Liberals have often lamented how conservatism is able to attract so many followers from the ranks of those who economically have almost no chance of gaining by the policies they support. The empirical record of supply side economics and flat(ter) tax rates is lengthy and conclusive in demonstrating that only the narrowest slice of the already-rich actually net benefits by them - sometimes we say top 2% or 1% but actually in many cases the benefits go even narrower - to the top 0.1% or 0.01%. Even a game which only 2 out of 100 players can win would be known as "gambling" but when you get to 1 in 1000 or 1 in 10000, conservatism can really be described more in terms of the lottery. And at least with real lotteries, every player has equal odds of winning, with conservatism the winners are pre-ordained and yet the other 9999 still seem to want to play. Why?
It's a neat trick conservatives have pulled. They have tens of millions of middle and lower-middle class white people out marching and screaming on behalf of a couple hundred billionaires who reap the rewards of trickle down economics (which probably should be called "trickle up" economics, since that is what really happens). It is this trick that I find most comparable to a pyramid scheme.
Most explanations focus on conservative appeals to social issues; guns, God and gays. There is certainly something to all this, but not enough to explain polling which still shows much too large percentages of the populace in favour of the wide array of conservative economic ideas from deregulation to lowering of corporate tax rates to tort reform. Any benefit that anyone in the bottom 98% gets from any of these is at best tangetical and is most likely beneath notice. Even if I own shares in companies having their taxes cut (most people do not), and see an increase in my divident payouts, what will it amount to, a few dollars? Point here being that it is not the case that conservatives win votes solely on social issues while most of their voters actually prefer liberal positions on economic issues but elevate social issues in their voting criteria.
Now, Paul Rosenberg wrote many posts showing that even the majority of conservatives are in favour of many liberal ideas - that they want increased spending on numerous social programs. This is a complex phenomenon and I don't want to oversimplify it, but aside from the usual ideological incoherence of most people, there is duality and contradiction. These people may support increased spending on health care, but they may also support cuts in the corporate tax rate that make such spending unsustainable. Why they support spending on health care is not mysterious, the other side is more interesting.
I also find the separation of social and economic issues to be a little too neat, ignoring that there are commonalities between them. It's not so much that conservative rank and file positions on social issues are consciously linked to economic issues, but that they serve similar roles: Perpetuating power over the powerless. Having more money is certainly a form of power, but so is maintenance of social norms and even laws that privilege some people over others. I shouldn't need to make the link between power and desire for personal gun ownership because it should be pretty obvious. The myriad of religious issues are typically about keeping Christianity in a defacto privleged status, where we all have to say "Merry Christmas" to each other every year, but no one worries about the correct seasonal greetings for members of any other faith. Naturally, Christianity itself generally promotes a misogynist and hierarchical view of the world, so promoting it is promoting secular conservative values too. On gay rights what I find most revealing is the conservative preoccupation with not "changing the definition" of the word "marriage" - as if they were all English language pedants. Partly it is just ordinary sophistry to evade the charge of bigotry for an indefensible position, but I think really they are upset that the legal privilege alloted to their special relationships would now be shared by others. Nothing else really explains the difference in polling support for civil unions and full legal same sex marriage (and certainly most gay proponents of full marriage equality understand the social status insult inherent in only recognizing their relationships as "civil unions"). It is about saying "I am better than you."
Elevated social status
This is the underappreciated driver of many conservative issue positions. For conservatives, status and hierarchy are part of the norm they expect to see. The thing about hierarchy is that the person one rung from the bottom will often be the most strident defender of their prerogatives and feel they have the most to lose through a push to equality. Thus, Corporals are often the biggest assholes toward Privates (at least initially on being promoted, usually a Sergeant sorts out these victims of their first power trip fairly quickly). This I think is why conservatives fight so hard against anything that brings just basic equality to historically disadvantaged groups. After all, if blacks, women and gays are no longer being stepped on, then everyone else who was previously slightly above them (poor white straight males) are now reduced in status according to a zero sum calculus. The villian in the movie The Incredibles expressed it as "if everybody is special, than nobody is."
This belief is oneself as special and deserving of privilege can easily contribute to the next motivator for non-rich support of rich people economic policy, that is the belief that one will be rich. Here we come full circle to the pyramid scheme angle. These things only work on a particular kind of sucker, the kind who vastly overestimates his own abilities. This is backed up by social science research which also reveals that those with the greatest abilities are most apt to underappreciate their abilities.
It also makes it difficult to accept you've been fleeced (also backed empirically) which means that instead of accumulating enemies among the lives of those bilked by pyramid schemes, most victims remain in denial even if they are forced out of the scheme for losing too much money, accepting they got fleeced would be to admit their abilities are not so keen as they hoped an ego trip they're not able to make.
Taking this back to the realm of economics, we end up with a few factors driving non-rich people to support policies that only help rich people:
- The belief in one's own imminent success
- Overestimation of one's own current economic status (not wanting to forget that upper-middle class conservatives also net-lose from upper class tax cuts, even if they see some nominal benefit at tax time)
- Desire to keep others down (and yourself "up" if only in comparison)