In 2010, Florida had a red wave banner year. Back then, the tea party wing took over Tallahassee, and a right-wing Medicare fraudster known as Rick Scott took the governor’s chair. The GOP immediately set to work on consolidating power and has dominated Florida ever since. Yet something else happened that year. Conservative groups and politicians relentlessly pushed against the “Fair Districts” amendments for congressional and legislative races, which were intended to prevent legislators from drawing lines favoring political parties or incumbents. Nonetheless, both initiatives passed overwhelmingly.
In Ohio, Buckeye voters likewise had no trouble putting Republicans in office in 2015 and 2018, and yet passed significant anti-gerrymandering reforms by large margins those same years. Of course, the right-wing legislature completely ignored them, because eff the voters, but that’s a topic for another time.
But it isn’t just the anti-gerrymandering laws. Even states that are dominated by Republican politicians have a populace that shows strong support for initiatives to legalize medical marijuana, protect the environment, restore voting rights to felons, champion a high-speed rail, secure abortion rights, raise the minimum wage to a living wage, and even vote for recreational marijuana. These initiatives, which have a largely progressive lean, pass by large margins despite Republican officials’ creative ways to block them, such as by requiring an obscene number of signatures, making them cost prohibitive, or raising the threshold to pass at 60%. (In Florida, right-wing legislators are now proposing to raise the threshold to 66.67%.)
Yet liberal policies abound.
After Alaska and Missouri voted to legalize recreational marijuana last year, the red state of Ohio will soon vote, and currently, the support is between 76-81% in favor. Meanwhile, voters in Montana, Kansas, and Kentucky turned away initiatives to restrict abortion access, while voters in South Dakota voted to expand Medicaid. Union protections/minimum wage laws were passed in a multitude of red states—even Nebraska.
The GOP base of lower-class white voters love the policies that Democrats are selling, but continually vote for legislators who are dedicated to fighting them. In fact, these voters tend to continually vote for politicians who are antagonistic to their own interests. In 2020, Iowa farmers suffered greatly because of Trump’s ill-conceived trade war with China. He then added insult to injury by using $300 million of taxpayer funds that was earmarked by the Department of Agriculture to help them to give to the Big Oil refineries to pay off the waivers they didn’t receive. (The waivers requested by refineries would have exempted them from the blending requirements of the Renewable Fuel Standard.) Yet Iowa voted for Trump in 2020 by over eight points, with most of his support coming from rural farmland.
Looking at psychology
When looking at this issue (and always), it helps to view people as, well, people—as opposed to automatons who support policy positions. Psychology is a better predictor of behavior than politics. In life, we buy things we don’t need, make investment decisions based on instinct, and sometimes make detrimental decisions based on fear rather than logic. In the political realm, a variety of bad actors not only understand this, but have made a career out of it. Fox News can’t exist without spinning their viewers into a perpetual rage, leaping from one manufactured scandal to another. Their entire business model is designed to inspire constant fear and anger within the right-wing base.
RELATED STORY: Poll finds steep declines in how Americans value patriotism, religion, parenting
All of this is exploited for political gain. Biases of racial prejudice, supposed “Christian” values, fear of change, and mistrust of science feed into a narrative of fear amongst the GOP base desperately trying to stop change while looking for scapegoats for their misery.
“It means candidates who employ tactics such as fear and attaching patriotism to certain concepts can persuade people to vote for candidates who are in opposition to their social beliefs.”
–Diogo Ferrari, professor of political science at UC Riverside
Republicans have always been really good at cultivating the grievances of lower-income white Americans. Most recently, this can be seen in the Republican narrative that the train derailment disaster of East Palestine, Ohio, was due to Biden’s supposed racism against white people. Playing to their base’s prejudices by demonizing marginalized groups and political opponents has always been a successful way of electing right-wing politicians into office, even though they support policies against their constituents’ self-interests. The conservative base is terrified of losing their remaining white privilege.
RELATED STORY: Toxic train wrecks. Bank failures. Pandemics. Thanks, GOP!
Most Republicans here in Florida are in minimum-wage jobs, and they understand that it serves their interest to vote for a deserved increase in pay. They will vote in droves for a minimum-wage amendment, yet they won’t vote for a Democratic candidate who will ensure it gets enacted. They vote for the policy, but then vote for the Republican candidate who opposed it and just hope for the best. This has been a recipe for disaster.
