I have been inside academia for years, first as a graduate student, and then as a tenure track professor of philosophy. Having a foot in both worlds, what I can tell you all is that academic contempt for conservatives is certainly real, but largely rooted in illusions about what makes the other side tick, illusions that are reinforced and perpetuated by a kind of cultural apartheid–since academic philosophers seldom interact with non-academics in a serious, intellectually engaged way, they actually have no idea what ordinary people think except what their own politically motivated/motivating information sources tell them. The result is “politicism”–the peculiar bigotry that regards one’s political opponents as not fully human. Since academic philosophers think about difficult subjects that ordinary people would not understand (and in some cases might justifiably regard as not worth understanding), this confirms and reassures the academic that other people are stupid. Of course, any sort of specialized, highly technical knowledge can produce this self-image, and I have no doubt that there have been times and places in human history when astrologers held precisely the same views of the non-initiated. After all, astrology, like analytic philosophy, is highly technical and takes years of study to master.
However, if one actually talks to people in settings where there is no asymmetry of power, and listen to what they say, some plausible hypotheses suggest themselves. People who consistently vote Republican have core concerns and penumbral concerns, and while opinions on the penumbral concerns may often reflect a lack of critical reflection, the sociological explanation for having opinions on penumbral concerns is that one tends to want to agree with people with whom one shares core concerns. (This phenomenon is equally present on the Left.) But to truly understand the other side, one must identify the core concerns and strive to interpret them charitably.
Most people who vote Republican are people who are neither poor enough to benefit in perceptible ways from social spending programs, nor wealthy enough to not have to worry about their economic situation. If their pay stubs had a line on them with a number labeled “Marxian surplus value extracted by capitalism for profit” they would be Marxists in a heatbeat. But that is not what they see. What they see is the extent to which they are taxed. And they know intuitively that some are net tax producers and some are net tax consumers. They reason that their lives would be much more pleasant than presently if they were net tax consumers. They have little difficulty determining who the net tax consumers are (since most of them are parents, they get to deal with them on a regular basis in the form of public school teachers). When they hear political argumentation from the left, they not unreasonably tune out the argumentation, much in the same way that one hangs up on telephone marketers. They hear, “Blah blah blah [here’s how I will steal from you] blah blah blah [and steal from you some more] blah blah blah [all the experts agree that I should steal from you] blah blah blah [don’t blame me if I steal from you] blah blah blah [others need your money more than you do, me and my political clients for example] blah blah blah.” All the Republican candidate needs to do is completely ignore the “blah blah blah” and confirm the voter’s suspicion: yup, they’re just trying to bamboozle you, but you and I know better, and I won’t do that to you.
That’s issue number one. The second issue is that an awful lot of these very same people are parents. Darwin’s nature has hardwired some circuitry in them that becoming a parent triggers: suddenly, self-actualization takes a backseat to my-child-actualization. I’d be willing to wager that 90% of all the villified “religious” stuff on the Right works like this. The Democrat says, “Blah blah blah [only an idiot has children] blah blah blah [who cares what happens to your children] blah blah blah [I want to get to act like a child for the rest of my life] blah blah blah.” In short, almost every “cultural” issue Democrats push comes across as indifference to or contempt for ordinary people struggling to hold together their families and take care of their children. Probably actually watching your own child’s birth permanently alters your perception of abortion, for example, regardless of how reasonable and tolerant one wishes to be of the preferences of others, and while this may not change one’s bottom line on choice, it does change one’s perception of those militant about it. The gay marriage issue, which I confess to not fully understanding, may very well work along similar lines: everyone with children knows that marriage with children is the death of sex. But because sexual orientation issues ultimately are about the right to, or propriety of, having the kind of sex that one wants to, straight conservatives probably have a very hard time sympathizing with what on some level seems like a struggle to win the right to sexual pleasure. They’re working too hard for their kids to have time for sexual pleasure.
Now if you combine these two concerns, concern with not getting ripped off, and concern about securing the enormous investment people place in their children, any Democrat who projects indifference on both these scores, regardless of the reasons offered on the specific issues in question, is ballot box poison.
If this is largely right, then Appiah is wrong in thinking that ordinary people suffer from some sort of cognitive guilt rooted in the knowledge that their religious beliefs are irrational, or a desire to be thought well of by their intellectual adversaries. Ordinary people just don’t want to believe that they are getting ripped off by people who have no respect for how hard their lives are or the (largely child-centric) projects they devote themselves to. Religious commitments (which are more about identity, community, affiliation and practice than about cognition anyway) are for most people little more than a way of expressing moral commitments.
If I were a political consultant to a Democratic candidate, I would say that until you can persuade voters that you respect the economic difficulties of their lives, the moral structure that they are trying to impose on themselves and communicate to their children, all policy discussions will be perceived as sophisticated rationalizations for libertinism and thievery. It is perfectly possible to overcome this: Bill Clinton largely did. But I suspect that academics would rather feel superior and lose than reach out and win. In my experience, people are a lot less stupid than you want to believe, nor is it terribly smart to prefer a feeling to actual success at the polls.
Notice that I have not said that Republican candidates deserve the trust of their voters. I’m simply explaining how they acquire it. But until Democrats learn to express respect for work and childrearing effectively, they’re going to lose and keep losing. The reasons why the demos has abandoned the Democrats is that the demos doesn’t believe that the Democrats care about the demos anymore. Open hostility for the cherished values of the demos suggests that the demos may actually be right.