Many Americans have a sense that our two major political parties are drifting away from the imaginary center, that the 1990s Clinton-era strategy of running to “the middle” in order to steal voters from the opposing party has been supplanted by a Trumpian urge towards extremity. This tendency is all the more confounding on the right wing. “Why,” progressives often wonder, “do poor people vote Republican, against their own economic interests?”
Racism, propaganda, and radicalizing Facebook algorithms are partial answers, yes. But a new research paper from economists at Harvard and Vanderbilt, published by the National Bureau of Economic Research, suggests a much neater explanation. The paper’s simple thesis is that moral values are a luxury good, meaning that “the relative weight that voters place on moral rather than material considerations increases in income.”
This is not a novel insight, but the formal analysis of it helps illustrate just how much inequality is eating America alive.
If moral values are luxury goods — if only those who have satisfied all of their economic needs can afford to indulge in more philosophical motivations for voting — then why would all of those poorer middle Americans be flocking to the Republican Party, whose economic policies favor the rich? The answer, according to this analysis, lies in the effect of these trends on the parties themselves. The American political system, which is designed to translate money into political influence, is responsive primarily to the preferences of the rich.
That means that rich people on both the Right and the Left are able to monopolize their respective parties. And because those rich people are the most driven by moral beliefs, the parties tend to retreat towards these more esoteric values and away from “kitchen table issues,” leaving poorer voters with an ever more stark choice.
“When the rich get disproportionately richer, they place a higher weight on moral considerations, which induces some rich moral liberals to swing Democratic. This, in turn, induces the parties to polarize on social issues because their voter bases have now both become more extreme. Faced with such socially increasingly polarized parties, a poor morally conservative voter may well become more likely to vote Republican, even when his materially-preferred economic policy has moved to the left as a result of increased income inequality,” the paper’s authors write. “Ultimately, poor moral conservatives are both ‘pushed’ to vote Republican by elite-driven social party polarization, but also ‘push’ the parties to more extreme positions themselves when they realign.”
What we have, then, is an inequality-fueled, self-reinforcing polarization machine. The rich, free of material concerns, lead the parties away from compromise, and poorer voters are forced to follow. Once they do, the polarization is strengthened. Poorer, socially conservative voters who might in theory be open to voting for left-wing economic policies are deprived of that opportunity when they are forced to choose between their religion and social beliefs, or their material self-interest. This is not an insight into voter morality so much as a statement on oligarchy: It tilts the political terrain away from broadly beneficial compromise, leaving voters wondering what happened to “common sense.”
To put it in more concretely: The ability to truly grow a mass social movement out of the Bernie Sanders wing of the political spectrum is being constrained by this wealth-driven polarization of the parties. To recognize this fact is not an argument for Democrats to move right on social issues; rather, it is to understand that this process makes it increasingly harder for more conservative voters to set aside “culture war” issues and vote on economic issues, because the gulf between the parties is forced to become ever more difficult to bridge.
Crucially, this process also tends to make inequality worse. It leaves no lane for the sort of “populist” message pairing, say, Medicare for All and higher taxes on the rich with appeals to classic patriotic values. Rather, the process fuels the sort of guns-and-racism, pseudopopulist message now common in the Republican Party. True economic populism is trapped in the Democratic Party, where it is promptly sanded down by the wealthy liberals in control.
The benefit of understanding political morality as a luxury good is that it carries with it a thoroughly materialist implication. If you want to fix the political system, fix the economic inequality that hobbles people from being able to vote for those who would serve the many over the few. Depriving people of the ability to look out for their own self-interest is the oligarchy’s greatest trick of all.