This Explains The Republican Base

Finally, a behavioral study that explains the eternal conundrum posed by the Republican Party: why do people vote against their own economic self-interest?

The National Bureau of Economic Research’s study enlisted student and community volunteers. Each participant was given a unique amount of money that differed from the next person by $1. Then, everyone was given an additional $2. They were not allowed to keep the $2; they could only give it to the person just above them or the person just below them in wealth.

Kuziemko says in this scenario, most people gave to the person with less money, since they would not have gained or lost money either way.

The behavior was different, however, lower in the distribution. The second-to-last person gave his $2 to the richer person “almost half the time,” she says. If he gave his $2 to the one person in the room with less money, he would also become the poorest person in the group — in last place.

The researchers believe this happened “because it’s so painful to have that one person below you jump over you.”


Kuziemko has seen the paper interpreted in different ways, including on what she called “right-leaning blogs,” which say it shows a lack of support for redistribution of wealth.

“[But] I think that another way of looking at it might be recognizing that there is a lot of status anxiety, specifically for people who are sort of lower in the distribution and to be sensitive to that,” she says, “and maybe not being so sensitive to that undercuts support for redistribution among people who rationally, we think, should be supporting it.”

I find this fascinating. Status anxiety seems to describe most conservatives I know really, really well. They’re always calling out liberals for being “elitists” and “limousine liberals” who are “out of touch with real America” and all that. Seems like status anxiety is what’s behind conservative ressentiment, the desperate conservative need for cultural relevance and, as Julian Sanchez wrote,

…this obsession with the idea that somewhere, someone who went to Harvard might be snickering at them.

This explains why class warfare and identity politics are such compelling arguments, especially as income disparity increases.

Or, you know, maybe the folks on the next-to-last rung of the economic ladder are just really opposed to redistribution of wealth on principle — even at their own expense.


An example of how last-place aversion worked its way into our social fabric was the Jim Crow South:

Kuziemko found last-place aversion throughout U.S. history, including during the era of Jim Crow laws. One study she found argues that Jim Crow was more important to poorer Southern whites than it was to the wealthier plantation class.

“The way I thought about it was, [these institutions] were really important for relatively poor whites so they could have permanently — and sort of officially — a group they could always look down on,” Kuziemko says.

Fascinating, especially when one remembers that minorities, Muslim and immigrants remain important punching bags for the conservative base today. It seems the Republican Party wants nothing more than to create a permanent underclass.

It seems that at its core, the debate is between those who place a premium on the community versus those who value the individual. Back when I studied evolutionary biology, so long ago that we dissected a Stegosaurus in class, we learned that contrary to popular belief, humans are not the only species to exhibit altruistic behavior. The example used was adopting orphans: humans do it all the time, but from an evolutionary perspective, it doesn’t make sense. Evolution is the competition to pass on an individual’s genetic material; by using your own energy and resources to raise to sexual maturity someone else’s offspring, you’re ensuring the survival of genes that are not yours. From an evolutionary perspective, that orphan should be put out on an ice floe.

Of course, we don’t do that, but neither do many species of animals. It’s not unusual for females to care for orphaned or abandoned offspring they’re not related to. Evolutionary behaviorists theorize this ensures the survival of the species as a whole, not just the individual.

Altruism strengthens the entire species, but of course so does individualism — a successful species needs both. The challenge is to find that balance between the two, which I guess is what our politics is supposed to be about. Doesn’t seem to be working right now though, does it?

Last-place aversion is an interesting idea, though, and it certainly explains why so many Teanuts are happy to give tax cuts to millionaires and corporations but don’t want to extend unemployment benefits to their neighbors.


Filed under conservatives, evolution, politics, science

9 responses to “This Explains The Republican Base

  1. Frankly

    Great find! Thanks for posting this.
    I don’t think the notion that poor whites really enforced, and benefited from, Jim Crow is new. Even Dylan’s “Only A Pawn In There Game” mentions this and I doubt it was a new idea when he sang it. But to tie it to this study & then all of it to the teabaggers is very timely. It explains a lot.

