Political commentators in the United States have long puzzled over the phenomenon of lower- and middle-class voters voting against their own obvious interests, primarily their economic interests. Many explanations have been offered. Certainly, the political propaganda disseminated by the rich through the media which they own and through the political discourse which they now direct through campaign contributions and unfettered campaign advertising is one cause.
In particular, the inherent cultural conservatism of many in the middle and lower classes has made them susceptible to messages emphasizing issues such as abortion; immigration; the role of religion in government, particularly in public schools; and the corrupting effects of a sexually promiscuous culture. Political elites know these issues will attract votes even if those same elites have no intention of doing much about the issues. These issues, however, remain potent ways to get people to vote unknowingly for economic policies that have redistributed vast sums of wealth upward in American society. This redistribution has been done through 1) low tax rates on high incomes resulting in vast deficit spending leading to the issuance of government bonds purchased primarily by the rich who then receive interest from America’s middle- and lower-class taxpayers instead of having to pay taxes that would lower the deficit and 2) through the deregulation of industry, particularly of the financial industry in ways that have allowed vast fraud to be perpetrated on the public, for example, by the mortgage industry.
All of this has become exceedingly obvious since the crash of 2008. And yet, the public has failed to band together effectively to put an end to it. Why is this so? I do not propose a comprehensive explanation here, but rather I will outline what I believe is a neglected and central reason for the lack of solidarity among America’s middle- and lower-class voters on economic and other issues. The explanation comes from William Catton Jr., author of Bottleneck, who also wrote a classic book on human ecology entitled Overshoot.
In Bottleneck Catton explains that the late 19th century French sociologist Emile Durkheim believed that the division of labor in society which resulted in heightened interdependence among humans also led inevitably to greater solidarity. Catton counters with the views of American sociologist E. A. Ross who believed that that same interdependence was leading to far more vulnerability among humans to predatory behavior from other humans. Catton leans toward Ross’s view for a very important reason: Humans now labor in narrow occupational niches within our highly complex society in the same way that species occupy ecological niches in nature. This specialization leads to competition within each niche for the limited number of positions available.
Consequently, the harder the economic times, the more intense the competition for the reduced number of positions within each niche. This leads to anxiety among those already holding a job since they are often not skilled enough to find work in other niches. The employee often asks himself or herself, “What could I possibly do if I were no longer able to do this kind of work?” Naturally, this concern also creates anxiety among those who are unemployed and seeking jobs within a particular niche.
So, it is no wonder that those in the middle and lower strata of society have a difficult time joining together for common action when they are daily locked in a struggle over keeping or getting jobs in their respective niches. This competition becomes especially acute in the United States where access to health care services, pension programs and other social benefits are largely dependent on having a job and thus add to each job holder’s and job seeker’s worries.
It makes sense then that in European nations which have generous universal services available at little or no cost, middle- and lower-class people are less afraid to band together when they feel their position in society threatened by elites. This is in part because basic income support, health care and other services are available with or without a job. The French, in particular, have long been notable for their general strikes and other work stoppages and protests that have frequently caused the French government either to give up on planned changes adversely affecting working people or reverse changes already made.
It also makes sense that wealthy elites in the United States largely oppose the expansion of social benefits such as health care. These benefits would tend to make it easier for middle- and lower-class people to find solidarity because competitive pressure to seek a job to obtain them would be reduced. I am reminded of the American Liberty League formed during the Great Depression to oppose President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. The league drew from the cream of America’s corporations. Some of the members even said publicly that reduced wages resulting from economic contraction would improve discipline and character among America’s workers–code words for preventing any substantial solidarity from arising among the lower classes.
Catton believes, however, that the competition among individuals in occupational niches in modern industrial society cannot be eliminated. The division of labor which has made the growth in population and the power of modern civilization possible will also be its undoing. He believes the division of labor will continue to increase alienation and predation among and between humans. And, that will make it difficult to gain consensus to act decisively in the face of the urgent challenges of climate change, resource depletion, pollution, soil degradation and the myriad problems which threaten humankind.
Kurt Cobb is the author of the peak-oil-themed thriller, Prelude, and a columnist for the Paris-based science news site Scitizen. His work has also been featured on Energy Bulletin, The Oil Drum, 321energy, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique, EV World, and many other sites. He maintains a blog called Resource Insights.