no left turnTime for another of life’s imponderables. Both in Canada and the US, family farmers and small business people have, in recent years, consistently voted conservative, and show every intention of doing so again this year. This makes absolutely no sense: Most farm states and provinces are net recipients of government largesse (i.e. they receive in equalization payments and services more than they pay for, subsidized by the more urban and more liberal states and provinces). And even though in the past 20 years conservative governments have spent more than liberal governments, that money has largely gone to tax cuts for the very rich and defense spending, creating huge deficits that small farmers and small business people have to repay in taxes, and receive almost no benefit from.

I talked to a few local farmers and small business people to try to find out why they vote conservative. This small sample may not be representative, but what they told me was:

  • They perceive liberal governments to be based in, and focused on, the big cities. Even in the suburbs this anti-urban feeling is strong, and translates into an anti-liberal (rather than pro-conservative) vote.
  • They are very proud people, who like to think they are independent and don’t need government help. So a liberal saying he’s going to provide more assistance for small farmers and small businesspeople might actually be insulting them rather than wooing them. To those that have never lived through a depression (or learned its lessons), government handouts “encourage laziness”. Small business still buys the ‘free market’ myth, whereas big business knows it’s a myth and perpetrate it strictly as a power lever.
  • They really have no idea how government works, where the money goes, how they benefit from it, or how bigger corporations benefit much more than they do due to various government subsidies. The concept that tax cuts = service cuts, and that big corporations are at least as inefficient as big government, is lost on these guys. They don’t understand that it’s they who have to pay for that inefficiency, in inflated consumer prices and in taxes for big corporation handouts.
  • Quite aside from economics, they are socially conservative, as Lakoff defines the term. Homosexuality frightens them, liberated women frighten them, immigrants frighten them, government frightens them. They are terrified by crime (and, by extension, ‘terrorism’) and see it as a sign of moral decay, in black and white terms. They know in their hearts that you can’t turn back the clock, but emotionally they want to, and that nostalgia and fear is a powerful weapon that Republicans and Conservatives are using to their advantage. Many people vote with their hearts, not with their heads, a lesson most liberals still haven’t learned.

Yesterday the US House of Representatives passed a Republican bill that would give $140 billion in tax breaks to “businesspeople and farmers”. Who benefits? “Companies with foreign corporate profits, timber companies, oil & gas drillers, movie studios, wine distributors, manufacturers of bows and arrows, and tobacco farmers”. The rest of us, including small farmers and small businesspeople, will foot the bill. But I’ll bet that if small farmers and small businesspeople are even aware of the bill, they won’t be outraged and might even be more inclined to vote Republican because “it’s pro-business”. And the Democrats, whose Southern flank supported the bill because of the tobacco subsidy, are really in no position to shout foul. In a country with only two parties both feeding at the same trough, the rich & powerful win and everyone else loses.

In Canada, which has five parties to choose from, the ‘first past the post’ electoral system undoes the benefits of party pluralism. With the three small parties all socially liberal, Canadian liberals are forced to ‘vote strategically’, which means voting for the Liberal Party instead of their real choice, the NDP or the Green Party, to prevent the 30% of Canadian conservatives, who have only one voting choice, from stealing the election. We’ll find out in ten days whether they did so or not.

Alas, both the US Republican and the Canadian Conservative parties are consistently and heavily propped up by small farmers and small businesspeople. Without that support, these parties would be history. It doesn’t make any sense, but it’s the reality that both right-wing parties are counting on for election success this year. It’s a brilliant con.

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  1. Gary says:

    A friend of mine who owns a dental supply business told me recently he plans to vote for Bush for president this fall. When I asked him, incredulously, why? he responded that a conservative administration would tax his business less than a liberal one. When I pointed out that Bush would still be president when both our currently 14-year-old sons become draft-age, he bit his lip and said he’d have to think about that.

  2. I think you can probably add one more reason to your list. That being there is a general perception that conservative means less government. Less regulations. Less paperwork. That all means it is easier to operate their small business. Whether this is true or not, I am not sure but I suspect it is. The NDP would certainly implement more environmental regulations than a Conservative government with the liberals probably somewhere in between (you never know what you are going to get with them).

  3. Dave Pollard says:

    Gary: And you might also remind him that his son will also curse him for saddling him with a crushing debt burden that he’ll have to pay back. Those tax cuts are being paid for with our children’s money.David: Good point. At what point, I wonder, did our perception of government regulation change from ‘keeping irresponsible corporations in line’ to ‘drowning struggling business in red tape’?

  4. Johnny Nemo says:

    The right wing has successfully redefined the bounds of our public discourse. Government is “them”, not “us” (or “we the people”, if you prefer). In the job market, it’s us Good Guys — workers and management — versus those greedy unions.They have control of the mythology, and mythology trumps facts every time.

  5. As a participant and shareholder in a small to medium sized business, I can attest that the perception is that the conservative party will tax small businesses less.As for why farmers vote conservative, I think your conclusion that it’s largely due to social conserativeness is probably largely correct. The other thing we have to consider is that rural canada especially in the west (where i hail from) believes quite strongly that the current liberal party only caters to ontario and quebec.

  6. But why? We have the communications media to make knowledge, if not education, widespread. These rural communities lack resources, but again why? Is it because they’re poorer, or more isolated? Does this (ongoing) trend have any implications for the neo-Tribal society?

  7. Dave Pollard says:

    Renee: I’m not sure they do lack resources. They have libraries, the Internet, Satellite TV. As for implications for neo-Tribal society, I think we all would like to be more self-sufficient and autonomous, and that manifests itself in anti-government sentiment (not just anti-liberal government sentiment). The neo-Tribal society I see working is one where decisions are made locally by consensus, not by people deputized to make them for them. Will these ‘tribal councils’ be more conservative than today’s governments? Probably, but I don’t think it will matter, because they’ll be responsive. In my obviously biased view, a liberal central government is better than a conservative one (more consensus oriented, more peace-loving, more innovative), but a truly community-based government (where the community is self-selected and self-managed) would be better than any central government.

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