As the 2016 election cycle begins to heat up, I decided to write an article on why I think so many white Americans continue to vote Republican. Most policies of the Republican party are against the working and middle class white voters so this is a puzzling phenomenon to me.
Chad Mcdonald wrote “The GOP advocates slashing government assistance and food stamps, denying unemployment assistance, opposing affordable healthcare, and cutting taxes for the wealthy. They constantly demonize poor people, and think the economically disadvantaged deserve only scorn and insults.”
If you’re poor, you’re just lazy end of story and yet the poor who they ridicule keep voting for them.” Perhaps Bill Maher summed it up best “People don’t vote to say ‘thank you,’ do they? They vote to say ‘fuck you!’”
Lower and middle class whites desperately need things like strong unions that protect their rights as workers, they need affordable health care, they need fairer tax laws that don’t punish them and reward the rich even more than now, they need higher minimum wage hike, they need help to send their kids to college without graduating with a debt bigger than most home mortgages, they need their kids to have an opportunity to attend schools that offer opportunity to achieve the American dream and not our current school-to-prison pipeline model. They need a government that won’t send their kids to fight in wars we shouldn’t be in or waste trillions in the sands of the Middle East and have nothing to show for it. They need a party that recognizes the highest income disparity since 1928 is a big problem. They need a party who cares more about Main street than Wall Street but they still keep voting Republican? WHY????
Tens of millions of Americans actually believe in the false premise that if you give more to the rich it will eventually help the rest of us. The top 2% have become wealthier for sure, but where do people think their new wealth comes from? Hint: Look in a mirror. If it hasn’t trickled down by now, chances are you might want to revise your thinking that it ever will.
Before I even begin trying to answer this riddle, let me start off by saying that I see a lot of problems with both major political parties. I think America desperately needs a strong third party (or parties) because the two current ones are consistently producing a very shoddy product both in terms of the politicians and their policies. Getting elected now is more about how much money you can raise and how many lobbyists and donors you can schmooze than about the actual candidate or their views on issues. Incumbents don’t care about the voters, they care about raising money to stay in office and that means keeping donors not voters happy. Without real campaign finance reform and a law to overturn Citizens United nothing will ever change. They tried in 2014 but Take a guess who blocked it. If you said the Republicans you get a cookie.
At one time America was controlled by the “Big 3” automakers and they argued no one would ever want to buy a small foreign car – boy were they wrong. We need a Toyota of political parties to come along and shake things up. New ideas, new candidates not beholden to lobbyist and special interests, someone voters can actually agree with on most issues for a change instead of just a slight majority of issues. Right now there is no party for the centrists also known as the moderate middle or independents and that is a shame. I’m not alone either. A Gallup poll shows that around 58% of Americans say a strong third party is needed. If you are socially liberal, believe in addressing the debt crisis but also think that means the rich and corporations need to pay more you have a hard time finding a home.
In 1952, a time many Republicans recall fondly as the good ol’ days, corporate income tax accounted for about 33% of federal tax revenue. Today even with record breaking profits it accounts for 9% and they still are asking for lower rates. This chart shows the shift towards the individual tax payer picking up the slack. Payroll taxes have skyrocketed just as corporate taxes have fallen.
The Comedy Central show South Park often does an incredibly good job of poking fun at real world issues though comedy of the absurd. When they covered this very issue, they described the choice voters often are left with as one between a turd sandwich and a giant douche. This type of surreal humor likely struck a chord with many of us that have debated between the lesser of two evils in many elections because that was our only choice. Sadly, far too often we must choose between a turd sandwich or a giant douche in many elections and I think that also is a reason why voter turnout is not especially high. People wonder what’s the point in voting if nothing ever changes.
Table of Contents
Why do working and middle class whites vote Republican?
The conventional wisdom of why so many white middle and working class poor vote Republican goes back to the signing of the Civil and Voting Rights Acts. The so-called white flight from the Democratic party culminated in the huge victory Reagan won over Carter years later.
LBJ famously said after he’d signed the Civil and Voting Rights Act, that he had “lost the South for a generation.” After over fifty years now the attitudes have possibly even hardened and instead of one generation we are now around the third generation and counting with few signs things are changing. Yes, this played a key part in the white flight from the Democrat party but I think we must dig a bit deeper.
