Monday, October 25, 2010

Why Do Economically Disadvantaged Whites Vote Republican?

One of the great mysteries of political life for progressives is why poor white people will year after year vote for politicians who explicitly promise not to do anything to help them. Joe Bageant returns and is once again our tour guide through a depressed and depressing area of Virginia. This material is mostly from the chapter "Republicans by Default" in his book Deer Hunting with Jesus.

He refers to the people in this area as "rednecks." That is a term that requires a definition. Bageant provides a very specific one which will serve to enlighten the reader about the nature of these people. By his definition, a redneck is someone whose life is totally dominated by the need to be working in order to survive. It is not a geographic concept. To be a true redneck, the work has to be manual labor and one has to be born into a family where this need and this work ethic have persisted for generations.
"Life is about work for the American redneck....For all these people work is an obsession and has been for generations...The forebears of today’s rednecks were people for whom not working meant their families would starve. Literally. So the work ethic is burned into their genetic code....In the redneck mind, lazy is the worst thing a person can be—worse than dumb, drunk, or mean, worse than being a liar, and a jailbird or crazy. The absolute worst thing a redneck can say about anyone is: ‘He doesn’t want to work’....By the same logic, educated liberals who have time to read, who in fact read so much that they join book clubs, are suspect."
Bageant uses the Rubbermaid factory, which supplies much of the local employment, and a friend from childhood who he refers to as Tom, as props to illustrate how the system works to propagate this redneck culture.

Rubbermaid is a large company, but not large enough to resist the demands of Walmart. Walmart moves into a region and drives out jobs and lowers wages. They are big enough to be the market in many places. They can demand that producers provide cheaper merchandise or go out of business. The only responses are to produce poorer products, lowering wages, or moving overseas. Walmart doesn’t care how you do it just so it gets done. The "lucky" workers get to keep their jobs, but they have to work harder for less money. This makes them even more dependent on Walmart and its low prices. Most will never realize that by embracing Walmart they have locked themselves into this death spiral towards ever worse living conditions.

Bageant has a son, Tim, who works at the Rubbermaid plant where wages top out at $15 an hour.
"I spent three months living with thirty-four-year-old Tim, who had been pulling rotating shifts at Rubbermaid for five years. What I saw broke my heart. The working-class world of my son’s Rubbermaid friends was so harsh and insecure and barren of the dignity of labor that I damn near cried. Some commuted more than a hundred miles from West Virginia to work, spending four or five hours a day in transit. One vanload of workers commuted almost seven hours a day, taking turns driving while the rest caught what sleep they could.....Most were family men, some older, others barely out of high school, living in mobile homes or modulars. They were decent and quiet men....All seemed worried to death about a possible plant move overseas and about bills, medical bills in particular. Their wives worked, yet they barely kept their heads above water."
Bageant introduces his friend Tom. Here are some Tomisms.
‘America didn’t used to be this way....People have fucked up this country....weirdo university professors, union racketeers, and the rich California ACLU types. People who never worked for a living.’

‘Maybe unions were once valuable, but they have priced American labor completely out of the market. They always want more money for less production....I’m for the common worker. When unions demand a twenty percent pay raise for the same amount of output and prevent management from firing the screw-offs, it raises the cost of everything. It makes it just that much harder for the average worker in a nonunion job to survive.’

