I can’t count how many times I’ve scratched my head—no, begun to pull my hair out—trying to figure out why poor and working class people ever vote for contemporary Republicans, no less Donald Trump. My puzzlement—and yours, I imagine—persists no matter how many times the apparent contradiction is explained to me by observers as shrewd as Thomas Frank (What’s the Matter with Kansas?). And even I know that the question of why people vote against their self-interest is a terribly narrow way of framing the question, because it focuses almost exclusively on economic concerns instead of all the social, class, racial, and religious concerns that people have.
Since Thomas Frank and others have already been so insightful, why write about a contradiction that isn’t a contradiction. It is simply that I want to get this straight in my mind, straight enough to move beyond my frustration and anger at all of those “ignorant” people, and to think productively about how to build the type of alliances that make democracy viable.
Let’s begin with some of the most familiar drivers of “voting against self interest.” Social issues include: opposition to abortion and gay marriage; a preference for school prayer (and a Christian country), gun rights and the need for self defense against a government just itching to steal the rights of loyal Americans; and opposition to immigrants who steal jobs from those same loyal Americans.
According to Arlie Hochschild’s new book, Strangers in their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right, “…white Americans … have worked hard and believe themselves to be waiting in a long line for their chance at the American Dream, only to see others—African Americans, immigrants, Muslims, women, gays—cutting ahead of them. And the line cutting, they believe, is enabled—encouraged!—by the government, the very government they support through their too-high taxes. To add insult to injury, the cheaters consider them ignorant and backward.”
It is easy to dismiss this as an illogical and misinformed argument. For example, haven’t African Americans and Latinos been here for a long time themselves, and haven’t they been even more disempowered? But let’s leave the comparison for another time.
What is indisputable is that these White voters get highly skewed information from TV, radio, and politicians. They were told that the United States Army’s exercises in Texas were prelude to a federal coup. They are led to believe that climate change is a myth, that crime is on the rise in our cities, that immigrants are far more dangerous than native-born Americans—even though scientists and social scientists have demonstrated otherwise. It doesn’t matter that pollution is worse in poor communities – White, Black, and mixed. As Arlie Hochschild tells us, poor Whites remain loyal to local corporations and indignant about the incursions of the federal government trying to diminish to pollution. Local politicians, dependent on funds from fossil fuel corporations, create this story line.
What is also indisputable is that the media who publish this misinformation—in the spirit of a nation at war—are mostly run by Republican businessmen with a powerful interest in lower taxes, continued use of fossil fuel, and support of the arms industry. Are the voters to blame (or to be pitied) for acting on this information? That’s a complicated question, also to be debated at another time.
As the current presidential campaign has brought even more glaringly to the surface, race and racism play a role in White people’s choices. Many White voters certainly see it as in their interest to limit Black and Latino (and Asian) voting rights, access to quality education, and union jobs. We know that race affiliation is often stronger than class, and shapes the reality that people believe. As Chauncey DeVega has argued, “Poor and working class white people possess much more wealth and assets than do black and Latinos who are nominally ‘middle class.’… Nevertheless, it is the perception of white insecurity and suffering that matters, not empirical reality. Those who have historically been privileged will feel like equality is oppression.”
Racial resentment has been central to American politics since its founding. The Constitution, for example, enshrined slavery. The Democratic Party and the Dixiecrats long dominated Southern governments that made Black Americans second and third-class citizens. Beginning with Nixon’s Southern Strategy, the Republican Party (yes, the party of Lincoln), has taken up where the Dixiecrats and George Wallace left off, cynically playing on the fears of White folks. The George HW Bush-sponsored Willie Horton ads epitomize the cynical scare tactics that have pervaded the Republican strategy for the last half century. White people want to stick with their own kind. They want to vote for those who will promote their interests and not the interests of the “other.” Is this voting against one’s self interest? It may be regrettable, but it makes a kind of sense.
I still shake my head, when I realize that poor and working class people vote against funding for health care, education, and environmental protection, and roar their approval for political spokesman who vote in such a powerful block against the incursions of the Federal government. But I understand the logic: Take your finger out of the dike, let the feds in just a bit, and they will take over. The feds will favor people of color. These fears may be emotional but who said that emotions—voting the way that your gut tells you to—are less effective than voting according to the thoughts of Eastern elitists.
There’s another reason Tea Party voting habits make sense. Beginning with Bill Clinton, the Democratic leadership can be seen as betraying and abandoning the working classes of all races and religions. Many “liberal” policies favor financial interests. The imagery that accompanies the policy is often more damning. It is not hard to think of all those Wall Street interests in back rooms advising the President. Most damning of all, Democratic politicians court the suburban middle class. They hardly even mention poverty or working class people anymore. Bernie Sanders’ popularity and the rebirth of the term progressivism speaks loudly and eloquently to the need for an alternative to the current form of liberalism.
Just for fun, ask yourself who is the more conservative presidential candidate this year. It’s hard to identify Trump’s interests as anything but self-interest and resentment of others, but he is disruptive; he is anti-establishment. So a pretty good case could be made that Hillary Clinton is the conservative in the race. We might see her desire for reforming the health care, child care, education, and workforce reforms as a focus on change, but it’s easy enough to see her as trying to shore up things as they are, which in turn, means defending the status quo.
This country simply has almost no sustained and organized effort to reach out to poor and working class Whites. We have not created or recreated institutions like the unions and political “machines” of old to provide progressive answers to the truly vexing problems that dampen their hope and depress their energies. Here’s hoping that the Sanders movement does have some staying power, which means that it develops local power throughout the country. I seriously doubt that poor and working class White people will believe that there is a genuine convergence of their felt self-interest with Progressive policy unless, in fact, there is such a convergence. And that will not come from the media and the corporate-dependent politicians. It will likely take decades of ground level, grass roots activism. It’s time for the long game.