Saturday, 9 June 2012

Are less well-off voters who vote Conservative just suffering from "false consciousness"? Or is the Right just better at talking about values?

Back in the days before he became a jaded roue, committed to a life of Tesco Cava breakfasts and loose women, The Golden Latrine used to get himself into a right old tizz over the idea of people voting for politicians because they were, quote unquote, "a strong leader".

The most famous domestic example of recent times was, of course, Margaret Thatcher. Watch footage of voters during her election campaigns, and you hear the same view expressed time and time again: she's a strong leader, even if I don't agree with all her policies. As a feisty young politico, this struck me as an inherently flawed outlook. Surely the worst possible combination you can have in a Prime Minister is an iron-willed leader who will enact the policies you're against with the utmost vigour. David Cameron has wreaked enough damage already, despite the fact he supposedly spends half his waking hours "chillaxing".

No, as far as I was concerned, the only reason the less well-off ever voted Tory was that old Marxist chestnut: false consciousness. If only the working class voters knew the truth, they would have no choice but to vote Labour (see this New Internationalist blog, which brands a working class Tory vote as "nothing short of a betrayal," as a shining example of this kind of thinking). Now, though, this position strikes me as fundamentally unsound. 

Jonathan Haidt's new book, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion, examines this the question of why the working class frequently vote against what are, seemingly, their own economic interests. Why, for instance, was Ronald Reagan such an unstoppable hit with America's blue-collar workforce? Why did so many British working class families embrace Thatcherism? Was it simply  a sense of misplaced loyalties?

Haidt's conclusion, as he outlined in an article for The Guardian, is that the right are frequently better at articulating a moral vision for the nation, whereas the left is prone to over focusing on policies: there will be this many more NHS beds; we will lift this many people out of poverty. All very progressive and praiseworthy, but lacking an emotional pull - an important factor in politics, as The Golden Latrine has written about before. As Haidt put it:
It's more about a moral vision that unifies a nation and calls it to greatness than it is about self-interest or specific policies. In most countries, the right tends to see that more clearly than the left. In America the Republicans did the hard work of drafting their moral vision in the 1970s, and Ronald Reagan was their eloquent spokesman. Patriotism, social order, strong families, personal responsibility (not government safety nets) and free enterprise. Those are values, not government programmes.
There's still a portion of the left that has an extremely unfortunate tendency to treat the poor as an anthropological specimen, dismissing legitimate concerns about things like immigration or Islamic extremism. The poor are seen as noble savages, mislead by their lack of education, bless their hearts. As a result of ignoring these concerns, a lot of current left-wing thinking falls foul of an obsession with tolerance and what Slavoj Zizek calls the "culturalisation of politics", which he describes as the process whereby:
political differences, differences conditioned by political inequality, economic exploitation, etc., are naturalized/neutralized into "cultural" differences, different "ways of life," which are something given, something that cannot be overcome, but merely "tolerated.
What Zizek is really talking about is the retreat of politics, it's abdication of the idea that it can fundamentally change the way our society is configured. For example, the existence of a glaring disparity in living standards between the extremely wealthy and the extremely poor is no longer something to be challenged, only managed - encapsulated perfectly by Peter Mandelson's famous declaration about New Labour being "intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich". The naked greed of much of the banking sector and the mega bonuses they receive are not obscene byproducts of a fundamentally unjust system that needs to be redrawn, but simply a fact of life. They can no more be challenged than a law of nature can. Hence four years after the banking crash which threatened to destabilise the entire world economy, many of the major players are back to their old ways.

If we acknowledge the above, it's not hard to see why people are disillusioned with politicians. A strong, charismatic leader begins to look ever-more appealing, someone who can resusrect a nation's self-esteem and inspire a sense of pride. But what Haidt is really talking about is the Right's ability to embody values: respect for authority; loyalty; moral red-lines that can't be crossed. The left excels at iconoclasm (and condescension), but is not always so smart at making people feel safe and secure.

Take, for example, Thatcher's selling-off of council houses - a disaster for long-term UK housing policy, but a political masterstroke, which played perfectly into the desire of the poor for upward social mobility. As Andrew Pierce wrote in The Telegraph: "Thatcher understood that even families like mine, who had been kept in their rightful place often on sink estates by successive governments, had aspirations of their own. It took a Conservative leader to understand that the working classes also wanted to get on." And Thatcher was more than happy to talk about her desire to return to "Victorian values": respect, decency, hard-work and, perhaps crucially, taking responsibility for your own life. Although her policies ultimately served to undermine those values, the fact she was talking about them at all is symbolic.

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