In the depths of the Great Recession, Paul Ryan worried that the social safety net was becoming “a hammock that lulls able-bodied people to lives of dependency.” Unemployment had spiked not because of a financial crisis, but because the poor had suddenly decided in unison to be very lazy. Mitt Romney’s “47 percent” comment was nearly as dismissive as Williamson’s vitriol.
But this only explains why the rabble are abandoning their well-heeled overlords in the GOP. It does not explain why they have embraced a xenophobic authoritarian instead of, say, the Democratic Party.
The most comforting rationale for Democratic true believers is that these voters are racist and ignorant and hostile to Democratic policies on social issues. That’s part of the explanation. But the full truth is a bitter pill for Democrats to swallow. Thomas Frank’s new book Listen, Liberal Or, Whatever Happened to the Party of People? documents a half-century of work by the Democratic elite to belittle working people and exile their concerns to the fringes of the party’s platform. If the prevailing ideology of the Republican establishment is that of a sneering aristocracy, Democratic elites are all too often the purveyors of a smirking meritocracy that offers working people very little.