Most mornings I spend my commute listening to the New York Times’ podcast The Daily. Managing editor Michael Barbaro hosts an informative, well-produced look at the major news themes of the day, and it tends to feature some of the paper’s best reporters and analysts. This morning, Barbaro and domestic-affairs correspondent Sheryl Gay Stolberg examined an interesting alleged “contradiction”: Few states benefited more from Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion than Kentucky, yet its Republican senators are leading the charge for Obamacare repeal, including for Medicaid reform. How can that be?
The exchange had echoes of a long-voiced Democratic complaint. How can working-class Republican voters keep voting against their interests? After all, don’t they know what Medicaid does for them? Moving beyond Medicaid, don’t they know that higher taxes mean better social services? Don’t they know that voting for GOP politicians means enriching the fat cats, at everyone else’s expense?
Hidden within today’s podcast was a clue — a critical clue — showing why GOP voters make the decisions they make. Stolberg said that coal-industry job losses had been “abysmal, crushing” at the same time that “roughly 400,000” Kentuckians had taken advantage of the Medicaid expansion. And she’s right. The Lexington Herald-Leader reported last year that coal jobs in the state had fallen to their lowest level in 118 years — to a mere 6,900. Magnifying the crisis, a coal-mining job pays so well that it’s virtually impossible to replace that income without significant retraining and (often) relocation. You can’t move from the mine to Walmart and maintain the same standard of living. People do, however, move from the mine to Medicaid and at least have health insurance.
And so we’re left with an odd definition of “interests.” For years the Left has unapologetically waged regulatory and rhetorical war on coal, implementing policies that were most assuredly not in the economic interests of Kentucky’s mining families. But now those same families are going to let bygones be bygones and rally around a second-rate welfare program advanced by the same movement? Some will. But some will quite reasonably look at a bigger picture and distrust the party that helped bring them to penury.
Let’s move beyond Kentucky and its coal. Family dissolution is perhaps America’s foremost driver of poverty and dependency. The rules are simple. Follow the “success sequence” — graduate high school, get a job, get married, and then have kids — and your poverty rate is extremely low. Deviate, and the problems magnify. Now, between the two parties, which one has centered its appeal around married parents with kids and which party has doubled down on single moms? Even worse, the Democrats’ far-left base has intentionally attacked the nuclear family as archaic and patriarchal. It has celebrated sexual autonomy as a cardinal virtue. Then, when faced with the fractured families that result, it says, “Here, let the government help.”
Thus we have the 2012 Obama campaign’s celebrated “Julia,” the single woman who never needed a man. Like nuns marrying Christ, single moms were bound to big government, and to the many bountiful benefits it provides. Yet the fracturing of the family is not in the best economic interests of women. Sure, some of those women will let bygones be bygones and rally around the party that most celebrates the sexual revolution while expanding public assistance. Others, however, will reasonably look at a bigger picture, one that asks whether government dependency helps perpetuate the larger and worse crisis besetting America’s families.
Moreover, since when is a vote a mere economic decision? Should every family sit down at their supper table, open their calculator apps, and do simple math based on each party’s government giveaways? Are you really telling a family that values religious liberty, abhors abortion, seeks a more decisive approach to jihadists, and believes good citizens should be armed citizens that they’re voting “against their interests” if their senator’s policy will increase their insurance premiums?
Since when is a vote a mere economic decision?
It’s not that simple, and wealthy progressives — the very people who are most likely to advance the argument that working-class Republicans vote against their interests — understand this all too well. Why? Because they don’t apply this kind of crude economic calculus to their own votes. Wealthy liberals routinely vote for higher taxes to fund public schools, state and federal welfare programs, and other government benefits that they’ll never use. Why? Because they are trying not just to maximize personal benefit but to create a particular kind of society that they believe is most conducive to human flourishing. They’re not simply thinking about themselves — and that’s to their credit.
It’s time for progressives to understand that conservatives have the same mindset, just filtered through a fundamentally different ideology. David Brooks argued in a July 4 column on this same topic that most Americans “vote on the basis of their vision of what makes a great nation.” He’s absolutely correct, and our “interests” depend on the complex interplay between our faith, our families, and our communities. For example, is a person who enjoys more religious freedom but has less economic stability better off than a person whose liberty is diminished but has reliable health insurance? All too many progressives think there’s an easy answer to that question. They’re wrong.
Our “interests” are inextricably linked to our values, and millions of Republicans long ago decided that progressive political values — no matter how well-intentioned — ultimately harm the nation they love.
— David French is a senior writer for National Review, a senior fellow at the National Review Institute, and an attorney.