Why Do Many Poor People Vote Republican?

Political rifts may compound the impacts of growing up in poverty.

Posted Jul 31, 2020

One of the most puzzling features of U.S. political life is why many of those close to the bottom of the income distribution vote Republican, given that Republican policies often favor the interests of wealthy business owners.

In addition to appealing to other kinds of policy preferences of these voters, the Republican Party may attract impoverished supporters in part by exploiting fault lines based on race, religion, education, and nationalism.

White Racism

The current President's rhetoric has appealed to white racists through many not-so-subtle attacks on immigrants, who have been depicted as an invading force taking away their jobs and threatening violence.

Despite explicit attacks on Hispanic immigrants, a sizable fraction of them still voted for the Republican candidate. Why?

Religion

One key consideration may have been religion. Republicans hold themselves out as the party supporting traditional religious beliefs and conservative family practices.

Many immigrants from the Americas are devout Catholics and may be uneasy with the more liberal approach to sexual behavior that prevails among the mainstream. Voting for the Republican Party is thus perceived as a way of supporting traditional marriages and families.

Nationalism

When economic conditions decline, authoritarian leaders seek to apportion blame internationally. This ploy was used by German fascists who perceived themselves as victims of the winners in the First World War.

When a person's standard of living is low and declining, it is easy to believe that they are living in a hostile world and that others are profiting from their misery. In the U.S. case, the rise of China as an industrial powerhouse makes it a convenient target.

A conservative narrative suggests that China has become wealthy by “stealing” U.S. manufacturing jobs and destroyed U.S. manufacturing by flooding markets with goods sold below the cost of production. While there may be some truth in these complaints, China can also serve as a convenient bogeyman to blame for the problems of rising inequality in this country.

Coastal Elites

In the 2016 election, Hillary Clinton was portrayed by opponents as an aloof elitist who looked down on most Americans. Some of her remarks, such as calling some of those on the other side of the political spectrum “deplorables,” fed this narrative.

There are real economic differences between concentrations of wealth in New York and California compared to the farm laborers and rust-belt workers who inhabit the central part of the country. Of course, there are many poor workers in New York and California, but unusual wealth sets the tone.

The Psychology of Living in a Dangerous World

Political conservatives (when defined as high scorers on a right-wing authoritarianism scale) may experience fear more intensely, on average.

Signs of conservative leanings are present early in childhood before children are engaged in political issues. Children who are sticklers for the rules in games with other children may be more likely to go on to vote for conservative leaders (1,2). They seem to be relatively rigid in their behavior and to find it more difficult to make new friends.

Fear of the unpredictable can reflect a sensitivity to danger mediated by limbic-system activation. This profile probably reflects mammalian adaptations to actual risks in the environment (3).

Children growing up in extreme poverty or exposed to insensitive parental practices may also grow up believing that their lives are risky and that caution is warranted.

While political conservatives often derive support in the midst of external threats that reinforce their worldview, we are currently experiencing a largely internal threat—from the pandemic—that encourages us to seek help and support from our political leaders.

COVID Pulls Away the Curtain

The shared reality of a pervasive health threat forces us to confront our own fragility and has exposed a new sensitivity to the problems of the most vulnerable in our society, including the poor, ethnic minorities, and the immune-compromised. In this new, more dangerous world, we see that everyone is in this together and that we must unite to counter the health threat.

Not only might appeals to political fault lines be less likely to work, but the catastrophe pulls away a curtain revealing that the health needs of some groups are woefully underserved even as they perform essential front line jobs in medical and service industries.

The pandemic shows us that if we cannot address the medical shortcomings facing these groups we have little hope of bringing the infection under control. Division is out: We have a shared interest in staying alive.

References

1 Tuschman, A. (2013). Our political nature: The evolutionary origins of what divides us. Amherst, NY: Prometheus.

2 Garcia, H. A. (2019). Sex, power, and partisanship: How evolutionary science makes sense of our political divide. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books.

3 Kalinichev, M., Easterling, K. W., Plotsky, P. M., and Holtzgman, S. G. (2002). Long-lasting changes in stress-induced corticosterone response and anxiety-like behaviors as a consequence of neonatal maternal separation in Long-Evans rats. Pharmacology, Biochemistry, and Behavior, 73, 131-140.