‘Life is tough....Suck it in. Don’t take chances. Be conservative and stick with what you know.’
On things like universal health care and education, paid parental leave, unemployment compensation, food stamps....
‘...more damned government giveaways....Luxuries we really don’t need because we used to get along fine without them. If them people really want it, they will get up off their lazy asses and work for it like I do.’
Bageant describes the Tom he grew up with.
"What haunted me as he spoke was this: Tom is every bit as intelligent as I am. He was a better writer than I was in high school and often said back then that his goal in life was to be a writer, painter, musician. Where did those dreams go?"
For Bageant there is an easy answer to the question on where dreams go.
"The same place any such dreams go for children of lower-working-class families. They go out the same door that opportunity for a decent education never walks in through. They vanish along the trails of places like Vietnam or the dusty streets of Iraq. They disappear between high school graduation and the immediate need to earn a living that follows graduation."
He describes a typical week in Tom’s life as consisting of at least a forty-hour shift, with an extra twenty-five hours put in as an independent contractor. Added to that is working to keep house and car functioning and helping relatives who are in even worse shape.
"...but if you spend your days at a soul-numbing repetitious job, your evenings rotating your tires, rewiring your house, or hauling your aging mother a load of firewood....or recovering on the couch from said job while contemplating the late fees on your credit cards, when are you supposed to find the time or wherewithal to grasp the implications of global warming? You are brain dead, so a couple of evenings a week you stop....and pour beer on the dead brain."
Bageant has introduced us to those who become the fodder for the Republican machine. We should remember, the same politicians have been preying on these people for generations. Not too long ago they called themselves conservative Democrats.

It would seem that their fatal flaw, the one that makes them so susceptible to manipulation, is their insistence on individualism and self-reliance. It is a myth of course, but that does not make it any less a dominant factor in their actions. It is a myth that when combined with ignorance can be truly treacherous. It is what convinces them that labor unions are not for them. It is what makes craftsmen acquiesce to being made "independent" contractors rather than employees. "By the way, don’t forget to pay your own taxes and healthcare." If they refuse to band together, they will, as individuals, be at the mercy of well-organized political and financial interests.

Bageant says they become Republicans because Republicans live among them and feed them the messages and morals they want them to learn. The politicians and employers are a team. They both need large numbers of ignorant people to vote or work for them at low wages in order to maintain their power and privilege. Employers and supervisors make it clear where their political sympathies should lie. They are bathed in conservative talk radio at work. If there is no sports on the television, it will be showing Fox News. They are regularly updated on the latest outrages committed by liberal Democrats—usually something having to do with gay pedophiles in decadent California—whether true or not. Bageant says that if you work people as hard as they can be worked, and keep them constantly in fear of losing their wages, they will have neither the time nor the will to sort through and question what they are being told. They will buy the story line if it appears to make sense, and that is as far as they will go.

Bageant titles his chapter: "Republicans by Default." He accuses the Democrats of being completely absent in the battle for the allegiance of these working people.
"There is no good reason why for the past thirty years the uncertainty and dissatisfaction of people like Tom...was automatically snubbed as unenlightened by so many on the left. If the left had identified and dealt with this dissatisfaction early on, if they had counteracted the fallacies the republicans used to explain that dissatisfaction, if they had listened instead stereotyping blue-collar angst as ‘Archie Bunkerism’....and maybe offered some gutsy, comprehensible, and practical solutions, we might have witnessed something better than the Republican syndicate’s lying and looting of the past six years....Rightists tapped into that dissatisfaction by lamenting the loss of community and values and attributing it to the "cultural left’s" feminism and anti racism, the gay movement, and so on. The Republican message, baloney though it is, was accessible to [Tom]. The democrats didn’t have any message at all."
Perhaps Bageant’s sympathies for his people have caused him to lose focus on some rather significant facts. The people feeding the Republican dogma are neighbors and employers and preachers—all part of the community. They were feeding essentially the same lines when they called themselves Democrats. Who should have spread the left’s message—professors from California, or college students who "had never worked a day in their lives?" The message from the left would naturally come from the union organizers. But they had long ago been rejected. How do you help a people who refuse to help themselves? And the image lefties had of his people was not that of Archie Bunker. It remained that of those who thought it was acceptable to kill civil rights workers, and those who thought a club to the head of a union organizer sufficed as a word to the wise.

Bageant is correct in stating that the left should not forget these people. But it is hard to organize people who resist organization. It is hard for a stranger to deliver a message where strangers are immediately distrusted.

I do not have any solutions. Neither does Bageant. We both have many concerns.


  1. Very good points, it amazes me why more people can't think like this. I think the hardest thing for me to understand is why would a union member vote republican, especially with the recent events in Wisconsin.

  2. hit the nail on the head.


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