During the campaign, Mitt Romney was caught on tape telling donors that there were 47% of the public who paid no income taxes, who were (he assumed) net recipients of government largesse, and who therefore would back President Obama no matter what.
Ironically, it was Romney who would get 47% of the vote, in part because he was wrong about who President Obama’s core supporters really were. As I pointed out at the time, an awful lot of the folks who pay no income tax (but who are subject to payroll taxes) are rural and suburban lower-middle-class strivers who lean to the right. And an awful lot of Barack Obama’s supporters are prosperous, upper-middle-class, college-educated professionals.
It’s a well-established demographic trend that the two strongest pockets of support for the left are those without a high-school diploma and those with post-graduate education. The reason has a lot to do with the nature of that education. Why would prosperous people, who stand to pay a fair amount of the new taxes imposed in the Obama Era, go against their economic interests? Because they are not driven by economic interests but by the ideological commitments they adopted in college, which are reinforced by a whole cultural environment, an expected set of beliefs and attitudes that people of their social status—college-educated professionals—are supposed to adopt.
I’ve been meaning to share an excellent piece from just before the election, in which Victor Davis Hanson takes on this same issue, trying to define the psychology of Obama’s upper-middle-class supporters. He explores a couple of important contributing factors, such as the envy of the upper middle class toward the rich—which I suspect is more pernicious than the envy of the poor toward the rich—and the way in which educated professionals are often insulated from basic aspects of economic production, such mining or farming. But the following paragraph states better than I could the central issue.
Liberals believe that abstract caring allows them seclusion and cocooning in the real, material world. Private schools, tony upscale suburbs, nice Volvos and Lexus SUVs, jet travel to Tuscany, a fine Napa $100 wine, Harvard or Stanford for junior—all that reeks of privilege and exclusivity, and can prompt remorse. In some sense, Costa del Sol and Martha’s Vineyard, like John Kerry’s yacht or John Edwards’ home, are antithetical to the entire liberal value system. But if one is loudly for ‘pay-your-fair-share’ higher taxes, or for affirmative action, or for more deficit spending, then one feels absolved from guilt over his isolated privilege—and can enjoy it without lamentation. And if one makes enough money not to worry about a few more taxes or fees, then a mind at peace is a pretty good deal. Lots of those who now reside in Portola Valley and the Berkeley hills helped to promote policies whose deleterious results fell on distant others, out of mind, out of sight, far away in Porterville and Stockton. Liberalism is an elite person’s psychological investment in enjoying a guilt-free affluence.
Keep that last sentence in your mind as a key to the appeal of the left: “Liberalism is an elite person’s psychological investment in enjoying a guilt-free affluence.” What this makes clear is that folks from the educated upper middle class back fashionable left-leaning ideas, not despite their prosperity, but because of it. Their prosperity gives them something to atone for (not because they actually feel guilt, in my experience, but because they feel they ought to feel it) and at the same time, their prosperity gives them the sense that they can afford the cost of bigger government.
In the meantime, of course, they are signing up everyone to bear the costs of higher taxes, reduced growth, and a rising national debt. And they are steering us toward a point when that debt comes due and none of us can afford the consequences.
This is why it’s important to break the spell and to figure out how to turn some of these prosperous, educated elites back toward small government, free markets, and a philosophical defense of productive work. After all, the ultimate “psychological investment in guilt-free affluence” is the knowledge that there is no reason for such guilt in the first place.