In eastern Kentucky and other former Democratic bastions that have swung Republican in the past several decades, the 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.In addition, MacGillis writes, voters just above these poor non-voters on the economic ladder resent the poorer citizens' dependency -- and this is not necessarily racial resentment. It's true among mostly white populations:
... Voter participation is low among the poorest Americans, and in many parts of the country that have moved red, the rates have fallen off the charts. West Virginia ranked 50th for turnout in 2012; also in the bottom 10 were other states that have shifted sharply red in recent years, including Kentucky, Arkansas and Tennessee.
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.But wait -- hasn't every Republican told us that government social spending is a sinister -- and devastatingly effective -- Democratic plot to win every election forever by increasing the population's dependence on government? During the 2012 campaign, Mitt Romney complained that Democrats were trying to win the election with "free stuff," then he complained after the election about a Democratic strategy that promised one "big gift" after another. This year, Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, and Chris Christie have picked up on the "free stuff" rhetoric, as has Ben Carson:
... Where opposition to the social safety net has long been fed by the specter of undeserving inner-city African-Americans -- think of Ronald Reagan’s notorious “welfare queen” -- in places like Pike County it’s fueled, more and more, by people’s resentment over rising dependency they see among their own neighbors, even their own families. “It’s Cousin Bobby -- ‘he’s on Oxy and he’s on the draw and we’re paying for him,’” [Jim] Cauley [a Democratic politcal consultant in eastern Kentucky] said. “If you need help, no one begrudges you taking the program -- they’re good-hearted people. It’s when you’re able-bodied and making choices not to be able-bodied.” The political upshot is plain, Mr. Cauley added. “It’s not the people on the draw that’s voting against” the Democrats, he said. “It’s everyone else.”
Carson ... said he had “no desire whatsoever to hurt the poor ... but I believe in true compassion, providing the poor with a mechanism to climb the ladder of success,” Carson said.Republicans believe that the link between government social spending and votes operates with the force of natural law -- and that too much spending leads to the death of democracy. They regularly quote an aphorism they variously ascribe to Tocqueville, Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson, and Ben Franklin:
“False compassion is patting them on the head and saying, ‘You can’t take care of yourself and I’m going to give you food stamps, a housing subsidy and free health care and all the things you need so you can stay dependent and vote for me.’”
A democracy can only exist until the voters discover that they can vote themselves largess from the public treasury.Sometimes quoted as:
When the people find that they can vote themselves money, that will herald the end of the republic.The actual source is a 1951 Daily Oklahoman column by Elmer T. Peterson, who attributes it to a Scottish judge and historian named Alexander Fraser Tytler (1747-1813) -- although the quote doesn't appear in any of Tytler's works.
But Republicans believe this. They believe voters automatically vote for whoever gives them "free stuff," and that if you give more and more voters "free stuff," eventually there'll be more "takers" than "makers" and the nation will collapse. (Needless to say, they believe we've approached this point in the Obama years. They call it "the death spiral.")
But this actually doesn't work. The so-called takers don't vote. The neighbors of the so-called takers vote against the party that favors social spending. It's actually a terrible way to win votes, if winning votes is the point.
It might have an electoral payoff if Democrats made an effort to turn out poor voters, or if Democrats worked to raise the standard of living of their slightly more prosperous but still struggling neighbors. (A rising tide that lifted all boats, or at least the bottom 99% of votes, would be good politics because it would be good for the country.)
But government spending not a fiendishly clever plot to steal elections in perpetuity. Just the opposite.