White Resentment of Welfare Is More Than Just About Racism Now

Alex McGillis at the New York Times has one of the most intriguing and important pieces of political analysis I’ve seen in quite some time today. Most of us are familiar with analyses reliant on racial and cultural resentments to explain why poor white communities seem to vote against their own interests: voters with racist tendencies and those who fear the changing of social mores vote for Republicans in order to thumb their nose at minorities and coastal social liberals–even if the impact of conservative policies is worst in their own communities. But McGillis’ analysis suggests that conservative voters in these areas are just as resentful of their white neighbors on public assistance, and that most of the poor whites on public assistance aren’t voting for Republicans but have simply stopping voting altogether:

In eastern Kentucky and other former Democratic bastions that have swung Republican in the past several decades, the 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.

McGillis points to data showing that people who struggle economically are most likely to hold liberal views on economics, but are also least likely to vote. The more they need government help, the less connected they feel to their communities and the less interested they become in politics. Crucially, 57% of these nonvoters are white–mostly living in conservative communities.

In the meantime, those who vote Republican in these areas are the ones doing somewhat better economically who feel not just sublimated racism and generalized cultural resentment against coastal elites, but also direct anger at the increasing number of their neighbors and acquaintances in need of assistance:

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.

These are voters like Pamela Dougherty, a 43-year-old nurse I encountered at a restaurant across from a Walmart in Marshalltown, Iowa, where she’d come to hear Rick Santorum, the conservative former Pennsylvania senator with a working-class pitch, just before the 2012 Iowa caucuses. In a lengthy conversation, Ms. Dougherty talked candidly about how she had benefited from government support. After having her first child as a teenager, marrying young and divorcing, Ms. Dougherty had faced bleak prospects. But she had gotten safety-net support — most crucially, taxpayer-funded tuition breaks to attend community college, where she’d earned her nursing degree.

She landed a steady job at a nearby dialysis center and remarried. But this didn’t make her a lasting supporter of safety-net programs like those that helped her. Instead, Ms. Dougherty had become a staunch opponent of them. She was reacting, she said, against the sense of entitlement she saw on display at the dialysis center. The federal government has for years covered kidney dialysis treatment in outpatient centers through Medicare, regardless of patients’ age, partly on the logic that treatment allows people with kidney disease to remain productive. But, Ms. Dougherty said, only a small fraction of the 54 people getting dialysis at her center had regular jobs.

“People waltz in when they want to,” she said, explaining that, in her opinion, there was too little asked of patients. There was nothing that said “‘You’re getting a great benefit here, why not put in a little bit yourself.’ ” At least when she got her tuition help, she said, she had to keep up her grades. “When you’re getting assistance, there should be hoops to jump through so that you’re paying a price for your behavior,” she said. “What’s wrong with that?”

Again, this is not about the poor minorities on the other side of town. This is about their own neighbors:

With reliance on government benefits so prevalent, it creates constant moments of friction, on very intimate terms, said Jim Cauley, a Democratic political consultant from Pike County, a former Democratic bastion in eastern Kentucky that has flipped Republican in the past decade. “There are a lot of people on the draw,” he said. Where opposition to the social safety net has long been fed by the specter of undeserving inner-city African-Americans — think of Ronald Reagan’s notorious “welfare queen” — in places like Pike County it’s fueled, more and more, by people’s resentment over rising dependency they see among their own neighbors, even their own families. “It’s Cousin Bobby — ‘he’s on Oxy and he’s on the draw and we’re paying for him,’ ” Mr. Cauley said. “If you need help, no one begrudges you taking the program — they’re good-hearted people. It’s when you’re able-bodied and making choices not to be able-bodied.” The political upshot is plain, Mr. Cauley added. “It’s not the people on the draw that’s voting against” the Democrats, he said. “It’s everyone else.”

All of this sounds more than plausible, and reflects sentiments I’ve also heard from independent voters in my own focus groups.

Democrats don’t really have a good answer for this problem. As a matter of public policy, obviously reducing inequality and improving working-class economics broadly should make progressive politics more palatable in these communities. But that’s a long-term project. From a communications standpoint, if voters are willing to give away tax breaks to Wall Street while intentionally voting for policies that will throw their friends and neighbors into the street and deny them lifesaving medical care, there’s not much you can do.

These mostly suburban and rural communities are infused with a Calvinist ethic that attributes success to moral virtue and failure to moral weakness. The cultural and psychological pull of that doctrine is incredibly powerful and buoyed by hucksters preaching the prosperity gospel that God will make you rich if you are faithful enough and want it badly enough. This toxic stew creates an instinct to push down the person below them rather than up against the person above them, and transcends simple racism and cultural resentment at this point.

From a communications standpoint, one approach Democrats can and should take is to strongly promote policies that not only help those who have fallen through the cracks, but also those who have middle-class jobs as well. Many of those policies already exist, but are hidden from voters in the form of tax credits rather than direct transfers. A more radical analysis would suggest that the forces of mechanization and globalization may require a universal basic income that would supplement the incomes of the employed and unemployed alike in a way that might make welfare payments seem fairer and more democratized to these voters. And, of course, a more full-throated progressive economic message (and laws that create easier access to voting) from Democrats may be able to encourage more of the downtrodden to make their voices heard at the polls.

Ultimately, though, there may be little Democrats can do to win over these surburban and rural white voters. Their shift to the GOP has been overwhelming, and if they’re willing to throw their friends and neighbors under the political bus there’s not all that much to be done. We can excuse it with economic, religious and social analysis, but at the end of the day that approach to life and ethics is usually described with negative moral language designed to invoke shame. Urban voters and minority communities don’t share this dog-eat-dog moral value system, and their numbers are growing. A more powerfully aggressive progressive politics and economic egalitarianism would likely help, but ultimately the solution may simply be a matter of waiting for demographic change and limiting the impact of gerrymandering designed to artificially increase the influence of these voters.

David Atkins

David Atkins is a writer, activist and research professional living in Santa Barbara. He is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal and president of The Pollux Group, a qualitative research firm.