March 23, 2017

Word: Why Republicans are so cruel to the poor

Chauncy DeVega, Salon  - Social psychologists have shown that, in effect, poor people are invisible to the rich and upper classes.

The psychological dynamic known as the “diffusion of responsibility,” in which individuals tend to ignore people who are in crisis — especially if they are perceived to be a member of a different social group, race, ethnicity or class — also encourages a lack of empathy and concern. It undercuts policies meant to offer direct assistance to vulnerable and marginalized individuals and communities. A perverse corollary to the “diffusion of responsibility” can also be used to legitimate punitive policies that target specific individuals and groups.

The myth of meritocracy and its cousin the myth of individualism exert a powerful hold over many Americans. This is especially true among conservatives. Social scientists and others have repeatedly demonstrated that American society is not a true meritocracy. Other research has shown that inter-generational income and class mobility are also relatively uncommon in the United States.

Likewise, the concept of the self-made person whose success is a function of “rugged individualism” is also a fantasy better suited to its dime-store origins than as a serious way of understanding American society. Nevertheless, these cultural mythologies do the practical political and social work of legitimizing the Republican war on the poor.

...Among evangelical Christians, what is called the “prosperity gospel” has become increasingly influential. This grotesque interpretation of Christian doctrine assures its adherents that poor people deserve their circumstances because God has chosen not to bless them with money. Conversely, rich people have more money because God has deemed them worthy. Christian evangelicals — especially those who believe in the prosperity gospel — were a key constituency in Donald Trump’s winning coalition.

The brain structures of conservatives and liberals are quite different. Conservatives are capable of being empathetic. However, conservatives focus those feelings on their in-group such as immediate family and community. Liberals have a different biological inclination: They are able to feel empathy for those people and groups who are not part of their close social circle and community.

The bad news is that there is no evidence to suggest that the brains of conservatives can be modified to make them more empathetic and sympathetic towards their fellow human beings. Nor is the harmful messaging and narratives from the right-wing media about poor folks — and the Other more generally — likely to change in the foreseeable future.

...Unfortunately, the Republican war on the poor is but one sign of the deep moral rot at the heart of American society. This crisis extends well beyond the election of Donald Trump and the cruelty both promised and so far enacted by his cadre and the Republican Party. If a society is judged by how it treats the most vulnerable and weak, America is a country in decline, a country whose citizens should be ashamed of their leaders — and, in some cases, ashamed of themselves.

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