Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Why are those working-class whites voting to screw themselves?

The New York Times’ Sunday Review ran this excellent article from ProPublica’s Alec MacGillis, which discussed why lower-income whites in many impoverished rural areas are increasingly voting Republican, At first glance, this trend doesn't seem to make sense given the anti-worker and pro-corporate policies of the GOP, but MacGillis (who wrote a definitive description of Scott Walker’s appeal among angry white Wisconsinites last year) notes that rural areas are trending Republican is because older and working class people are voting out of resentment of those deemed below them on the social scale. And then that is combined with poor people not getting to the voting booth to balance out those angry working-class votes, leading to a net win for the GOP.
There has been a particularly sharp drop in support for redistribution among older Americans, who perhaps see it as a threat to their own Social Security and Medicare. Meanwhile, researchers such as Kathryn Edin, of Johns Hopkins University, have pinpointed a tendency by Americans in the second lowest quintile of the income ladder — the working or lower-middle class — to dissociate themselves from those at the bottom, where many once resided. “There’s this virulent social distancing — suddenly, you’re a worker and anyone who is not a worker is a bad person,” said Edin. “They’re playing to the middle fifth and saying, ‘I’m not those people.’ “

Meanwhile, many people who in fact most use and need social benefits are simply not voting at all. Voter participation is low among the poorest Americans, and in many parts of the country that have moved red, the rates have fallen off the charts. West Virginia ranked 50th for turnout in 2012; also in the bottom 10 were other states that have shifted sharply red in recent years, including Kentucky, Arkansas and Tennessee.

In the spring of 2012, I visited a free weekend medical and dental clinic run by the organization Remote Area Medical in the foothills of southern Tennessee. I wanted to ask the hundreds of uninsured people flocking to the clinic what they thought of President Obama and the Affordable Care Act, whose fate was about to be decided by the Supreme Court. I was expecting a “What’s the Matter With Kansas” reaction — anger at the president who had signed the law geared to help them. Instead, I found sympathy for Obama. But had they voted for him? Of course not — almost no one I spoke with voted, in local, state or national elections. Not only that, but they had barely heard of the health care law.

This political disconnect among lower-income Americans has huge ramifications — polls find nonvoters are far more likely to favor spending on the poor and on government services than are voters, and the gap grows even larger among poor nonvoters. In the early 1990s, Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky freely cited the desirability of having a more select electorate when he opposed an effort to expand voter registration. And this fall, Scott Jennings, a longtime McConnell adviser, reportedly said low turnout by poor Kentuckians explained why the state’s Obamacare gains wouldn’t help Democrats. “I remember being in the room when Jennings was asked whether or not Republicans were afraid of the electoral consequences of displacing 400,000–500,000 people who have insurance,” State Auditor Adam Edelen, a Democrat who lost his re-election bid this year, told Joe Sonka, a Louisville journalist. “And he simply said, ‘People on Medicaid don’t vote.’
This cold-blooded calculation by arrogant corporatist politicians happens because they do not fear a popular uprising that will get them thrown out of office. It also illustrates the foolishness in Dem strategy to ignore the needs of this large group of people in order to appear “unoffensive” to try to appeal to dwindling numbers of “swing voters” like soccer moms and hot-shot entrepreneurs. GOPs are less likely to waste their time dealing with such mushy, financially-comfortable folks, and instead work on stirring up the masses below them.

Which is the other point of MacGillis’s article, noting that many lower-income but working individuals in these little towns are trending Republican because they have a personal experience with the people below them, but don’t see the corporations and oligarchs that are holding their wages down and are more likely to be the cause of the destitution that they witness.
The people in these communities who are voting Republican in larger proportions are those who are a notch or two up the economic ladder — the sheriff’s deputy, the teacher, the highway worker, the motel clerk, the gas station owner and the coal miner. And their growing allegiance to the Republicans is, in part, a reaction against what they perceive, among those below them on the economic ladder, as a growing dependency on the safety net, the most visible manifestation of downward mobility in their declining towns.
What Democrats have failed to do over the last 30 decades is to link the negative consequences that are hitting the poorest Americans with the equally negative consequences of corporatist policies that are hurting the lower-class workers above the poor. There is plenty of talk about what should be done for those who are out of work or too sick too sick to work, but not enough about those who still do have jobs, but are getting screwed over on wages and benefits because of pro-corporate policies that encourage outsourcing, discourage unionization, and lessen economic opportunity for the vast majority of us.

