Why Republicans are in a box (part II): their base, and nobody else, trusts big business.

A few months ago I argued that one reason Republicans handled the contraception issue so incompetently was that public opinion on premarital sex was strongly divided by age and party: older Republicans, and nobody else, overwhelmingly regard sex outside marriage as inherently wrong.

Mitt Romney has a similar problem regarding Bain. According to a Gallup survey from a few weeks ago, only 21 percent of Americans feel “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in business. (Here’s Gallup’s discussion with some historical averages; here’s a bar graph. And by the way, I’m glad that Gallup combines the results for “a great deal” and “quite a lot” since I don’t see a clear difference between the two.) But big business is the institution whose levels of trust show the greatest partisan differences. Fully 39 percent of Republicans proclaim the highest level of trust, but only 11 percent of Democrats—and, very important, only 15 percent of independents.

I wish I had a breakdown by income (consider this a bleg), but I’d be astonished not to see stark differences there as well—as well as by region; from anecdote and experience I suspect a pro-corporate mentality is much more common in the South than everywhere else.

In other words, Republicans—especially rich Sun Belt Republicans—generally think that big business is doing fine by America and can be counted on to continue to do fine. They’re astonished that anybody would call fairly standard corporate practices “the problem” rather than the solution. And they would probably hit back hard against Romney’s campaign if he tried to distance himself from those practices (not that he could easily do so!). But in feeling this way they are badly, perhaps fatally, out of touch.

By the way, are there issues on which partisan gaps place independents closer to Republicans than to Democrats? Yes. More on those in a later post.

Author: Andrew Sabl

I'm a political theorist and Visiting Professor (through 2017) in the Program on Ethics, Politics and Economics at Yale. My interests include the history of political thought, toleration, democratic theory, political ethics, problems of coordination and convention, the realist movement in political theory, and the thought of David Hume. My first book, Ruling Passions: Political Offices and Democratic Ethics (Princeton, 2002) covered many of these topics, with a special focus on the varieties of democratic politics and the disparate qualities of mind and character appropriate to those who practice each of them. My second book Hume's Politics: Coordination and Crisis in the History of England was published in 2012; I am currently finishing a book on toleration, with the working title The Virtues of Hypocrisy, under contract with Harvard University Press. A Los Angeles native, I got my B.A. and Ph.D. from Harvard. Before coming to Yale I taught at Vanderbilt and at UCLA, where I was an Assistant, Associate, and Full Professor; and held visiting positions at Williams, Harvard, and Princeton. I am married to Miriam Laugesen, who teaches health policy and the politics of health care at the Mailman School of public health at Columbia, and we have a twelve-year-old son.

15 thoughts on “Why Republicans are in a box (part II): their base, and nobody else, trusts big business.”

  1. Andrew, Sun Belt Reprobatesublicans are absolutely correct. Big Bidness is doing better than fine by America. The problem is that America is (and has throughout this new Gilded Age) done very poorly by Big Business. That is the thing Romney’s Base is incapable of seeing.

    1. Dennis, where I come from “do fine by” means “perform a service to,” not “derive a benefit from.” (The expression “I’ve been hard done by” fits with this: it means “I have been done a disservice.”) Maybe current slang has mixed it around, but for now I’ll stick with how I had it.

  2. I’m not sure that the South is all that pro-corporate. The Scots-Irish are pretty skeptical of any kind of authority figure, or any notion of social solidarity except opposition to a common enemy. Of course, I don’t know of any facts to support this.

    1. “I’m not sure that the South is all that pro-corporate. The Scots-Irish are pretty skeptical of any kind of authority figure, or any notion of social solidarity except opposition to a common enemy. Of course, I don’t know of any facts to support this.”

      While being submissive tools to the planter elites and their successors for the past couple of centuries.

  3. Why should Southern Republicans favour big corporations, which aren’t generally headquartered there? Insurance, banking, agribusiness, IT … I suppose you could find clusters of big corporations in Texas, and there’s always WalMart, but you name me a Fortune 500 company based on Mississippi or Florida. Hypothesis B is that they simply haven’t a clue about who runs their party.