Many older white people are holed up in exburb enclaves listening to the likes of Limbaugh, Fox News, Glen Beck, and dozens of others who rant and rave that America has been stolen and we need to “take our country back” whatever that means. Mark Twain wrote “If you tell the truth, you’ll eventually be found out.” and if you listen to these talking heads you get a great idea of exactly what they want America to take back to. It’s not a hard code to break.
The fact that many of these shouting heads are subsidized by rich conservatives with an agenda is hidden from the listeners. These right wing radio and TV shows do a good job of frightening older white voters and feeding them a lot of misinformation and false propaganda and outright lies. They also tell them that all traditional media are liars and refer to them as the “Lame stream media” which makes them distrust any information that conflicts with their preconceived views. They live in a bubble and recoil at any hint their beliefs are based on outright lies and misinformation.
Is it because of guns or the lie about Obama being a Muslim?
Conservative propagandists convince their audience that Obama is a Muslim which is a lie and many other outrageous claims. Remember the birther nuts like Donald Trump? They are still around. This is reinforced by chain emails and right wing websites. The number of whacky conspiracy theories believed by so many is very disheartening. They also say the Democrats and Obama are trying to take away their guns even though Obama signed a bill in 2009 that allows people to carry loaded guns into most national parks; in 2011, he largely avoided a discussion — to the anger of many activists — about strengthening gun laws following the shooting of Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords. Obama received a failing grade from the nation’s preeminent gun control group, the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence. If Obama is anti-gun he has done a damn fine job hiding that fact and doing the opposite. They call Democrats “Low information voters” but yet refuse to read any unbiased news reports or analyze the data for themselves.
The Lingering Effects of Lewis Powell and Ayn Rand
We all know about people like the Koch Brothers, Sheldon Adelson, The Walton family, Marc Andreessen, George Soros, and many others that have their pet causes or candidates. It is certainly true their money allows these billionaires to influence elections but I bet few of you know people like Lewis Powell who had far more impact than any of those billionaires. He wrote a famous 1971 memo just two months before he joined the Supreme Court which set a plan for reshaping universities and media for decades to come that is still in full swing. His blueprint is still used by the GOP to this day. He is perhaps the most influential yet unrecognized person responsible for why white working and middle class voters continue to vote against their own best interest. Paul Weyrich has also often been labeled as one of the founding fathers of the modern conservative movement and strongly advocated for voting restrictions. His ideas on voter suppression and gerrymandering also are still in use.
You probably have heard the name Ayn Rand and her book Atlas Shrugged mentioned by many in the GOP. She started something called the objectivist movement. The original Objectivists were the group, including Alan Greenspan, that gathered around Ayn Rand while she was writing Atlas Shrugged. They called themselves “The Collective”. People like Paul Ryan and many others who almost have a character worship of a very dull writer concerns me greatly. Ayn Rand’s philosophy can be summed up best by Ayn Rand. “My philosophy, in essence, is the concept of man as a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievement as his noblest activity, and reason as his only absolute.”
Counterintuitive for White Working and Middle Class to Vote Republican
The subject of why working and middle class whites vote for the GOP is a subject that fascinates me because it seems so counter-intuitive. At a young and tender age I was very politically naïve and believed that the Republican party actually stood by all those snazzy bumper stickers that spoke of freedom, liberty, and so many other patriotic sounding slogans they are so good at coming up with. It didn’t take long to finally understand I had been duped once I began thinking for myself and looking at the facts and the world around me. Once my frontal lobe fully developed in my mid 20’s and I could begin to process all this information and think clearly, I began to quickly realize how wrong I had been.
As I grew older and a lot wiser I began to quickly change my views and by my mid 20’s I was a proud liberal and haven’t looked back since. I will say that even as a progressive I don’t always agree with the entire party platform which is why I wish we had more than two parties but in this choice of the lesser of two evils I feel a lot more comfortable voting Democrat than Republican in nearly every election. President Obama has disappointed me on some things like continuing to support things like No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top which are harming our schools and several other issues but I do not ever regret my vote for him over McCain or Romney even for one second.
When I meet someone wealthy that votes Republican it makes sense. But for the millions of white Republicans living paycheck to paycheck or on some sort of government assistance it boggles my mind why they vote for a party so completely out of touch with improving their lives in any meaningful way.
Is it the Politics of Shame?