The situation in Florida
Even though Floridians overturned the last vestige of its Jim Crow laws, DeSantis and the GOP legislature completely gutted what was the biggest voting rights victory in modern history. In 2014, 75% of Florida voters approved an amendment that required the state to use a percentage of real-estate taxes to buy environmentally sensitive land in a trust. The GOP legislature simply ignored them and used the funds for other purposes. DeSantis and the GOP made a complete mockery of the citizen-approved “Fair Districts” amendment by gerrymandering the state, completely deleting two Black-majority districts, and then daring the courts to do anything about it.
This means they are stuck using ballot initiatives to get around the Republicans they put in office, and the GOP-dominated legislatures are fighting back. Last year in Arizona and Arkansas, voters overwhelmingly backed initiatives to expand voting access, ensure abortion rights, and legalize recreational marijuana.
GOP lawmakers placed constitutional amendments on the ballot to make it harder to approve citizen initiatives. Recently in Michigan, two Republican members of the bipartisan Board of State Canvassers blocked initiatives to enshrine abortion rights in the state constitution and expand opportunities for voting. Here in Florida, GOP lawmakers are currently trying to find ways to block the minimum-wage amendment, but in the meantime, they are crafting a proposed counter-amendment that would ban citizens from voting on any initiative outside of “procedural subjects.”
My state is a mess right now: our infrastructure is crumbling, our power companies are being allowed to consolidate and gouge their customers, our property insurance rates have skyrocketed, and our housing and rental prices have become the fastest growing in the nation. Meanwhile, DeSantis’ open embrace of white supremacy, cemented with his targeted attacks on Black history and books, has emboldened neo-Nazis in Florida to take to the streets like I haven’t seen in my three decades of living in Florida. Yet voters in this state continually support politicians who engage in culture wars while backing deregulation, tax breaks for the wealthy, and shrinking the social safety net that so many depend upon to survive. Why the paradox?
the politics of identity
The answer stems from “white male identity politics.” Working-class white voters have been convinced through intense marketing and subterfuge that the GOP represents them, their values, and their families. Trump understood this, and hilariously portrayed himself as the white working-class champion. He made his entire campaign, and now the focus of the modern GOP, on racial identity, professional identity, religious identity, and even geographical identity. Voting for a $15 wage would be helpful, but the Democratic politician hates your Jesus.
Lately and even more disturbingly, politicians have really leaned into racial identity. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia just declared that she would defend who she said was the most oppressed group of people in America: white males. Trump talks in every rally about white people being forced to go to the “back of the line.” No policy is as important as when you feel your very identity is under attack. Trump’s entire pitch was that white males were losing, but with him, he would make them win again.
Lilliana Mason, a professor at the University of Maryland who studies partisanship, agrees based on her research. “Older voters who scored high on racial resentment were much more likely to switch from Obama to Trump.” They believed he would represent their interests, despite his policies being antithetical to their needs.
To be fair, I vote against my own interests as well—at least financially. I’m a highly educated professional, and GOP tax policies would undoubtedly leave me more money. I’ve always voted Democratic, but I used to support local Republican candidates at times. Not anymore. Voting Republican insults my wife, my family, and everything I stand for. I don’t care if I get more money back if it means my wife has to tolerate this:
Yet Republican voters have taken this to an extreme. So convinced they are that they possess the high moral ground, they seek to rule through open confrontation with the aim of subjugation (or the idea of “owning the libs”). Many are even willing to die; death rates in Florida and Ohio were 76% higher among Republicans than Democrats for the same 20-month time period due to their refusal to take the vaccine, wear masks, or social distance. Identity and tribal allegiance trump all, even their own lives.
The need to identify with a group is a deeply rooted human impulse. Duke University political scientist Ashley Jardina, who literally wrote the book on white identity politics, suggests that liberals could make inroads with voters who identify as white by championing an inclusive American identity to give them something to rally around. Her research showed that the vast majority of these people placed their identity as American much higher than their racial group.
Democratic politicians in red states would do well to highlight their patriotism and rally around traditional American imagery (flags, monuments, etc.) as Republicans do, but include in their message that they are championing policies that will actually help the lower socio-economic class regardless of race. We can do much to make living wages, voting rights, health care access, and union protections synonymous with American patriotism, and help supplant the twisted Republican version of hating and scapegoating other people for their problems.