  2. Dear Ms. Southern Beale:

    Thank you for a thoughtful, cogent, well sourced and compelling argument. I must say that it reinforces my opinion that SKKKrotalMurKKKinPatriotiKKKal folk are fucking morons, but morons whose moronity is based on sound scientictish principles.

    I will now be going out to fight the war on poverty, one bum at a time!

    • …moronity is based on sound scientictish principles

      You’re welcome.

      But seriously, don’t you think the Ownership Class already has this figured out? I imagine some nefarious, twitchy scientific type in a think tank somewhere — the Rand Institute or the Claremont Institute — maniacally twiddling his fingers together as he explains to the Republican Party circa-1980 that “the more money you redistribute to the top, the more the people on the bottom will support! It’s perfect! Bwaaahaaahaaa!”

      Meanwhile the Democrats were too busy registering poor brown people to vote to notice.

  3. Larry Stafford

    Many years of empeirica

    Empeiricaly verifiable…makes you crazy to contemplate. Dumbass, raggady ass, red neck people!!! Don’t ya luvum.

  4. SoBe,
    I think status anxiety is a phenomenon we have always understood intuitively from attitudinal studies, public opinion polls, or simply watching electoral swings unfold over the years. Nonetheless, without access to the original research report, I am skeptical about forming any conclusions.

    How large is the overall sample size? Sub-sample size for each status level compared? What statistical methods and significance tests are utilized? Case in point: For the next to the last distribution, the observed phenomenon approaches 50% which any statistician will tell you: 50% represents a coin toss, a random distribution with no statistical significance, a baseline of background noise. How about the other observation points? The NPR report fails to specify.

    What I am trying to say is this: The study is more likely to explain altruism in the upper groups than status anxiety in the next to the bottom group. A meaningful result cannot be correlated against a meaningless result. IOW, dIviding any number by zero yields a mathematical error.

    The next time I am in Princeton, I’ll bring my spinning “You Buy” coin and invite these folks to the Nassau Inn for a round of drinks. I am sure it will be a valuable teaching experience.

  5. Ellie

    I wonder how, or if, this might relate to another odd trait I’ve noticed among conservatives: when confronted with inequality among people on a similar or lower level to them, they often seem to want to take the advantage AWAY from the person who has it, rather than EXTEND the benefit to people who don’t. For example: a conservative I know is enraged that prisoners get free health care – but instead of demanding that we all get free health care too, she wants to see health care taken AWAY from prisoners! Another conservative I know is outraged that certain civil servants got paid more than she did when she was a Catholic schol teacher – but rather than being outraged at the Catholic church or the school for underpaying her (or at our society for under-valuing teachers), she was just pissed that the civil servants were “overpaid”! None of this makes a shred of sense to me….but I’m trying to figure out if maybe it ties in with the study you cited and the whole status-anxiety thing, in some crazy way I’m too much of a naive bleeding heart liberal to fathom.

    (For the record, I would so totally have given the money to the person who had less than me, because something about giving money to somebody who had more than me would rub me the wrong way, even if it wsa just a silly game.)

  6. Octo:

    The study is available online but you have to pay $5 for it. 🙂 I think we have to read the study to answer your questions.

    Ellie, I’ve noticed the same thing. We discussed that during the healthcare debate and recently during the attacks on unions. Conservatives falsely claimed that teachers were earning hundreds of thousands of dollars a year, which wasn’t true in the first place but in the second place instead of demanding such benefits and salaries for themselves they cried “NOT FAIR!” and wanted to take those things away from the union members. Weird.

    • Proud Socialist

      Wouldn’t it be funny if the REAL test being run was identifying which group of people would cough up five bucks to have evidence to support their own prejudices?

  7. Mike G

    The working-class teatards of my acquaintance seem like they would be content with living under a bridge in a refrigerator box, so long as someone they hate is under the next pylon with a smaller box.

    In the end they’re like pack dogs, comfortable only in a clear heirarchy; lacking any innate talent (hence their outsize embrace of nationalism, which allows them to aggressively claim high status merely for where they were born), they feel they can only get ahead by tearing down everyone around them or below them, and sucking up to those far above.