They tell a joke on the Russian mindset. Every night Boris prays before going to bed, “God, it’s not fair that Ivan has a goat and I don’t.” One night, Boris hears a booming voice from above, “Boris, I have granted your wish.” Boris replies, “You’ve killed Ivan’s goat!?”
There’s been a lot of ink on how the poor don’t vote their (economic) interests. States with the lowest rates of health coverage elect officials who refuse to cooperate with the ACA and Medicare expansion. The southern states, which are in many cases the poorest states with the highest numbers of individuals without health care coverage, have mostly chosen to forego the Medicaid expansion for their citizens. Poorer states are also more likely to have refused to set up state ACA exchanges, relying on the federal government’s exchange, and are more likely to have refused to assist in signing up their citizens for available health coverage and subsidies. They are also more likely to be represented by Republicans, who resist state and federal efforts to mitigate poverty and unemployment. And yet their citizens keep reelecting them to power. Why are they doing this?
Drew Weston, The Political Brain, notes that people respond to stories over reason, and the Republicans have been better at telling stories which resonate with individuals. Thomas Frank, What’s the Matter with Kansas?, believes that voters respond to emotion over reason. Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion, invokes moral psychology to show that individuals are more likely to vote their moral vision than their economic interests. John McCormick and Frank Bass write that it is culture that leads poorer Southerners to vote Republican. Even though more who identified as conservative were receiving government benefits than those who identified as liberal, they still believe in hard work as they emphasize, “Rural people will take assistance, but their first priority is hard work.” Kathy Gill thinks a lot of it is because people misunderstand the extent of our income inequality. Individuals asked about income inequality thought that the top 20% of income earners took in 60% of all income (in fact, it’s 80%), and thought that 30% was about right. When presented with preferred distribution pie charts, they chose the one representing income distribution in Sweden, which is close to equal, by 92% compared to the equal pie chart, and another representing America’s income distribution. Eamon Moynihan, in a comment to Are the 10 Poorest U.S. States Really Republican? on Forbes, believes we misrank states as poorer based simply on average income. Ranking states based on an income to cost of living value, called purchasing power parity, reveals that the lower cost of living in “poorer” often more rural states makes up for lower average incomes. (This might also explain why recent movement of workers is less to high-wage, and more to low-cost-of-living states.)
But Ian Haney Lopez, Dog Whistle Politics: How Coded Racial Appeals Have Reinvented Racism and Wrecked the Middle Class, insists that the movement of voters in poorer states, particularly but not exclusively southern states, into the Republican party is a result of racism that Republicans have learned to take advantage of without reference to overtly racist language, that is, by dog whistle politics. He mentions Kevin Phillips’ assertion (The Emerging Republican Majority, 1969) that all politics is based on group animosity, and in spite of our mythology, America has never been a melting pot.
If true, this would be a case of poor people being like Boris, less concerned for their own economic interests and having their own goat, and more interested in assuring that minorities, the Ivans who might have a goat, see their economic interests hurt more.
Haney Lopez recounts how George Wallace, who had up until then been a racial moderate, having lost the race for governor in 1958 vowed, “Well, boys,” he vowed, “no other son-of-a-bitch will ever out-nigger me again.” Goldwater recognized the electoral advantage in subtext racism, drawling, “We’re not going to get the Negro vote as a bloc in 1964 and 1968, so we ought to go hunting where the ducks are.” Even though whites had been rabidly Democratic, Goldwater won 5 southern states which had always voted overwhelmingly Democratic. Nixon, running against Wallace and Humphrey in 1968, realizing he was losing the south to Wallace, “publicly tacked right on race.” (Extending the reach of resentment against minorities, he also started using the term “forced busing,” a code word for forced integration which appealed to northerners as the reference to states’ rights appealed to southerners.) And so the Southern Strategy became codified in Republican politics. The young Lee Atwater was quoted as saying “You start out in 1954 by saying, “N—, n—, n—.” [Editor’s note: The actual word used by Atwater has been replaced with “N—” for the purposes of this article.] By 1968 you can’t say “n—” — that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states’ rights and all that stuff. You’re getting so abstract now, you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is, blacks get hurt worse than whites.” (Doesn’t that invoke Boris and Ivan?) Reagan picked up on the dog whistle with his use of states rights and welfare queens.
David Brooks, in The Social Animal, states that when we have a decision to make, we think back to that group in high school we loathed, imagine what their decision would be, then do just the opposite. Are our policial affiliations more rational, traditional, and moral, where we choose based on criteria other than mere economic benefit? Or are we with Boris and Ivan, more comfortable defining ourselves in opposition to that other group, and then behaving more to damage that other group than to enhance our own?