There are two ugly and stupid lines of “thought” — it is generosity to call this that — in American politics that are inseverable, each being the inverted form of the other: the proposition that black Americans are held hostage on a Democrat-run “plantation” where they exchange their moral and political autonomy for a pittance in welfare benefits, and the proposition that white voters — especially the poor, exurban, God-haunted ones — are too distracted by racial bigotry and homosexual terror to understand that they are “voting against their own interests.”
I wrote about the first half a decade ago and have nothing much to add except that far too great a share of the Republican party and far too much of the right-wing broadcasting ecosystem remains committed to this idiotic rhetorical trope, which neither accurately describes the political situation of African Americans nor offers a useful way to recruit them to the conservative cause.
The locus classicus of the “poor conservatives vote against their own interests” analysis — the white plantation theory — is Thomas Frank’s What’s the Matter with Kansas?, which stands alongside Jonathan Franzen’s novel Freedom and the tragically disfigured film American History X in the annals of failed attempts to depict conservative thinking and conservative habits of mind. The journey from cliché to red flag of intellectual laziness is short: The most recent example to cause me to wince is in Monday’s New York Times, in which Alex Kotlowitz invokes the cliché — not only the same ignorant thought, but the same familiar words in the same banal order — in his review of Storm Lake, the memoir of a small-town newspaper editor recently awarded the Pulitzer Prize, writing of “white men and white women who are rabid Trump supporters” who “seem to vote against their own interests.”
Implied in the assertion that poor whites do not understand their own interests is the assumption that affluent white progressives such as Alex Kotlowitz, a journalist and filmmaker who writes for the New York Times like his father before him, or Thomas Frank of Mission Hills — Kansas, yes, and 97 percent white and the third-wealthiest municipality in the United States — do. There is some reason to be skeptical of that proposition, in much the same way as there is to be skeptical of Republicans’ insistence that black voters would come over to the GOP if they just really gave Sean Hannity a good fair listen.
“Against their own interests” is sometimes rendered “against their own economic interests,” which very quietly begs the question of whether economic interests should have some claim to priority over interests of other kinds. It surely is the case that some poor whites would benefit from an expanded earned-income tax credit or that many would be happy to avail themselves of federally mandated parental-leave benefits. It is also the case that they would materially benefit if the federal government were to round up, say, all of the Chinese Americans, put them into labor camps, and redistribute their assets to poor whites. The fact of material benefit wouldn’t make the proposal any less morally repugnant or politically poisonous — and, as it turns out, poor people have a moral sense, too.
It is also the case that it is precisely the low-income workers who stand to benefit most from a growing economy that puts upward pressure on blue-collar wages (you’ll make more money drilling wells in Midland, Texas, than you will as an academic in Philadelphia), that many of the members of this class have seen firsthand the ways in which overly aggressive regulation and heavy-handed government can stifle such prosperity, that they care about the cultural and moral character of the society in which their children and grandchildren will be raised, that in many cases they are less motivated by concerns about where they are economically than by where they expect to end up or to see their children end up, etc. If they are skeptical of progressives’ claims that raising taxes on high-income households will benefit those at the bottom through the magic laundering efforts of the federal bureaucracy, there is good reason for such skepticism.
Every few years, they get a chance to say what it is they want from government. In 2016, their answer was Donald Trump. It may be the case that they simply don’t have the intellectual firepower or civic cultivation to be entrusted with the responsible exercise of the franchise, though before making that case it might do to consider that the municipal governments of Washington, D.C.; San Bernardino, Calif.; and Detroit are elected, too. All the cocaine in Colombia couldn’t keep Marion “B**** Set Me Up” Barry out of office. False consciousness on the part of Washington voters? Perhaps. Or perhaps a majority of them saw Mayor Barry as an imperfect advocate but an advocate nonetheless. Politics comes in bundles.
Those of us who engage in political argument habitually (or professionally) have had the experience of being told, “If you understood my argument, you’d agree with me.” But it often is the case that we understand and disagree, because we are operating from different values and because we believe in the desirability of different ends. The progressive pose of disinterested pragmatism — “what works,” as Barack Obama and his insufferable hangers-on like to put it — is simply a veil pulled over ideology, prejudices, and cultural assumptions that nice suburban progressives don’t like to talk about.
The thing is, people get to decide for themselves what their interests are. In real-world disciplines from architecture to petroleum engineering, the nature of these things is obvious: Residents of California, for example, could build much more energy-efficient houses than they do, but energy is cheap and California has a climate that is mild and housing prices that already are shockingly high in many places. Is energy efficiency good? Sure. Good at what price? Good compared to what has to be given up to achieve it? Good in some metaphysical sense? A mandatory good? Senator Bernie Sanders is perplexed and offended by the wide choice of deodorants spread before American consumers. Why so many? Because that is the way people prefer it. Who do you really think you are to tell them they are wrong? That they simply don’t understand their own interests?
Mrs. Clinton is not president today because she did not understand the interests of people in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. She did not understand those interests because she was too lazy to ask. But rejection on those grounds is unsettling for progressives to contemplate. Better to tell themselves bedtime stories about white supremacy or misogyny or the Koch brothers or willful ignorance by the Jesus-besotted plebs out there in the sticks.
“These people and their guns,” they say. “Must be some Freudian thing.” It never occurs to them that those Second Amendment partisans might understand their own interests a hell of a lot better than do Washington’s anodyne would-be middle-managers of the soul — and history, too. It takes more than a plate of eggs in some hokey New Hampshire diner once every four years to get your head around that.
It may be that these poor lost souls would rather work than sign up for welfare benefits. It may be that they do not want your money — or your advice. It may be that they do not want anything from you at all. You might ask about that.