In a recent New York Times column, Alec MacGillis asks why so many poor Americans who benefit from welfare have lately been voting for Republican candidates who want to curtail those programs. MacGillis is especially curious about poor whites in former Democratic strongholds like Kentucky, a state that in November replaced Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear with Tea Party Republican Matt Bevin.
A flashpoint in that election was Obamacare, which Beshear had embraced and defended, establishing one of the country’s more successful health insurance exchanges, Kynect, and expanding Medicaid. As a result, Kentucky saw the country’s largest decrease in the number of uninsured, with some of the state’s poorest residents gaining health coverage.
Bevin, by contrast, vowed to repeal the Medicaid expansion and shut down the state exchange. Since winning the election he’s tempered his rhetoric somewhat but remains committed to reducing the Medicaid rolls, which have increased by more than 400,000 with the program’s expansion under the Affordable Care Act (ACA). Nevertheless, many of the state’s poorest areas voted for him—like Pike County in Kentucky’s remote eastern coal country, a former Democratic bastion, which went for Bevin by 55 percent.
MacGillis also points to the re-election last year of Maine’s governor, Paul LePage, who has long pushed for more restrictions on welfare programs in a state where nearly 15 percent of residents are on food stamps—third highest in the country. LePage won the governor’s mansion in 2010 by running on an anti-welfare platform, and the 2014 election was in part a referendum on his outspoken anti-welfare record. In a 2012 speech to Maine’s Republican Party LePage was blunt, calling Maine a “sinking welfare state” and saying, “To all you able-bodied people out there, get off the couch and get yourself a job.”
His Democratic opponent, Rep. Mike Michaud, attacked him on the issue, saying LePage simply wanted to kick people off public assistance without giving them a chance to improve their lot. It didn’t work. LePage won re-election by nearly five points, and as Bevin did in Kentucky, he carried parts of his state that most rely on welfare programs.
Yes, Working People Despise Freeloaders
How can this be? “The temptation for coastal liberals is to shake their heads over those godforsaken white-working class provincials who are voting against their interests,” writes MacGillis, alluding to Thomas Frank’s 2004 thesis in “What’s The Matter With Kansas.”
Frank argued that many low-income voters are distracted by social issues like abortion and gun control, and, poor saps, wind up voting against their own best economic interests. MacGillis’ take is more or less an update on Frank’s argument, but with two additional, albeit somewhat obvious, insights: first, those slightly higher on the income ladder increasingly resent those beneath them, and second, those most dependent on welfare are increasingly disengaged from politics—many of them don’t even bother to vote.
The first point is a perfectly understandable reaction to a post-recovery economy in which wages are stagnant even as the number of able-bodied, working-age adults on welfare increases (thanks in part to the Obama administration allowing states to waive work requirements for SNAP, the federal food stamp program). Rather than being distracted by social issues, writes MacGillis, “these voters are consciously opting against a Democratic economic agenda that they see as bad for them and good for other people—specifically, those undeserving benefit-recipients who live nearby.”
To call redistributive programs like Obamacare or SNAP an “economic agenda” is a stretch, but the point stands: voters who have managed to get by without welfare, or have worked their way off it, resent those who languish on the dole. Such voters, as we’ve seen, are increasingly apt to express that resentment by voting against candidates that defend progressive government schemes.
Welfare Saps People’s Will to Govern Themselves
The partisan outcome, however, is really a second-order effect of the ideological point that MacGillis is making, whether he realizes it or not, about declining voter participation: the pervasive administrative state erodes democratic self-governance.
That MacGillis should explore this phenomena in a rehash of Frank’s theory is a testament to the durability of an old idea. Alexis de Tocqueville noted something similar back in the 1830s, observing the effects of radical equality in the young American republic. Of the mild-mannered, earnest Americans the French statesman encountered, he observed: “I have no fear that they will meet with tyrants in their rulers, but rather with guardians.” It would be too much, he wrote, to call “the species of oppression by which democratic nations are menaced” by the old names of tyranny or despotism.
The oppression Tocqueville feared for America was much milder than that. He was thinking of a government that acts toward its citizens the way a doting parent does to a child, one that “takes upon itself alone to secure their gratifications and to watch over their fate”—not to prepare them for manhood, or independence, but “to keep them in perpetual childhood.”
A government like that would eventually sap a people’s capacity, and even their desire, for self-government: “For their happiness such a government willingly labors, but it chooses to be the sole agent and the only arbiter of that happiness; it provides for their security, foresees and supplies their necessities, facilitates their pleasures, manages their principal concerns, directs their industry, regulates the descent of property, and subdivides their inheritances: what remains, but to spare them all the care of thinking and all the trouble of living?”
And here we are: those Americans most inclined to avail themselves of government benefits—and to think of welfare as a beneficial thing in itself—are also the least likely to participate in the democratic process. MacGillis notes correctly that voter participation in the poorest areas of country has been declining for years. The solution for Democrats, he argues, “means redoubling efforts to mobilize the people who benefit from the programs,” under the assumption that those who benefit from such programs will support politicians who champion them.
Big Government Abandons People’s Highest Aspirations
Perhaps they will, but it doesn’t seem to occur to MacGillis that what some welfare beneficiaries might want more than a government handout is a job, and that candidates who speak to those aspirations might have more appeal than the ones who offer welfare—or welfare disguised as economic stimulus.
Consider the coal industry. At no point does MacGillis question whether there might be a connection between the decline of Kentucky’s coal industry and the Obama administration’s draconian Environmental Protection Agency regulations under the Clean Power Plan. If coal country is abandoning candidates who champion progressive, big-government solutions, perhaps it’s because many ex-miners feel they were abandoned by big government first.
It shouldn’t be that hard to imagine why a miner deprived of his work because of government regulations should in turn resent welfare from that same government—even if, at the end of the day, he begrudgingly accepts public assistance out of sheer necessity.
Likewise, it shouldn’t be that hard to imagine why another man might gladly accept the same assistance and simply not work for as long as possible. Human nature can equally account for both responses, and it’s a tribute to the intellectual isolation of our elites that such things don’t even occur to them. As Kevin Williamson has noted, much of the debate between conservatives and liberals over welfare has to with “whether we are going to think of poor people as pets.”
The likes of MacGillis or Frank or Paul Krugman look upon the non-voting poor of Appalachia and think more must be done for them, if not in direct welfare payments then in some other form of “economic opportunity” created on their behalf. This is a failure of imagination that Tocqueville, for one, didn’t share. He knew that when a government treats its people like pets, “it every day renders the exercise of the free agency of man less useful and less frequent; it circumscribes the will within a narrower range and gradually robs a man of all the uses of himself.” No wonder they don’t vote.
John is a writer in Austin, Texas, and director of the Center for Health Care Policy at the Texas Public Policy Foundation. Follow him on Twitter.