The NYT published a column Friday that’s getting some attention: “Who Turned My Blue State Red? Why poor areas vote for politicians who want to slash the safety net,” (Alec MacGillis). The column touches on several controversial issues, including why the white working class seems to vote against its own interests and how Democrats can change the political calculus so that we not only elect presidents but give them a functional legislative branch.
The whole thing is worth a read IMO, but here are some excerpts below the fold:
It is one of the central political puzzles of our time: Parts of the country that depend on the safety-net programs supported by Democrats are increasingly voting for Republicans who favor shredding that net… The temptation for coastal liberals is to shake their heads over those godforsaken white-working-class provincials who are voting against their own interests.
But this reaction misses the complexity of the political dynamic that’s taken hold in these parts of the country. It misdiagnoses the Democratic Party’s growing conundrum with working-class white voters. And it also keeps us from fully grasping what’s going on in communities where conditions have deteriorated to the point where researchers have detected alarming trends in their mortality rates.
In eastern Kentucky and other former Democratic bastions that have swung Republican in the past several decades, the people who most rely on the safety-net programs secured by Democrats are, by and large, not voting against their own interests by electing Republicans. Rather, they are not voting, period. They have, as voting data, surveys and my own reporting suggest, become profoundly disconnected from the political process.
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.
Where opposition to the social safety net has long been fed by the specter of undeserving inner-city African-Americans — think of Ronald Reagan’s notorious “welfare queen” — in places like Pike County [KY] it’s fueled, more and more, by people’s resentment over rising dependency they see among their own neighbors, even their own families.
“It’s Cousin Bobby — ‘he’s on Oxy and he’s on the draw and we’re paying for him,’” [Jim] Cauley [Democratic political consultant] said. “If you need help, no one begrudges you taking the program — they’re good-hearted people. It’s when you’re able-bodied and making choices not to be able-bodied.” The political upshot is plain, Mr. Cauley added. “It’s not the people on the draw that’s voting against” the Democrats, he said. “It’s everyone else.”
That tracks with my experience with rural working- and middle-class family members, many of whom have benefited from government assistance at some point in their lives, be it via Pell grants, unemployment insurance or WIC. Just as there’s no more zealous opponent of tobacco than a reformed smoker, these former dole recipients see current government check-cashers as weak-willed rather than needy.
I think MacGillis is exactly right about the shifting target of white working class contempt. The GOP has carried on Reagan’s tradition of stoking racial resentment with variations on the projects-dwelling, Cadillac-driving welfare queen trope, and that’s still a powerful meme for the IGMFY crowd.
But the “Cousin Bobby” who lives around the corner is perhaps even more damaging to Democrats’ prospects with white working class voters, and thanks to the decimation of the manufacturing economy, the rise of prescription drug abuse and a host of other factors (many brought on by run-amok plutocracy), there are more Cousin Bobbies than ever before.
One of my much-beloved aunts is a GOP voter of the exact type described in the article, a woman who bootstrapped her way into the middle-class via education — with help from the state! — and who has nothing but contempt for the “sorry” (her term) individuals who don’t follow a similar path and only scorn for any politician who wants to redirect a portion of her income to assist them.
How do we reach people like her? Well, it has been a multi-decade project of mine, and here’s my conclusion: We can’t.
You can point out a thousand times how minuscule a portion of government spending actually goes toward welfare assistance like food stamps. You can provide irrefutable evidence that the GOP uses wedge issues to keep the flow of cash and goodies channeled upward while doing fuck-all to address working-class concerns. You can emphasize that the country, indeed these folks themselves, prosper under Democrats and take a hit during Republican administrations.
It doesn’t matter. None of these facts has the visceral weight of the example of the never-married cousin with five children who lives down the road in a squalid trailer with her pill-head, disability check-collecting boyfriend.
I agree with the folks who advocate writing these voters off. But it’s important to remember they are only a subset of the white working class.
The NYT column’s author visited an Appalachian health clinic, where he met another subset:
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 Mr. 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.
If there’s any hope of turning red states blue again, it lies in mobilizing those non-voters. And as red regions implement shitty policies and turn into Kansas-style failed states, there will be an increasing number of red state citizens with a lot less to be complacent about.
Maybe that’s what happened in Louisiana last night — I don’t know. But I do know this: We need those votes. We can’t wait for demographics to save us.