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Ever wonder why all those folks in rural, "red" America still vote in droves for the same Republicans who brag about gutting the very social programs keeping them alive? How someone like Matt Bevin can run a winning campaign in Kentucky based on cutting people's access to affordable health care? How Republican governors can get away with refusing free Medicaid for their own citizens? Every election it seems that Democrats end up shaking their heads in dismay as yet another mean-spirited red-state Republican manages to defeat the Democrat by essentially promising to make his own constituents' lives more miserable. Afterwards we all intone the familiar refrain which boils down to "these people don't know any better." If only the Democrats had a more effective "message" on the issues, we could surely reach those people who by all strands of logic ought to vote blue, and convince them that Republicans don't have their interests at heart.
In one of the more insightful articles ever written about what motivates the rural poor to vote Republican, Alec MacGillis, who covers politics for ProPublica, took a tour through deep red America, asking the same questions. In an Op-Ed for today's New York Times, MacGillis explains that it's not all about guns and abortion that drives people in economically-depressed areas to vote Republican. In fact it's something very basic to human nature, which the GOP exploits at every turn. And Democrats ignore it at their peril.
MacGillis' first observation is that many people living in the nations' more downtrodden areas -- and specifically, the ones who benefit the most from programs such as Medicaid and Social Security Disability -- are completely disconnected from the political process. They simply choose not to vote. Visiting a free medical clinic in Tennessee, MacGillis asked the people lined up how they felt about Obama. Contrary to his expectations he didn't encounter hostility, Many people expressed support for the President. But practically none of them had bothered to vote:
"[T]he people who most rely on the safety-net programs secured by Democrats are, by and large, not voting against their own interests by electing Republicans. Rather, they are not voting, period. They have, as voting data, surveys and my own reporting suggest, become profoundly disconnected from the political process."
West Virginia, for example, ranked 50th out of all the states in voter turnout in 2012. Other states near the bottom in terms of turnout include Arkansas, Kentucky and Tennessee, largely rural states that have significant populations of poor people, including large percentages of working-class whites.
Of course, the resulting vacuum left by huge swaths of Americans who don't vote at all ensures that elections in these downtrodden areas will be won by those who do. Why, then, are the folks who choose to vote in these locales so overwhelmingly predisposed to vote Republican? MacGillis finds that the operative motivation is a strong sense of resentment among those who are just getting by towards those who have completely fallen off the economic grid:
"The people in these communities who are voting Republican in larger proportions are those who are a notch or two up the economic ladder -- the sheriff's deputy, the teacher, the highway worker, the motel clerk, the gas station owner and the coal miner. And their growing allegiance to the Republicans is, in part, a reaction against what they perceive, among those below them on the economic ladder, as a growing dependency on the safety net,the most visible manifestation of downward mobility in their declining towns."
In his article MacGillis cites many specific examples of how this resentment operates in practice:
"[T]hese voters are consciously opting against a Democratic economic agenda that they see as bad for them and good for other people -- specifically, those undeserving benefit-recipients who live nearby.
"I've heard variations on this theme all over the country: people railing against the guy across the street who is collecting disability payments but is well enough to go fishing, the families using their food assistance to indulge in steaks. In Pineville, W.Va., in the state's deeply depressed southern end, I watched in 2013 as a discussion with Senator Joe Manchin, a Democrat, quickly turned from gun control to the area's reliance on government benefits, its high rate of opiate addiction, and whether people on assistance should be tested for drugs. Playing to the room, Senator Manchin declared, 'If you're on a public check, you should be subjected to a random check.'"
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