularly when a significant community leans towards one or another party. Ethnic groups, for example, are far more likely to vote Democrat. If such groups can be energized, for example as done differently by Barack Obama and Donald Trump, they can have a huge electoral impact.

Taking this slightly larger segmentation, we can question again the rationale for voting Democrat or Republican. Have-lots Republicans want to keep their millions so want low tax. They also like few regulations that constrain their businesses. Have-lots and Have-enough Republicans fear losing their lifestyle and the crime that threatens this. Have-little Republicans just want more security, which translates first into decent jobs. They often live in tough areas and so also fear crime.

Have-some Democrats take a wider, more social view. Have-little Democrats feel their plight more as a community, for example being oppressed because of the shade of their skin. Their concern extends further than the self and more into social concerns.

A simple conclusion is that the Republicans appeal to the basic human drivers of fear (Have-littles) and greed (Have-lots) while Democrats have the more difficult task of appealing to compassion (Have-enoughs) and community (Have-nothings). Why? Because fear and greed have a self- or family-focus, while compassion and community appeal to those who are other-focused or we-focused.

Yes, it is a simplification. There are socially-minded Republicans and selfish Democrats. Yet Self vs Social makes more sense as a characterizing model than Haves vs Have-nots, as discussed above.

A further way of understanding this is in the collision between capitalism and democracy. Capitalism encourages wealth and the self-based view. It rewards individual success and assumes social concern will naturally arise from this. Democracy is the check on capitalist selfishness. While people may still be selfish, the public nature of democracy encourages a strong social concern.

What does this mean for politicians? For Democrats who seek to address natural Democrats, they should appeal to social values and ethics. To appeal to those with Republican leanings, they should make financial and security appeals. Meanwhile Republicans might woo Democrats by emphasizing community and the environment.

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