Like many of you, to say I was surprised by the results of the November election is a profound understatement. What kept echoing through my mind the next day was this: why did so many people vote for a man whose policies will not benefit them? I thought women wouldn’t vote for Trump because of his sexism, not to mention the GOP’s positions on women’s health. I thought people of color wouldn’t vote for him because of his racism and fear-mongering. And despite all evidence to the contrary, I thought the poor wouldn’t vote for a man whose policies will only benefit the very rich.
Our democracy is based on the idea that the populace will vote for the person that best represents their interests. Except the poor, especially in rural areas, have been voting GOP in growing numbers, and this means they are voting for people in direct opposition to their best interests. The GOP has no interest in supporting social services like education and job training programs, and it has no interest in making health care accessible. The GOP motto seems to be “make it on your own” while at the same time supporting huge benefits for corporations and the very rich.
Arlie Russell Hochschild, a researcher, decided to investigate why rural populations were voting so decidedly on the right. Her purpose in doing this study was to get a clearer look at what rural populations are thinking about when they vote, and why they are supporting ever more extreme candidates, when those candidates don’t propose policies that benefit them. She refers to this as “The Great Paradox.”
I’ll be honest here – I’m one of those people who think most Trump voters are 1) racist; and 2) ignorant of facts and public policy. I appreciate that Hochschild wants to give us a bigger picture, because I don’t want to feel so divided from half of my country. I don’t want to, but I do. I read this book hoping she could help me understand, and empathize with, this population.
She conducted her study in rural Louisiana over about five years, developing a qualitative study that consists of focus groups, interviews, and observing people to get a better understanding of their views. She then decided to focus her study on a single issue, rather than confronting all the issues facing voters. The issue she chose is environmental damage. Louisiana is a state that faces more severe environmental problems than other states, due to the large concentration of oil and petrochemical companies working there. Louisiana, under Republican Governor Bobby Jindal, instituted many corporate-friendly policies to incentivize companies to work in the State. Since the GOP is firmly in favor of deregulation and many GOP candidates propose eliminating the Environmental Protection Agency, Hochschild wanted to explore how environmental issues have affected voters.
I was surprised to learn that the redder the state, the more environmental damage its people are experiencing. Louisiana, for example, went through a huge oil spill and explosion, as well as Hurricane Katrina. Its rural people have seen the land go from lush and bountiful to polluted and toxic. People who grew up fishing can no longer eat fish from Louisiana’s waters, and others have seen rates of cancer skyrocket among their families.
Yet these same people overwhelmingly reject all forms of government regulation. Why?
Throughout the book she profiles about 5 or 6 people who she gets to know fairly well. She also hypothesizes an overarching viewpoint that explains the voting patterns of the people she studied.
In the end, she did help me to understand several non-racist factors that seem to be driving the poor and rural Trump voter. They feel they’ve worked and waited their turn for a better life, and no one should get to “cut in line” ahead of them (though this ignores the realities of institutional and every day discrimination). They believe party loyalty comes first, even at the cost of their own family’s health. They believe supporting the party that is on God’s side is more important than any public policies. They feel God will provide, and that virtue is enduring quietly rather than asking for handouts. They believe government workers are simply living a cushy life off of their own hard-earned tax dollars.
Most importantly, they believe jobs come first, and they’ve been told (incorrectly) that corporate incentives and deregulation are necessary to provide working class people with jobs. They’ve been told the environment is out of their hands but they can affirmatively choose jobs for their communities.
As strangers in their own land, Lee, Mike, and Jackie wanted their homeland back, and the pledges of the Tea Party offered them that. It offered them financial freedom from taxes, and emotional freedom from the strictures of liberal philosophy and its rules of feeling. Liberals were asking them to feel compassion for the downtrodden in the back of the line, the “slaves” of society. They didn’t want to; they felt downtrodden themselves and wanted only to look “up” to the elite. What was wrong with aspiring high? That was the bigger virtue, they though.
Hochschild’s book gave me a lot to think about, and I found myself talking about it often with my friends and family. The book is very readable and a nice combination of personal insight and statistical evidence. And yet, I can’t say in the end that she ever changed her place on the political spectrum, nor did she affect my own. She hasn’t made it more likely that I will reach across the aisle. In fact, I end up feeling more discouraged. The overwhelming message of this book is that “these people” will vote GOP no matter how much a Democrat appeals to their most essential needs.
As I finished the book, I had to wonder how her new Republican “friends” will feel about the way they are portrayed. A friend of mine felt that Hochschild was condescending, and I can see her point. Maybe they aren’t all racist, but they do think that special populations (racial, ethnic, immigrant, and LGBTQ, for example) haven’t been injured in any way and don’t deserve any extra help. They aren’t all ignorant, but they do view the people at Fox News as “family” and the rest of the media as biased.
I think Hochschild wants to have it both ways. She wants to extol the virtues of these people she studied, but she also points out again and again how misguided they are. She even includes an appendix rebutting all the “facts” that these GOP voters get wrong. She wants us to believe they are more complex than the racist, ignorant mob they appear to be, but I’m not sure she got me there.
Still, there are a few things in her book that resonated, and here’s one example. The rural white population hears what we educated democrats think about them, and that has contributed to their mistrust of us. They hear that we fight against racial and anti-LGBT slurs, but have no problem using terms like “cracker” and “redneck”. Our political correctness has a side, and it isn’t theirs.
My husband said after the election that things like “the bathroom issue” contributed to the Democrats’ losses. In other words, too much identity politics. I don’t want to believe that Dems should stop fighting for disadvantaged populations, and I don’t plan to stop supporting causes I believe in. But this book at least helped me to see how we look in the eyes of the people on the other side of the political divide.
Note: I read this book for a challenge by Hibernator’s Library to read the six books identified by the New York Times that explain Trump’s win.