  4. Why should Southern Republicans favour big corporations, which aren’t generally headquartered there?

    Part of the answer is that big corporations are getting compared to the previous economy, which was basicly subsistence farming. Plenty of people my parents’ age can remember when it became possible to get a job that paid cash and was year-round. (It is hard, but worthwhile, to remember how very poor Appalachia and the cotton South were; Mexico today is substantially wealthier than Appalachia or the Delta in the 1940’s.)

  5. Agree with Sam– as one of my profs put it, the South didn’t recover from the boll weevil until the interstate highways were built in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Those roads, plus air conditioning and federal installations (lots and lots of military bases, post offices, processing centers, Johnson Space Flight Center in Houston, etc, etc) have done a lot to give us the Sunbelt of recent lore. Of course that’s a little unfair to individual southerners, but it’s also testimony to what Obama and romney have been agreeing about today.

    But I wouldn’t be too quick to dismiss the legacy of slavery, reinforced by Reconstruction and the failure of Populism in that region. Racial solidarity was far more important than any differences of economic interest (and there were many). The allegiance of so many white southerners to big business is largely just a transference of their race-based solidarity with the earlier plantation elites. The historic pattern there has been that race could always be wielded by the overclass to trump economic and even cultural interest.

  6. I LUV this topic. Part of the issue with the south is the superstitious belief systems that pervade the region and the need for authority figures that these belief systems instill in their adherants. Corporations represent authority. Now I don’t think this is the case for ALL southerners. As one commenter said above I think it’s just a lack of understanding about who runs their party and how our economy works.

  7. The model of a plantation isn’t that far from the model of a private corporation.
    What I find interesting is the idea of the historical DNA of a place…

    Consider this quote from S. Alexander Rippa’s “Education in a Free Society”:

    Significant, too, was the attitude of the wealthy planters who occupied a dominant place in the social structure. Able to provide an education fo their own youth, they were little disposed to champion the cause of education all children … Education in the colonial South, then, was chiefly a private matter rather than a public concern of the state. Those characteristic patterns that emerged in the South reflected this dominant attitude. Tutors were used on the plantations by the wealthy aristocracy, charity schools were founded by religious and philanthropic societies, such as the Society fo the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts (the SPG) and private schools were slowly established in the southern towns.

    So I would argue the DNA was set down a long time ago.
    And that obeisance to planters/aristocrats/CEOs is something the South just does and can’t really help doing…

    1. The effect of place is, I think, generally underestimated as historically determinative. I remember reading of the kinds of folks (broadly speaking) who settled the northern and southern states, and the geography they settled on. In the north were whole communities with a coherent, commonly understood vision or mission (for better or worse); tightly bound groups with a common purpose and commitment to social cohesion. They also landed on terra we might call “nice” – good farmland, cold in the winter but largely amenable to comfortable (if demanding) existence. The south (if I remember correctly) attracted large numbers of single white men, many fleeing English courts or without prospects, who found themselves faced with mosquito and malaria ridden marshes, swamps, and sweltering heat.

      In a sense, it might be the case that a stronger thread connects the social and cultural changes of first world Europe to the U.S. north than the south – that geographical and human factors going back to the original settlement of this country more strongly link the American north to cultural evolution of the Western world (a la Jared Diamond). This is, of course, blindingly simplistic, but it’s something that stuck with me from college history.

    2. Except that a huge swath of the work force in the major economic/population centers of the South are no longer Southerners. They’re from other parts of the country and other countries. So, at a minimum, I would say this DNA is being diluted or altered, albeit slowly. This doesn’t argue against the force of historical/cultural DNA but it’s worth noting that it’s not static.

  8. Is there any good research on US regional variations in deference? Google Scholar only brought up this 1955 book. The Southern male self-image is SFIK of rugged independence, which commenters are plausibly suggesting is a crock, but we need data.

    1. I don’t know about regional variations in deference, but an old classic on Southern attitudes in general is W.J. Cash’s The Mind of the South.

      Among other things, Cash talks about the development of a frontier mentality in the deep south – the part of the region away from the coast that was settled at a later time.

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