“Why do poor White people vote against their self-interests every election?”
The people wondering this would never think to ask “why don’t more Black people vote Republican?” The answer is obvious: for decades the Republican Party has used Blacks to get out the White vote, promising to protect things like “States’ Rights” (to discriminate) and cutting off aid to “welfare queens.” So although Blacks tend to be more socially conservative than most Democratic platforms they overwhelmingly vote Democratic.
Hillary Clinton famously called half of Trump’s supporters “racist, sexist, xenophobic, Islamophobic — you name it” Deplorables. (Remember how Romney got pilloried for claiming 47% of the country were dependent on the government and hence would vote for Obama no matter what?) Her campaign made only token efforts to reach out to working-class White voters despite Bill Clinton’s protestations. And when Paula Jones claimed she had been sexually harassed by Bill Clinton, James Carville replied “If you drag a hundred-dollar bill through a trailer park there’s no telling what you might find.”
Despite this, many who raise this issue answer it with “because they’re stupid hicks who don’t know any better. And I know because I grew up around them!”
The story is a bit more complex than that. These critics grew up there, and they were smart enough to get an education and leave. They can speak Educated White English or at least type it. They have prosperous friends and they’ve amassed a little bit of cultural and maybe even some financial capital. They are proud of getting ahead, because after all that’s a huge part of the American myth. But deep down they’re terrified something will send them back to the place they left behind, or somebody will mistake them for one of those bad uneducated White folks with missing teeth, nicotine-stained fingers and Bondo-colored pickup trucks.
I know their story all too well because I lived it. Problem is, we’re not the only people who turned our backs on poor White America.
Running away- we’ll do it.
Why sit around, resigned?
Trouble is, son,
The farther you run,
The more you feel undefined
For what you’ve left undone
And, more, what you’ve left behind.
Stephen Sondheim, “No More,” Into the Woods
My people are in rural Pennsylvania. I grew up after the steel and coal industries turned the heartland into the Rust Belt. On May 1 I will be 52. And rural Pennsylvania is still the fucking Rust Belt. Things haven’t improved for them in half a century. Post-Roman Europe was able to support prosperous skilled artisans, traveling musicians, and town guilds: even the barbarians of the wild northwestern Europa understood the importance of protecting kin and community. But when my people complain of their plight they’re told the manufacturing jobs are never coming back, that they need to get an education and join the tech boom, that they need to move away from their family homes and their ancestral graves in search of something better.
Once upon a time political bosses got votes by making sure hungry constituents were fed and employed. Today they promise to vote against abortion and gay marriage. And it won’t put food on your table or help your out-of-work husband find a job, but your other option is voting for the people who think you’re poor White trash. Those people will go to court to make sure a boy gets to shower with your 13 year-old daughter just because he thinks he’s a girl; they’ll try to run a good Christian woman because she refuses to bake a cake for a gay marriage; they’ll protect spotted owls at the cost of half the jobs in someone else’s town. (When they seek solace and community in their churches they are mocked as snake-handling Fundamentalists too stupid to turn away from their sky fairies: when they seek comfort in worldly joys they’re tarred as drunken pill-popping meth-addled hillbillies). And when you speak out against all this they will make you the bad guy, the poor unrefined slob who just doesn’t know any better, the angry bigot clinging to your guns and your religion. You can vote for them, or you can vote for the people making empty promises.
Perhaps the best candidate poor White America had in 2016 was Bernie Sanders — and when West Virginia chose Sanders over Clinton in the Democratic primary their support of a Jewish Socialist was attributed to their innate “racism.” The Democratic establishment then worked overtime to bury Sanders in favor of the corporate wing’s selection: poor Whites were once again given a race between a tycoon and a slavish employee of tycoons. And when they made the “wrong” choice the usual pundits lined up to blame bigotry, ignorance, and anything else that would shift blame from them to the people whom they understood little and cared about even less.
Keep in mind that a fair number of working-class Whites supported Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. They know the Republicans don’t give a shit about us: they were ready to take a chance on hope and change. But seeing that Bubba and Barack did nothing to improve their lot, and seeing as how Hillary flat-out told them she could get elected without their votes, it’s not surprising they went with Door B. Hillary represented the status quo and they decided (rightly IMHO) that they couldn’t take another eight years of the downward spiral that has been killing them for half a century. Trump offered at least a chance at something different (though after two generations of decline they’ve pretty much lost any hope they might have ever had in politicians). But Trump also offered something else: he really, really, REALLY annoys the sorts that look down their nose at poor White trash. And when you’ve spent your whole life being ground down into the dirt it’s nice to see someone else losing for a change.
Why does poor White America consistently vote for candidates who will act against their self-interests? The answer is simple: those are the only candidates they get.