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Nobody “Votes Against Their Interests”

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Above: Why Whites Vote Republican

I don’t disagree with the central points Thomas Edsall makes here, but I hate the way poor whites voting for Republicans is framed here. The “why don’t they vote their own interests” canard has a long history. Perhaps its most famed use was in Thomas Frank’s What’s the Matter with Kansas, where he couldn’t understand why these white farmers and Kansas City suburbanites would vote for politicians who sought to strip away their social safety net and make sure they remained poor. But it’s a question about white working class voters commonly framed this way by liberals and the left. While I haven’t explored the historical legacy of this question, at the very least, it reminds me of the problems Marxists had in understanding human behavior, narrowing everything down to class and then finding new ways to explain this all away (see, Gramsci) when Marxist views of history and human behavior didn’t work out. Edsall brings in a bunch of studies from economists and political scientists here to figure this out, but, like so many social science questions that generate paper after paper, the answers are actually simple.

More valuable is applying the ideas of intersectionality that people such as Kimberlee Crenshaw have developed. In practice, intersectionality intends to break down prejudice by understanding how different identities overlap and then working to fix that. But intersectionality has at least as much value in understanding people who actively engage in oppression. In other words, poor white voters aren’t “voting against their interests” when they vote for Donald Trump. They are prioritizing their white interests, their misogynist interests, their homophobic interests, their xenophobic interests, their Christian nationalist interests, etc., etc, over their class interests.

This phenomena hardly takes the mysteries of social science studies to trace. All of you have to do is look through American history. Poor whites have effectively always acted this way. It’s been worse in the South–see how the CIO was demonized by southerners as a civil rights organization to keep whites from joining that union, see how the Populists were crushed when they had any hint of racial cooperation, see how poor whites joined the Confederacy. Just because your Confederate ancestors didn’t own slaves doesn’t mean they didn’t want to own slaves!

But it’s not just southern whites that have acted that way. As Thomas Sugrue detailed, white CIO members who loved FDR voted Republican in local elections by the late 1930s when Detroit opened public housing projects that weren’t segregated. Despite everything they had just gone through and won, their identity was firmly white over everything else. Suburban voters around the nation vote this way to protect their sacred property values, even if they are barely hanging onto their home in the first place. Poor, middle class, or wealthy, we all have multiple interests and as I note over and over in my new book, one of the most important themes of American labor history is that white workers have prioritized their white interests over their class interests time and time again. Not all of them and not all the time, but by and large, absolutely.

And those workers making those choices isn’t because they were co-opted by a hegemonic regime. It means they look at the world and they make the choices that represent their most heart-felt values. Which is usually white supremacy. And this is basically what Edsall himself comes to:

The broader reality is that the Civil Rights revolution of the 1960s unleashed both progress and a backlash that continues to resonate in American politics five decades later. This backlash is in many ways more insidious than the blatant discrimination of the past and potentially more dangerous. It is an object of constant political anxiety for the left and continuous, concerted, calculated manipulation by the right, made more overt by the president of the United States, who has dispensed with the dog whistle and picked up a bullhorn.

Yes, although I think he is mildly trivializing the discrimination of the past with its almost unbelievable level of violence we aren’t even close to seeing today. I’m reminded of a story Richard White tells in Railroaded, about a railroad executive sitting in a Boston restaurant (I think, I don’t have the book in front of me). A black man looked at him wrong. So he threw his bowl of hot soup in the man’s face. Afterwards, he just wrote about nonchalantly, like he was simply describing his meal.

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