If you live in a poor state chances are that you voted for Mitt Romney in the last election. With some exceptions, richer states voted for Obama.
Here’s a look at the states showing poverty rates. (You can find an interactive map from the New York Times here.) The darker the shade the greater the poverty. (Graphics from Wikipedia.)
Now let’s see how states voted in the 2012 presidential elections.
Or, in table form:
One of life’s great mysteries is why poor people vote against their own economic interests. Or maybe economics has nothing to do with it, as I explore below.
To be sure, Democrats can be quick to throw people under the bus in appealing to the virtuous crowd, those such as David Brooks who have always believed that one’s situation is entirely up to the individual, and it’s all about having the right “values.” I think of Bill Clinton here, who had no problem exploiting both blackness and poverty in his “Sister Souljah” moment.
Yet, it wasn’t Richard Nixon who went to Appalachia. Indeed, he was busy cleaving the New Deal alignment of liberal northerners and Dixiecrats below to push conservative nativists into the Republican Party. Nixon, Watergate, and the awful Vietnam War paved the road to Ronald Reagan, who exploited, without guile, the willful ignorance of Americans. He would have none of the national introspection so necessary for the times. Hey, it’s morning in America, and if I’m ok you’re ok.
But the dark side of the nation, born of and marinated in “that peculiar institution,” easily slipped into paranoia, xenophobia, and, curiously, perhaps, a certain cheeriness that clings desperately to the utterly false image of American exceptionalism. We were that very bright city on the hill, whose fictional inhabitants never hesitated to tell the rest of the world what to do—or else. Meanwhile, we engaged in collective delusion, shutting out of the would-be conversation any mention of our deep racism toward indigenous populations and the Negro, whom we plucked from Africa to serve the interests of white Volk, so obviously superior in every way. Why stoop to pick our cotton when we can force black-skinned creatures to do the work?
Yes, I am convinced that white southerners miss the good old days of their assumed supremacy, when everyone knew their place—or else. So, the fair-skinned descendants of the antebellum South have done their best to ensure that their kind still wield the power, effectively disenfranchising blacks.
Not so fast.
We cannot excuse Northerners nor imagine that we are somehow immune to racist attitudes. To be sure, we are more subtle. We rely on segregated zoning to create pockets of poverty, in which those of darker skin are disproportionately represented. If we can get away with it, we resort to voter identification to deter African-Americans and Hispanics from casting ballots. We reduce the time period for voting or force Those People to travel long distances to register their electoral preferences.
Oh, and we’ve become quite adept at making dark-skinned people uncomfortable in the presence of whites. We encourage our police to stop and frisk, to arrest, and to even kill them—with or without provocation. The judicial system rarely punishes cops gone wild. Prisons and jails have become the new plantations.
There is irony, of course. The party of the poor (states) is also the party of wealth and privilege. Such a combination must surely be more fragile than the awkward alignment LBJ ruptured. How long will it take before the poor and oppressed manifest their numbers in the political economy?
The GOP, however, is not waiting to find out. It will continue to erect obstacles to one person, one vote, helped immeasurably by the Supreme Court’s current majority, who have declared in favor of one dollar, one vote.
I’ve lived in eight decades so far. Much has changed during that period. I’m sure that new chapters will be written, perhaps a few before I die.