Every 20 minutes or so, unless I’m asleep, I wonder why millions of otherwise sane people would give Republicans more power in Congress or make T____ or somebody like him president again. I won’t go down the list of reasons why Republicans don’t deserve to be in charge of our government. At the moment, I’m thinking about why so many people prefer them to be.
I believe the predominant reason is that they don’t like how America has been changing. But the change they’re upset about is not how the rich keep getting richer and the rest of us are treading water or falling behind. Otherwise they wouldn’t vote for politicians whose overriding goal is to lessen the “tax burden” on people and corporations that are already doing fine. The problem they see lies elsewhere.
Most of them fear they’re not on top anymore or soon won’t be.
President Lyndon Johnson, who knew politics backwards and forwards, made a relevant point way back in 1960. Bill Moyers, Johnson’s press secretary, recorded the moment:
We were in Tennessee. During the motorcade, he spotted some ugly racial epithets scrawled on signs. Late that night in the hotel, when the local dignitaries had finished the last bottles of bourbon and branch water and departed, he started talking about those signs. “I’ll tell you what’s at the bottom of it,” he said. “If you can convince the lowest white man he’s better than the best colored man, he won’t notice you’re picking his pocket. Hell, give him somebody to look down on, and he’ll empty his pockets for you.”
It’s not all about race, however.
If you could find the typical American who prefers the Republican Party, he would have characteristics like these. In addition to being male, he’d be white, solidly or loosely Christian, heterosexual and nationalistic. He’d be comfortable making fun of people unlike him. He wouldn’t live in a big city or have a 4-year college degree. He might be financially secure or trying to get by on Social Security, but he would fondly look back on a time when someone with his characteristics would automatically feel pretty damn good about himself and his place in the world relative to “lesser” people and “lesser” countries.
Obviously, nobody has to meet all those criteria to happily vote Republican, since millions of women vote that way (many of whom believe a man should be “the head of the family”).
The point is that recent trends have made it less important, less praiseworthy, less powerful, to fit those Republican-friendly criteria. That fact — what those of us on the other side call “progress” — bothers millions of Americans a great deal. The feeling that they’re falling behind millions of people unlike themselves means a politician who acts or talks tough and promises to address their concerns about their perceived loss of status — to somehow reverse that progress — is immediately appealing, even if that politician owns a gold toilet and doesn’t resemble Jesus in any way. He may be despicable and a con man, but he claims to be on their side, and occasionally does something that makes them happy while angering their supposed enemies. That’s enough to get their support.
In light of this, an article at FiveThirtyEight explains “why Democratic appeals to the ‘working class’ are unlikely to work” with Republican voters, even if they’re part of “the working class”:
… The dividing line in the American electorate is not economics; it’s race and culture…. And on this issue, Democrats and Republicans could not be further apart. It’s why Democratic appeals to win back the [white, especially male] working class are unlikely to work…
In the Democratic Party’s 2020 platform, “building a stronger, fairer economy” was the second item listed, after strategies to deal with COVID-19, and it sounded a populist note: that the American economy is tilted toward corporations and the wealthy, and that it’s harder than ever for Americans to move up the economic ladder. “Americans deserve an economy that works for everyone — not just for the wealthy and the well-connected,” their platform reads….
[But] Republicans mainly think of the working class as a cultural and racial identity, and not an economic one. When Democrats … pitch themselves to working-class voters, [it’s] primarily a populist appeal bent on uniting the working class against corporate greed….
This takes it as a given that the long-term trends in economic outcomes, which have affected many Americans, are what T____’s voters are responding to. This line of thinking, though, ignores other changes in American life and politics, such as an increase in global trade, a shift toward knowledge work instead of blue-collar labor … and a more expansive view of rights and equalities for racial, ethnic and gender minorities….
[A Democratic strategist offers this advice:] “The way we get around [ideological polarization] is by talking a lot about progressive goals that are not ideologically polarizing, goals that we share with self-described conservatives and moderates….Even among nonwhite voters, those tend to be economic issues.” But this assumes that voters will forget about the party alignments that are deeply entrenched.
When Democrats lament a bygone era in which they won the working-class vote, they are primarily talking about the New Deal policies of President Franklin D. Roosevelt— a time when the economy was radically shifted toward worker and labor power. But that was also a time when policies meant to favor the working class were specifically designed to help white men. The relative position of many people in the economy — and society at large — has shifted, and if that’s what Republican voters are responding to, messages of economic justices and leveling the playing field for all workers won’t change that.
Yes, they have a point. They’re not automatically on top anymore. That they don’t deserve to be automatically on top hasn’t sunken in.