In the course of my research I stumbled across a compelling article which gave me a new clue. The article is titled I was poor, but a GOP die-hard: How I finally left the politics of shame. It is an interesting article well worth your time regardless of your political views. Here is just a small snippet.
The people who most support the Republicans and the Tea Party carry a secret burden. Many know that they are one medical emergency or broken down car away from ruin, and they blame the government. They vote against their own interests, often hurting themselves in concrete ways, in a vain attempt to deal with their own, misguided shame about being poor. They believe “freedom” is the answer, even though they live a form of wage indenture in a rigged system.
The article goes into much more detail and tells of the author’s transformation from a young age and how he finally began to change his views. He didn’t start voting for his own self-interest until he was nearly 40. In the final paragraph he ends on a very powerful note.
Sadly, it took me years — decades — to see the illogic of supporting people who disdain me. But I’m a super-slow learner. I wish I could take the poorest, struggling conservatives and shake them. I would scream that their circumstances or failures or joblessness are not all their fault. They should wise up and vote themselves a break. Rich people vote their self-interest in every single election. Why don’t poor people?
Why indeed….His reasons included the shame of being poor and I am sure that applies to many people, but I think there is a lot more to it than just that. He described a friend of his that votes reliably for the most extreme conservative in every election. The friend is a Nevadan but chose to live right across the border in California because as a more liberal state and they provide a much better social safety net for disabled vets than they do in Nevada.
He always votes for the person most likely to slash the program he depends on daily for his own survival. It’s like clinging to the end of a thin rope and voting for the rope-cutting razor party.
I had a friend eerily similar. This friend was about as right-wing as they come. He hasn’t met a conspiracy theory yet about President Obama or really any liberal that he doesn’t believe. He attended three years of college but failed to graduate. He is a devout Catholic and claims to attend Mass weekly though I have no idea if he does or not. He is also on disability and has been for at least 20 years which is many more years than he spent in the workforce and to top it all off he is also gay! He is also a pathological liar with an eating disorder that lies about his age and claims he was a nurse which is pure fiction since his last job was working for the Section 8 housing authority. Were he to attend a local Georgia GOP party meeting I can already hear the whispers if he were to walk in to their meeting assuming he would even be let in at all.
He is the very definition of what many Republicans view as all that is wrong with America. A gay drug addict who is a college drop-out and will spend the vast majority of his life on disability. His very disabilities are likely the result of that very same drug use years ago. He spends nearly all his disability money on pot and does nothing more with his life than drive around annoying people with the same stories he has told a hundred times or more chauffeuring around equally lost individuals in exchange for favors. This guy not only votes against his own self-interest that keeps him from being homeless, but also will berate and bemoan “the takers” when you get into any political debate with him and dare challenge his views. He whines on incessantly about the “takers” oblivious to the irony that he is firmly among their ranks and despised by the party he supports.
He memorizes the Fox and Limbaugh talking points daily and always has them handy. This might impress or even make people that are less politically knowledgeable doubt their own views because he really sounds convincing and passionate, but once you go off his talking points and question the veracity of his sources he begins to falter and changes the subject. To an uninformed voter his ideological rants are very persuasive, but to anyone that reads the news it is clear he is quite delusional and filled with shame. He also thrives on schadenfreude and takes great delight in the bad fortune of anyone in his circle.
At least with someone like Caitlyn Jenner it makes a little more sense that she is Republican. Jenner is part of the wealthiest 1% in the country and will earn an estimated $100 million this year, but my friend on disability makes a lot less sense to me until I read that article where he described the shame factor and his own friend living across the border in California. Then it all finally clicked. The shame of being poor is so humiliating for him that by voting for the GOP this is the only real way he can identify with the “Us” in the war against the “Them”.
The reality of him being a “Taker” which is by definition one of “Them” is irrelevant. His votes allows him the illusion of being the very thing he can’t be in real life. When he votes for a Republican he feels as if he is invited to the party and is oblivious to the fact that he is being duped. Republicans so often vilify and shame the poor that no one wants to self-identify as being poor or middle class. They fool themselves by voting against their own interests and pretend they are members of this “elite GOP club” when the reality is they are just the hired help looking in.
Is it the politics of religion?
Other popularly cited reasons include social conservatism based on religious views on abortion and gay marriage in particular. Barry Goldwater long ago warned about the religious takeover by Christian social conservatives.
