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Sunday, May 27, 2012

Why Do Poor White Voters Reject Democrats?

In an interesting article today (5.27.12) in the Manchester Guardian, http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/cifamerica/2012/may/25/poor-white-voters-reject-democratsthe author wonders if poor white voters are being duped by the Republicans; or whether they know exactly what they are doing and are being patronized by the Left in their assumption that they do not and worse, could not?

This liberal sentiment has been around for a long time.  Democrats were stunned when Ronald Reagan for the first time in US electoral history recruited Northern working class whites.  It just didn’t seem logical, cried the Left, since Reagan was advocating for smaller government and for the dismantling of many of the entitlement programs which for so long were the staple of the Democratic Party.

Failing to sense the liberation the Democrats have in store for them, they have been seized by a collective bout of false consciousness and are once again set to vote against their own interests. Having thus infantilized them as ostensible adults in need of protection against themselves, progressives will then wonder why this particular group of people do not flock to them at the polls.

A recent Washington Post poll has found that these white voters overwhelmingly prefer Mitt Romney – not for his views on social issues, but on economic ones:

Asked which candidate would do more to advance their families' economic interests, middle-class white voters who said they were struggling to maintain their financial positions chose Mitt Romney. And not by a small margin. In this category he beats Barack Obama by 58% to 32%.

The article suggests that in fact poor white voters know precisely what they are doing.  However, the author gets some points right, many wrong, and ignores others.

First, he claims that people often vote against their immediate self-interest:

As a well-paid journalist, I vote against my economic interests when I support parties that favor wealth redistribution. That's because my own economic interests are not the only things that interest me when I vote. I have a vision of a society that I'd like to live in that goes beyond my own bank account.

This is disingenuous to say the least.  Those who are well-off can afford to vote more widely and less parochially.  If  they vote for tax increases, their net losses will be insignificant relative to income.  Secondly, although they may be voting against their immediate self-interest, they are also voting for their long-term gains.  A balanced budget achieved by higher taxes will decrease the national deficit and debt, and will result in higher stock prices, thus enriching them further. Their wealth comes disproportionately from unearned income, and they very definitely want to support those policies that they perceive as protective of it.

People on the margins, those relying only on earned income, would stand to gain from Republican lower tax policies if they paid a lot of taxes.   Forty-six million Americans (15 percent) are at or under the poverty threshold of $22,000.  If they have two children and take the standard deductions for dependents and personal exemptions, they would pay no taxes.  Those who are working poor – that is above poverty level but still badly off, would pay very few.  Approximately 10 percent of whites are poor compared with 26 percent black, but there are many more whites than blacks in the population, and therefore the number of whites who are poor and pay no or few taxes is significantly high.

Why, then, would poor whites vote Republican on economic grounds?  They get no breaks from lower taxes, and they are unlikely to see any benefit coming from loosened regulations on Wall Street? The author suggests another reason:

With unemployment still about 8%, many of the benefits of healthcare reform still to kick in and bankers still running amok, it's not like Democrats are offering much that would support the economic interests of the poor, regardless of their race. It was Bill Clinton who cut welfare, introduced the North American Free Trade Agreement and repealed the Glass-Steagall Act [removing the firewall between commercial banking and investment banking] – which helped make the recent crisis possible.

This argument is closer to the truth, but does little to explain this disaffection of poor white voters.  The employment rate and the financial crisis are not Obama creations.  They have their origins in the Bush Administration and before.  The low employment rate is a result, among other factors, of the tanked housing market.  When housing starts and total home sales go down, there is a serious ripple effect throughout the economy, eventually affecting employment.  Improving the employment picture is only partially in the hands of Obama, and while the stimulus package did not have as many of the benefits intended (many critics said that it was too small, not ill-advised at all), he deserves credit for employing an age-old economic vehicle successfully used in the Depression.

The financial crisis was certainly not Obama’s doing, and had he not taken the quick and relatively decisive measures to recapitalize banks and the auto industry, we would surely have slipped far further into recession.

Poor white voters, then, are not voting rationally for their best interests.  In fact, a more laissez-faire Republican administration runs the risk of more disruptions on Wall Street and continued unemployment since supply-side, trickle-down economics have long since been discredited.  These disaffected voters, then, are not voting rationally for their economic self-interest but are voting emotionally and irrationally.  The arguments of the liberal left, therefore, are correct.  Poor white voters are being pandered to by a conservative Republican establishment that appeals to a larger philosophical and emotionally resonant and simple issue – the very pillars of American capitalism are being eroded by Obama, and we are on the road to socialism. 

How did Reagan win in 1980?  He said it was ‘Morning in America’ again, and that the miserable, feckless, and wooly policies of Jimmy (Malaise) Carter were over.  In fact poverty rates in the US increased over the Reagan years.  GDP growth during the Reagan years was only fractionally better than that during Jimmy Carter who governed during an oil crisis which caused serious disruptions in supply and thus raising prices.

As far as voting Republican because of Obamacare?  Again a red herring.  Health reform even in its most trimmed-down form will be beneficial to the poor if for no other reason than it will eliminate the prior condition restriction of private insurers.  Again, poor white voters are being sold a bill of Republican goods.  Repeating a mantra heard from Republican mouthpieces since the 50s, ‘Obamacare is socialized medicine’.  That is all an emotionally vulnerable and poorly-educated electorate needs to hear.

The author admits that there is something to this pandering theory:

One of the appeals for some whites of voting Republican is a desire to maintain whatever limited racial privileges they have acquired over the years combined with a fear that what little they have will be taken away by feckless non-whites and undocumented migrants. While in Nevada in 2010 I asked a white Republican without health insurance why she wouldn't support a candidate who might give it to her. "I never really got into that Obamacare insurance stuff," she said. "My mind is focusing 250% on this illegal immigration."

Finally, there is one issue that the Guardian article does not address, and that is the religious fundamentalism of many poor white voters.  There is a simple absolutism to many fundamentalist arguments.  ‘If the Bible says it, it has to be right’; or ‘God’s law always trumps Man’s law’.  Homosexuality, abortion, same-sex marriage are wrong.  Period.  By extension, any candidate who states his opposition to these moral issues, cannot possibly be wrong on other, similar, personal/emotional issues like patriotism and capitalism.  If Mitt Romney says that a vote for Obama is a vote for socialism, rampant homosexuality, fetus murder, white decline, and living in sin, how can he be wrong?

Agreeing with the liberal assessment that poor white voters are not voting in their own interests is not the patronizing, elitist argument suggested by the author.  There should be a collective shame in having so many Americans not only in poverty, but without the educational resources to provide them the logical discipline to sort out political fact from fiction. There is no shame in religion, and American is one of the most religious nations in the world; but there is cause for concern when religion is the only safe haven for so many; and that the safety and security of an all-answering faith can crowd out important secular reasoning.

Why do poor white voters reject Democrats?  For all the wrong reasons.

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