Ever wonder why all those folks in rural, “red” America still vote in droves for the same Republicans who brag about gutting the very social programs keeping them alive? How someone like Matt Bevin can run a winning campaign in Kentucky based on cutting people’s access to affordable health care? How Republican governors can get away with refusing free Medicaid for their own citizens? Every election it seems that Democrats end up shaking their heads in dismay as yet another mean-spirited red-state Republican manages to defeat the Democrat by essentially promising to make his own constituents’ lives more miserable. Afterwards we all intone the familiar refrain which boils down to “these people don’t know any better.” If only the Democrats had a more effective “message” on the issues, we could surely reach those people who by all strands of logic ought to vote blue, and convince them that Republicans don’t have their interests at heart.
In one of the more insightful articles ever written about what motivates the rural poor to vote Republican, Alec MacGillis, who covers politics for ProPublica, took a tour through deep red America, asking the same questions. In an Op-Ed for today’s New York Times, MacGillis explains that it’s not all about guns and abortion that drives people in economically-depressed areas to vote Republican. In fact it’s something very basic to human nature, which the GOP exploits at every turn. And Democrats ignore it at their peril.
MacGillis’ first observation is that many people living in the nations’ more downtrodden areas—and specifically, the ones who benefit the most from programs such as Medicaid and Social Security Disability— are completely disconnected from the political process. They simply choose not to vote. Visiting a free medical clinic in Tennessee, MacGillis asked the people lined up how they felt about Obama. Contrary to his expectations he didn’t encounter hostility, Many people expressed support for the President. But practically none of them had bothered to vote:
[T]he 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.
West Virginia, for example, ranked 50th out of all the states in voter turnout in 2012. Other states near the bottom in terms of turnout include Arkansas, Kentucky and Tennessee, largely rural states that have significant populations of poor people, including large percentages of working-class whites.
Of course, the resulting vacuum left by huge swaths of Americans who don’t vote at all ensures that elections in these downtrodden areas will be won by those who do. Why, then, are the folks who choose to vote in these locales so overwhelmingly predisposed to vote Republican? MacGillis finds that the operative motivation is a strong sense of resentment among those who are just getting by towards those who have completely fallen off the economic grid:
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.
In his article MacGillis cites many specific examples of how this resentment operates in practice:
[T]hese voters are consciously opting against a Democratic economic agenda that they see as bad for them and good for other people — specifically, those undeserving benefit-recipients who live nearby.
I’ve heard variations on this theme all over the country: people railing against the guy across the street who is collecting disability payments but is well enough to go fishing, the families using their food assistance to indulge in steaks. In Pineville, W.Va., in the state’s deeply depressed southern end, I watched in 2013 as a discussion with Senator Joe Manchin, a Democrat, quickly turned from gun control to the area’s reliance on government benefits, its high rate of opiate addiction, and whether people on assistance should be tested for drugs. Playing to the room, Senator Manchin declared, “If you’re on a public check, you should be subjected to a random check.”
The belief that those who receive government assistance are somehow “undeserving” and “getting a free ride” is not only a phenomenon of rural areas, but is borne out in surveys nationwide.
Tha pattern is right in line with surveys, which show a decades-long decline in support for redistributive policies and an increase in conservatism in the electorate even as inequality worsens. 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, found a tendency by many 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 Professor Edin. “They’re playing to the middle fifth and saying, ‘I’m not those people.’ ”
The unfortunate human tendency to think yourself as better than your ”undeserving” neighbor is what drives these people, even as their own lives are diminished by the very policies they vote to impose on others. To call this a vicious circle would be an understatement. Republican politicians thrive on and exploit these very real resentments, which are not by any means limited to “red” states. That’s how people like Paul Le Page can be elected governor on an anti-welfare platform in relatively “liberal” states like Maine, where reliance on social programs, particular in rural areas, has increased. Meanwhile, those at the top of the economic ladder become more and more aggressive in securing all of the wealth for themselves, while the poor are played off against one another. Democrats can call it out for the ugliness that it surely is, but it is a reality seized upon in every Republican pronouncement from immigration to taxes. If you can get people to think they’re somehow being taken advantage of by an undeserving “other” (especially if that “other” is a different color than they are), you can motivate them to vote any way you want.
There are no easy answers for Democrats to deal with and change these attitudes. The most obvious solution—getting people to actually vote-- has become more difficult, particularly with the decline of unions, Democrats’ traditional mechanism for mobilizing voters. There is also an obvious and intractable racial component driving this “politics of envy” that MacGillis, somewhat surprisingly, never addresses. He might also have mentioned that the tendency of the national party apparatus to discount and effectively cede these rural voters doesn’t help matters, but instead exacerbates the problem. People aren’t going to respond enthusiastically to a party that apparently doesn’t even want to acknowledge their existence.
MacGillis also suggests that the resentment people feel towards others they consider “dependent” can be addressed head-on if the Democratic Party decides to make the effort:
One way to do this is to make sure the programs are as tightly administered as possible. Instances of fraud and abuse are far rarer than welfare opponents would have one believe, but it only takes a few glaring instances to create a lasting impression. Ms. Edin, the Hopkins researcher, suggests going further and making it easier for those collecting disability to do part-time work over the table, not just to make them seem less shiftless in the eyes of their neighbors, but to reduce the recipients’ own sense of social isolation.
Ultimately, however, the answer lies in investing the people who live in these areas with an economic future:
The best way to reduce resentment, though, would be to bring about true economic growth in the areas where the use of government benefits is on the rise, the sort of improvement that is now belatedly being discussed for coal country, including on the presidential campaign trail. If fewer people need the safety net to get by, the stigma will fade, and low-income citizens will be more likely to re-engage in their communities — not least by turning out to vote.
Note: All links in quoted segments are MacGillis’s.