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Political Right Relies on Division and Distraction to Maintain Working Class Support, Say New America Panelists

Jericho Casper

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Screenshot of panelists from the New America webinar

July 7, 2020 — The extremely wealthy and their priorities dominate American democracy, reinforcing profound economic inequality throughout the country, argued political scientists Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson in their recently released book, Let Them Eat Tweets: How the Right Rules in an Age of Extreme Inequality.

Hacker and Pierson discussed their findings about the rise of right-wing plutocracy and populism in a New America webinar on Monday.

“I don’t think people fully comprehend how dramatic the rise of inequality in the U.S. is,” Pierson said. “It is not comparable to other countries.”

In their book, the authors attempted to understand how the Republican Party is able to retain voters’ support, despite policy decisions they claimed further massive inequality and actively harm Trump’s working class supporters.

In their research, Hacker and Pierson found that the Republican Party increasingly relies on three “surrogates” to gain momentum: conservative evangelicals, members of the National Rifle Association, and, arguably the most impactful, right wing media.

Hacker and Pierson maintained that a degree of social division and distraction was necessary in order for the party to preserve these particular groups support.

Hacker said that he and Pierson “do not want to deny how white voters’ benefit from the racial inequality that the party is delivering, ”calling it an unfortunate benefit that primarily white working class voters receive from offering their support to the party.

“Political elites are aware they can use race as a wedge,” thus dividing the working class, said Jamila Michener, a government professor at Cornell and author of Fragmented Democracy,.

Without recognizing the extreme economic division in America, one cannot fully comprehend what the country is experiencing right now, Pierson added.

“Racial resentment and economic anxiety are cast as being two alternative explanations to the rise of right-wing extremism, yet they are deeply, deeply intertwined,” said Hacker.

Although the conversation was relevant to current happenings, plutocracy has a long history and a complex array of institutional supports, both inside and outside of the Republican Party and the conservative movement, panelists said.

“There is a rush to say this is all about Trump, but this is not something that began with him, although he did turn the dial to 11,” said Hacker, who argued policies skewed towards the super-rich were enormously amplified under George W. Bush’s administration.

Outrage politics began with talk radio, panelists said, and these tactics have only moved to social media in the past decade.

The panelists argued that current social organizations strengthen the hand of the already wealthy and powerful, while undermining democracy.

Pierson claimed that right-wing beliefs come from the top down, drawing on the source of political and economic power.

“It wasn’t like people just woke up and were threatened by Antifa,” Pierson said. “They were taught to be threatened.”

On the political left, the authors noted that they purposely said very little about the Democratic Party in this book.

“We wanted to produce a book of a manageable size, length and focus in on the conservative dilemma,” Hacker said.

To solve the identified problems, panelists called for a democracy with increased space for non-elite and grassroots organizing.

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