Success of the Republican Con

Paul Krugman is, to be sure, a progressive economist. His latest NY Times opinion piece, entitled “Putting the Ex-Con in Conservatism”, might be dismissed as yet another left-wing rant. I must be a left-wing reader, because the argument rings true to me. Republicans, he says, stand for things that most of the country does not want. Yet they manage to win votes by presenting themselves as the defenders of traditional American values like gun rights, keeping women and minorities in their 1950’s roles, and raising up Christianity as the dominant American religion.

Their sustained, invariant agenda has been upward redistribution of income: cutting taxes on the rich while weakening the social safety net. This agenda is unpopular: Only a small minority of Americans wants to see tax cuts for the wealthy, and an even smaller minority wants cuts to major social programs. Yet Republicans have won elections partly by denying the reality of their policy agenda, but mainly by posing as defenders of traditional social values — above all, that greatest of American traditions, racism. 

And this sustained reliance on the big con has, over time, exerted a strong selection effect both on the party’s leadership and on its base. G.O.P. politicians tend disproportionately to be con men (and in some cases, con women), because playing the party’s political game requires both a willingness to and a talent for saying one thing while doing another. And the party’s base consists disproportionately of the easily conned — those who are easily fooled by claims that Those People are the problem and don’t notice how much the true Republican agenda hurts them.”

I get why wealthy people vote Republican — tax policy delivers lots of benefits, and wealthy people can self-fund the public goods that most Americans rely on. I always wonder why ordinary people vote against their own interests, and this article offers as good an explanation as any. We’re all susceptible to being conned — apparently, Republican voters more than most.

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