Democrats denigrate family values but demand working families’ votes

Published 7:55 am Thursday, January 26, 2017


Contributing columnist

Historically, the natural division between workers and management splits their political support between the Democrat and Republican parties. Recently, working class voters are voting for Republican candidates. The working class, particularly whites, played a significant part in Donald Trump’s victory.   

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Democrats call this the “working class voter paradox:” Why are working class voters not voting for candidates who support their economic interests?

There are several assumptions baked into the question itself. The first assumption being are voters driven exclusively by their economic interests?  Second, is the assumption voters are not voting for their primary interests correct? Finally, is the assumption Democrats have earned their votes correct?

If the answer to all three questions is yes, Democrats are off the hook and all they have is a communications problem. On the other hand, it is arrogant to assume other people are incapable of deciphering what is in their own best interest.

I recently read three books about this “paradox.” The first was by Thomas Frank, an accomplished writer who lives in Washington, D.C.  Frank’s book is titled “What’s the Matter with Kansas?” (2005). Frank is a native Kansan, which I suppose gives him some protection from the blistering criticism he heaps on Kansas voters. Like most “Progressives,” he holds those of us in “flyover states” in very low esteem.

Frank comes from an upper middle class family who lived in an exclusive neighborhood outside Kansas City. Most of the kids he went to school with came from families with serious money and he was never quite accepted. Most of the book is about Frank’s disappointing childhood living side by side with captains of industry.

He is very hostile to religion, capitalism, the market, and especially conservatives. It is not surprising that he concludes the answer to the “paradox” is that working-class voters have been bamboozled by treacherous conservatives. Hence, we just need to restrict conservative bamboozlers — shouldn’t be any problem there, should there?

Frank’s book is deeply ironic. He wonders why Democrats get so little love in Kansas? Yet, he writes a book that fairly drips with scorn for the people of Kansas. He clearly gets satisfaction from condemning the entire state, but fails to see his words could do nothing but infuriate Kansans!

The second book is by Arlie Russell Hochschild, a sociologist at UC Berkley, titled “Strangers in Their Own Land” (2016).  Hochschild’s book is a more measured scholarly book that treats the subjects of her concern with compassion and some affection. She selects southern Louisiana as her subject area, a place I know well, since I was on the LSU faculty during the 1980s and part of the 1990s.

Drawing interview samples exclusively from South Louisiana and suggesting that there would be less pollution if these voters voted for Democrats is a bit of a stretch. During her study period, the governor was Republican; but the state has been under Democratic control for most of the past 70 years and those Democratic administrations have been notoriously corrupt.

Pollution damage is cumulative, so most of Louisiana’s problem is the product of generations of neglect overseen by the Democrats.  The oil industry does produce good jobs for Louisiana, while regulation reduces the number of jobs. Hence, a pragmatic Cajun might conclude I can get more jobs from Republicans — besides, the Democrats don’t enforce the existing regulations. On balance, South Louisiana seems to be a contaminated “test bed” for Hochschild’s study.

In any event, Hochschild concluded that working class voters’ “emotional interest” was more important than their “economic interest” in driving their political affiliations. She does not define precisely what she means by “emotional interest” other than a “giddy release” from belonging. She stumbles onto the answer but does not pursue the question to find out what role the Democrats themselves played in driving working class voters away from their party.      

The third book is “Hillbilly Elegy” (2016) by J.D. Vance, who has long personal experience with white working class voters. Vance was born in Eastern Kentucky into a poor family that can only be described as “dysfunctional.” He overcame that cultural “death sentence” only because of the love he received from his grandparents and his sister. He joined the Marines out of high school, served a tour in Iraq, went to Ohio State University, and then on to Yale Law school. His life odyssey is nothing short of miraculous.

His observations about the plight of working class people are authentic and enlightening. His central message is most of our poverty problems are due to the decline of the nuclear family. Broken families lead to traumatized children who are set on the path to educational failure, addiction, crime, and hopelessness. This path can be disrupted only by intensely personal efforts; the kind of efforts that are inconsistent with sterile federal poverty programs.

The glues that bind families are tradition, religion, patriotism and the Judeo-Christian value structure. The Democrats vigorously chip away at the glue. The traditional family became the target because the Democrats believe it is patriarchal and that men are worthless.  Unfortunately, their efforts have been successful — traditional family structure declines remorselessly. This persists as the social science research demonstrates children do best in traditional family structures. Children from single parent families have a very difficult time.

“Glue chipping” has reached ridiculous levels as the Democrats run short of working class “sacred values” to demonize. The poster child for “ridiculousness” is federal regulation of access to public restrooms.

The answers to the three questions I originally posed is no in each case — the Democrats have a lot more than a communication problem. The bottom line is you don’t attack peoples’ values and expect them to vote for you!  

Bob Martin is Emeritus Boles Professor of Economics at Centre College.