[FoRK] The Most Important Article You'll Read Today About The Democratic Party.

Stephen D. Williams sdw at lig.net
Sun Nov 22 14:38:43 PST 2015

Does this ring true for you?

The Most Important Article You'll Read Today About The Democratic Party.

By Dartagnan
Saturday Nov 21, 2015  8:14 AM PST

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 the rural poor 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 in rural, 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.


More information about the FoRK mailing list