Democrats don’t make the argument forcefully enough that “The GOP is SCREWING YOU TOO,” and instead talk about the worst cases (which are most likely to need government assistance), if they talk about economic issues at all. The average low-wage earning white person that is already resentful at their stagnant/declining position in society tunes this message out, since it isn’t directly relevant to their lives. They also become more apt to vote GOP to get even with those “others” that either are getting welfare benefits which they don’t qualify for, or they resent those who benefitted from better education and/or unionization (options that may not have been available to them), and ended up with a better life than the mediocre existence that the working-class person has to deal with.

Combine that mentality with a desire to believe in “‘Murican Exceptionalism,” that our system is the one which works best, and that there is a chance to get ahead in this society. Let’s face it, who wants to admit that they have wasted much of their life in a losing game, and that it would take a radical change at a later point in life to become better off? It is much easier to blame others, and try to kick down at those who aren’t at your level, than it is to say “the whole game is rigged”, and demand fundamental change that takes a lot more work to pull off.

Which is perhaps the bigger point- while this country is undoubtably much better off economically than when Barack Obama took office in 2009, it hasn’t undergone the fundamental change and reordering of priorities that was necessary to wash away the disastrous stain of the Bush Administration before it. As a result, the standard of living for the average working person hasn’t improved enough (if at all) compared to a decade ago, and there is the looming reality of the next downturn making things worse. These uncertainties lead to fear, and fear leads to irrationality, and voting “against your own interests.” And because Democrats in the White House haven’t gone far enough to end the “Wall Street over Main Street” economy that has led to such rampant inequality and stagnation of wages for the lower half of American earners, more white people in the lower half of that spectrum are susceptible to voting for Republicans who appeal to their more base instincts of hate and resentment.

Which is why we must go further, and be more forceful in denouncing pro-corporate policies. This includes turning down the job-busting Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), and demanding higher wages not just for those making $7.25 an hour, but also for those stuck in a mediocre $12-an-hour job. It also should include stronger anti-trust legislation to preserve competition and discourage the mega-mergers that are resulting in increasing layoffs in the name of increased profit over increased pay (just ask the workers at the soon-to-be-closed Oscar Mayer plant how that merger is working out for them). And yes, this includes active support for UNIONS and other collective action, because that is likely the only way that rich, connected corporates will ever raise wages for the lower-level earner.

And it’s only through an unapologetically progressive ECONOMIC platform that there will be a larger voter turnout, and a change in voting habits that will enable this country to turn back the regressive actions that have happened since the disastrous 2010 election. That election not only flipped the House to the Republicans and rewarded the obstructionism of the GOP ion Obama's first two years, but it also resulted in the gerrymandering that led to Congresses and State Legislatures passing bills that are increasingly out of touch with the wants and needs of the larger society. This strong economic platform has to happen now and it needs to happen on a national scale, because we’ve seen what the failure to do so has resulted in for Wisconsin- regressive policies that benefit the rich and connected at the expense of almost everybody else, with previously pro-union areas in Northeast Wisconsin turning redder and redder, and allowing the downward spiral and increasing inequality to continue.

Wanna know why I feel the Bern? This reality is a big reason why, because he won’t play footsie with the oligarchs that have driven this country’s economy into the ditch, and will expose the working classes to the real people that are holding them back. And he is the Democratic candidate that is most likely to spark that large turnout and awakening to the white working classes that can give the Dems a chance at the big win in 2016 they need to have.


  1. Exactly. This is why we need to take over the Democratic Party from the bottom up, in every state. No more apologists, no more corporatists. No more Rahm Emmanuels, no more Arne Duncans, no more Debbie Wasserman-Schultzes, no more Ron Kinds.

  2. Bob- Very true. Thosea people have no clue what's going on outside of their little ivory towers, and supporting marriage equality and a few other nice things isn't enough any more.

    It's like these people don't understand that in addition to left-right ideology, there is a third dimension out there for many people- WHETHER TO VOTE AT ALL. And ignoring that has allowed the GOP to win a lot of elections without having anything near majority support for their positions.