Do rural, working-class voters vote against their interests? That's been the complaint leveled by Democrats and progressives since at least the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980, when we saw the rise of "Reagan Democrats."
The "voting against their interests" canard refers to economic interests. It's being raised anew in hand-wringing essays about why rural, working class voters still support Donald Trump and whether they're going reelect him. Why do rural voters support Trump when he's failed to deliver on promises of a manufacturing revival and his economic policies have cost rural Americans jobs and income?
The question is packed with assumptions and a measure of condescension.
To start with, it's presumptuous to suggest we know what anyone else's best interests are. The question assumes rural voters should prioritize economic interests over all other interests. It suggests they're deluded or foolish for voting Republican in general and for Trump in particular. It assumes progressives care about working-class voters. Finally, it's a swipe at so-called values voting (we'll talk about that in the next column).
Author Thomas Frank has argued that the Republican Party distracts working class voters by ginning up a culture war and blaming it on "liberal elites." They supposedly do this to hide the party's true interest, which is bending the political and economic system to its advantage and to the detriment of the working class.
Linguistics professor and author George Lakeoff argues that all people vote their values and identity rather than their direct economic interests. Their political choices fit a moral frame or story each political party has about the way things should be. Other writers claim working-class voters are driven by the negatives of racism and resentment more than by economics.
However, economics is very much a factor in the calculation rural voters are making in 2020. They just look at it differently from the way the professional/managerial class thinks they should. The bottom line is that neither party addresses working-class economic interests. It's arguable that Trump is more clued in to those interests than Democrats are. He's at least given voice to them.
Take trade, for instance. Much has been made of the continuing drain on manufacturing jobs despite Trump's promises and the pain inflicted on farmers by Trump's trade wars.
But Trump, regardless of his motives, is right when he reminds working-class communities that they're going to heck in a handbasket and political elites simply don't care. He's also right that past trade agreements and imbalances have hurt working-class people. And the negative effects of his economic policies (especially, low wages) haven't been all that much different from past policies touted by both parties.
Overall, the economic message from both parties to the working class has been, "Sorry about that, but your job and income losses are the price we pay for progress," meaning globalization. Some outdated jobs like coal mining and farming are of necessity going to disappear, so you need to retrain and move to the cities where the higher-wage jobs are.
Moving and education both take money, which is a huge barrier. But there are other prohibitive factors, such as a loss of identity, culture and social support. These are essential to working-class survival—for instance, while professionals hire people for child care, car repairs and emergency needs, working class people depend on community, church and family.
Now, leading Democratic candidates are pushing for either a ban or phasing out of fracking, which has been one of the few economic lifelines for the working class in Pennsylvania. And what's their better idea?
Democrats' minimum wage increases, subsidized child care and health care seem like pipe dreams and, in any case, are likely to end up like Obamacare, skipping over the working class (even increasing their costs) to focus on the poorest people. Whether Democrats talk about taxing the rich or helping the poor, the reality is the working class ends up paying. That said, social security and Medicare are exceptions and working-class voters would do well to keep an eye on them.
Economic survival is top of mind for Pennsylvania's rural voters. However, despite what both parties say, rural voters have no good choices. So, you calculate your least-bad economic choice while factoring in your values. Usually, values help clarify muddy political choices, but like everything else in the Trump era, values get complicated too.
Becky Bennett lives in south-central Pennsylvania and is a freelance writer and editor. She was editor of the Public Opinion newspaper in Chambersburg for 18 years. "Across the Divide" examines rural perspectives on issues facing Pennsylvania and the nation. Originally published by Pennlive.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.