Democrats love to criticize Republican politicians for being inconsistent and hypocritical: for supporting a federal mandate to buy health insurance then opposing it as soon as it was adopted by the Obama administration; for leading the nation into an eight-year long war in Iraq on false pretenses and then loudly decrying NATO’s temporary no-fly zone over Libya; for railing against President Obama’s use of a teleprompter while using teleprompters. The list goes on.
But ordinary Republican voters are more principled and consistent than the politicians who represent them, right? Actually, they aren’t. The data reveal a staggering disconnect between average Republicans voters’ lifestyles and the positions of their party.
Let’s start with welfare. It should surprise no one that the Republican Party is hostile to welfare programs and their beneficiaries. Rep. Steve King of Iowa said welfare has created “a nation of slackers,” Newt Gingrich said black people should “demand paychecks instead of food stamps” and Mitt Romney warned that “government dependency can only foster passivity and sloth.”
The party’s rhetoric, characterized by a revulsion with “freeloaders,” would suggest that Republican voters epitomize self-reliance. Not quite. As Paul Krugman notes, the most conservative regions of the country rely most on welfare programs. In fact, “residents of the 10 states Gallup ranks as ‘most conservative’ received 21.2 percent of their income in government transfers, while the number for the 10 most liberal states was only 17.1 percent.”
The chasm between the Republican Party’s positions and the behavior of its members extends beyond federal welfare spending. Consider pornography. The three leading Republican presidential candidates pledged to crack down on porn and Rick Santorum recently made headlines by promising to ban it, claiming that Barack Obama favors “pornographers over children.” One wonders if moral crusaders like Santorum realize that the social conservatives they are pandering to are some of the nation’s largest consumers of pornography, including gay pornography. Colin Rowntree, the founder of a hardcore porn site, said retention of membership “is significantly longer for red states and the amount of content viewed, and the length of sessions in the member area is also significantly longer for red state members.”
The trend persists for social issues like teen pregnancy. Republicans decry teen promiscuity and pass abstinence-only education laws to “prevent” it. Religious conservatives like Santorum claim that birth control (presumably encouraged by liberals) increases teen pregnancy rates. But again, the facts don’t match the rhetoric: teen pregnancy is substantially higher in red states than in blue states.
What about divorce? Everyone has heard Republicans extol the sanctity of marriage, and Mitt Romney has subtly jabbed at his thrice-married rival Newt Gingrich for his divorces, which were widely seen as a major challenge for Gingrich’s candidacy. Well, it turns out red states actually have higher divorce rates than blue states. In fact, Massachusetts, the most liberal state in the country, has the lowest divorce rate.
How do we make sense of these contradictions? How does the party that attacks welfare recipients, declares war on pornography and looks down on divorce win votes from welfare-dependent, porn-watching, divorced people?
The answer lies, in part, with the Republican Party’s ability to appeal to low-income voters. Income is associated many of the trends I described earlier: Poor people are more likely to divorce, become pregnant as teenagers and, of course, receive welfare, than people with middle or high incomes. The Republican Party has been successful at appealing to some poorer voters, especially white members of the rural working class.
Perhaps these low-income voters overlook the fact that the Republican Party’s positions are totally inconsistent with their interests because the party has managed to project an aura of populism. It has been able to achieve this by attacking “elites” of all stripes — judges, academics, “Washington insiders” and reporters (but never the financial elites who bankroll the party, of course).
Gingrich makes a habit of attacking “the elite media,” and “Washington elites.” He once said “the elites have driven us toward a kind of paganism.” Conservatives routinely say “activist judges” are “crushing faith.” Santorum recently embarked on an anti-college rant, calling Obama a “snob” for encouraging students to continue their education after high school. Before the Michigan primary, Santorum’s anti-elite rhetoric got even more heated: “I’m not going to let the elites come up with phony ideologies and phony ideas to rob you of your freedom and impose government control of your life.”
In the words of sociologist Neil Gross, Republican attacks on elites “position the conservative movement as a populist enterprise by identifying a predatory elite to which conservatism stands opposed — an otherwise difficult task for a movement strongly backed by holders of economic power.” In other words, Republican elite-bashing serves an important purpose — it retains the allegiance of millions of voters who would, in fact, be harmed by the Republican Party’s policies.
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