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April 18, 2014 12:10 PM Blaming the “Losers”

By Ed Kilgore

In an earlier post on conservative attitudes about race, I suggested that the real core of conservative antipathy towards those people might well be a more general disdain—rooted in self-righteousness about their own accomplishments—towards “losers” as being responsible for their own bad fortune.

There’s partial confirmation for this theory in some new research from HuffPost/YouGov exploring the subject. While the margins are not overwhelming, it does seem self-identifed Republicans are a lot more likely than other Americans to think wealth and poverty are the produce of individual moral qualities and choices rather than disparate opportunities or luck.

Asked if people are more likely to be poor because of “individual failings” or “fewer opportunities,” GOPers prefer the former explanation by a 48/23 margin (Democrats tilt towards the “fewer opportunities” explanation by a decisive 61/14 margin; and indies do so less decisively, by 41/33). Similarly, Republicans prefer a “poor work ethic” to “good jobs aren’t available” as a poverty explanation by 49/21. And they are even less sympathetic to the unemployed, with 58% saying “most could find jobs if they wanted to” as opposed to 30% believing “most are trying hard to find jobs but can’t.” Republican attitudes towards the long-term unemployed are almost identical.

Turning the equation around, 50% of Republicans (as opposed to 22% of Democrats and 28% of indies) say the wealthy are wealthy because they “worked harder,” with 30% attributing wealth to “more opportunities than other people.”

When respondents are broken down by ideology, self-identified conservatives are very slightly less inclined than self-identifed Republicans to blame the poor and unemployed for their plight and celebrate the virtues of the wealthy. It’s a shame the poll didn’t offer a crosstabs by party and ideology; I suspect self-identified “conservative Republicans” (and a fortiori “very conservative Republicans”) the heart of the GOP activist “base,” might tilt towards moralistic explanations of wealth and poverty by comfortable majorities. And if you added in racial/ethnic modifiers, or substitutes like “welfare recipients,” it could get pretty ugly, though I hasten to add I have no immediate proof for that educated hunch.

In any event, these numbers help explain a lot about Republican positioning and rhetoric on wealth and poverty, and probably why a GOP primary candidate in a conservative state like Georgia has no compunctions about running ads suggesting people are turning down plentiful jobs because they are lazy or dependent on “welfare.”

Because these attitudes are not widely shared outside the Republican electorate, Democratic candidate would be very wise to emphasize not only their commitment to help people who are poor and unemployed, but to express solidarity with them as presumptively virtuous people who are falsely suspected by friends of the wealthy of being “losers.” There’s no more powerful “populism” than one based on spurning the contempt of this economy’s true lucky duckies, the self-righteous “winners.”

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

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