“Mark my word, if and when these preachers get control of the [Republican] party, and they’re sure trying to do so, it’s going to be a terrible damn problem. Frankly, these people frighten me. Politics and governing demand compromise. But these Christians believe they are acting in the name of God, so they can’t and won’t compromise. I know, I’ve tried to deal with them.”
“When you say “radical right” today, I think of these moneymaking ventures by fellows like Pat Robertson and others who are trying to take the Republican Party away from the Republican Party, and make a religious organization out of it. If that ever happens, kiss politics goodbye.”
I think it is safe to say Barry Goldwater lost that fight. Social Conservatives have a tremendous impact on Republican policy and primaries. Here in Georgia, religious conservatives were the ones behind the so-called “Religious Freedom Bill” which was anything but. With so many GOP candidates vying for president they will also have a powerful voice in the primaries where they can easily decide who will escape the initial culling. A candidate with just 20% support could potentially win a state with so many candidates running and they easily number higher than that in the primary votes.
In Mike Huckabee’s book God, Guns, Grits, and Gravy he could have just as easily substituted Gays for Grits and if you read between the lines he actually does inside the book. Huckabee is likely to be a favorite of the religious right in the SEC primaries. There are other people like Santorum running who may appeal to some but Huckabee and his folksy Southern charm is likely to do very well in the South and western states.
If white working or middle class vote Republican because they oppose gay marriage, I would love to hear how gay marriage has personally impacted their life? If it’s about abortion then ask yourselves honestly if you think the Republican party will ever successfully overturn Roe v. Wade. It’s a pipe dream so wasting your vote on a candidate that says he is “pro-life” may make you feel good but it is a wasted vote if you don’t agree with them on other issues.
Poor whites actually believe God is a conservative. The #ccot (Christian Conservative On Twitter) hashtag gets heavy use. This is the very definition of delusional zealotry.
Is it about the troops, small government, and small budgets?
Republicans love to say “We Support Our Troops” . They post it all over Facebook and with bumper stickers and ribbons and flags in their yards. I don’t really understand how sending thousands of American troops to die in a country we should have never invaded to begin with is the best way to show that support however. I also don’t understand how blocking a veterans bill to expand healthcare and education for veterans shows you support them.
Republicans might claim they are for smaller budgets and for a small government but the reality is quite the opposite. If a president from your party hasn’t balanced the budget since the 1950′s, how can you claim to be the party for “fiscal responsibility”? Keep in mind the last 2 two-term Republican presidents (Reagan/George W. Bush) left office with our national debt much higher than what it was when they took office. Which Republican president do you know that let the Federal government smaller when he left office than when he came in? I don’t know of any. Some Democratic friends of mine chalk it up to a resentment that any government aid is ever given to non-whites. There is certainly some truth in that, but that is only one of many reasons.
Can we ascribe it to mass cognitive dissonance?
Festinger’s (1957) cognitive dissonance theory suggests that we have an inner drive to hold all our attitudes and beliefs in harmony and avoid disharmony (or dissonance). Tens of millions of Americans even when presented with facts and logical arguments simply don’t care or don’t want to disrupt their inner harmony. They don’t want to shatter their very fragile universe even though it is all based on lies. If they were to alter their views that would mean they had got it wrong their entire life and that would be a pretty traumatic thing to admit.
I will close on a more pragmatic note. The Republicans do a far better job at the grass roots level organizing among white voters. From churches, to local community clubs and events, they are everywhere and very successful at making white voters feel welcome. The Democrats have to do a much better job at the grass root community level to invite white people in and make them feel welcome and talk about issue that matter to them.
After the 2014 election I wrote two articles called Georgia Democrats Need a Good Kick in the Ass and Democalypse 2014 Postmortem: An Analysis of the Midterm Bludgeoning. Those articles are much less philosophical than this one and cover specific policies like Minimum wage hikes, healthcare, criminal justice reform, legalizing medical marijuana, improving education outcomes, and so many other issues where people are more likely to trust Democrats. To be successful, Democrats will have to convince white working class Americans that the Democratic party sincerely want to represent working and middle class Americans and have their best interest at heart and keep those promises when elected.
“The game is rigged. And the rich and the powerful have lobbyists and lawyers and plenty of friends in Congress. Everybody else, not so much.” ~ Senator Elizabeth Warren
Democalypse 2014 Postmortem: An Analysis of the Midterm Bludgeoning