A recent Christian Science Monitor article summarized something that’s puzzled me (and apparently sociologists) for years: “If America’s poverty is concentrated in the South, as data clearly show, why are those states the most reliably Republican, voting against the government assistance they seem to need?”
My favorite advice columnist, the Coquette, gives an excellent one-sentence response for why these people continue to vote against their best interests: “Because they’ve been institutionally conditioned to use their vote as a means of justifying their belief system rather than protecting their interests.”
The white, working-class population in this country has lost faith. They don’t have faith in the American government or in their ability to change their own circumstances. The mortality rate for middle-aged whites has increased between 1999 and 2013 because of a rise in “suicide, drug abuse, and alcoholism” – the root causes of which include fiscal uncertainty, stagnating wages, obesity and a wide host of other health problems, lack of opportunity and lack of education. Yet Obamacare signups are much lower in the South than they are in the rest of the country! Gallup found that 45% of Republicans “think rich people should pay more in taxes” – yet they continue to vote for a party that consistently privileges the 1%. Why?
This is about identity. The white working class in the South expects to continue enjoying all the entitlements of white privilege that the previous generations enjoyed, but it’s not working out that way. Society today seems to be launching an attack on their traditional lifestyles and values. The Supreme Court ruled that gay marriage is constitutional. Mizzou’s old-school leaders had to resign because of racial insensitivity. It’s like, “We can’t even get our own jobs but the government might allow refugees in.” It seems like the colored people are out to steal their jobs, and along with that, their birthright to power.
It’s true that these individuals are exploited by the system, and they are most certainly the 99%. This group is disaffected and that experience is affecting their mortality rates. But what disappoints me is that the reaction to this frustration is to form groups and communities centered on hate and exclusion, rather than groups that foster a sense of community and inclusion. Just look at the rise in popularity of Donald Trump. He’s anti-establishment in many ways, but there is no doubt he fearmongers. He is literally profiting from the fears of this community that they are losing power and the only way to get that power back is to build physical and figurative walls.
I think it’s time for institutions of the white working-class (churches, schools, etc.) to start examining the cognitive dissonance that lies at the root of their political choices. Alliances and coalition-building are much more effective tactics than Trump’s bombast. But to do that, the community has to stop seeing non-whites as threatening “Others.” Unfortunately, I don’t have too much faith that they’re interested in going through the difficult process of redefining identity – or that they have any good examples to follow in the media!