Today’s New York Times has a fascinating article entitled, “Even Critics of Safety Net Increasingly Depend On It.” The data and anecdotal evidence paint a fascinating, utterly schizophrenic, and I’d argue deeply dysfunctional, picture of American politics: 1) on the one hand, a population that is heavily and increasingly dependent on government transfer payments of various kinds (e.g., “entitlements” like Medicare, Medicaid and Security, which account for the vast majority of the U.S. budget); and 2) a tendency towards being “redder” politically where dependence is high, “bluer” politically where dependence is low.
For instance, solid-red Kentucky has among the highest rates of government “welfare” dependency in the country. Same thing with most of the solid-red deep South, Appalachia, Missouri, etc. Same thing with the Plains and Rocky Mountain states, which rely heavily on enormous government subsidies for mining, ranching, water, corn growing, you name it (important note: the New York Times analysis does not take into account these enormous subsidies, “only” government payments to individuals, mostly Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid, plus food stamps, disability payments, the earned income tax credit, veterans benefits, and unemployment insurance).
The bluest parts of the country, in contrast, tend to have the lowest dependency on government “welfare.” They also tend to be the states that are the net “donors” (e.g., give out more money than they take in), while the red states overwhelmingly are net “recipients” of federal largesse.
Look at the any red/blue map of America and you’ll see this pattern repeated – with one major caveat, that’s perhaps even more disturbing. You’ll certainly see it yourself, simply by looking at these maps for a few minutes: that’s right, there’s a strong racial factor at work here as well, often cross-cutting and even completely negating the strong link between “redness” politically and high dependency on government transfer payments. You can see it clearly in Virginia’s map:
The disparity between the reddest parts of Virginia (mostly net recipient areas) and the bluest parts (mostly net donors) is striking. Thus, in Fairfax County, government transfer payments account for just 4.98% of county income. In Arlington, it’s just 4.51%. In Loudoun County, it’s 4.89%; in Prince William County, it’s 7.39%. Note that all of those counties tend strongly “blue” in presidential (all went strongly for Obama-Biden over McCain-Palin in 2008) and federal elections (all went for Jim Webb over George Allen in 2006).
In contrast, look at solid “red” Wise County, with 32.08% of county income accounted for by government transfer payments, or Patrick County, at 33.79%. In 2008, those two counties went by huge margins for McCain-Palin over Obama-Biden (63%-35% and 64%-34%, respectively). In 2006, both those counties went for George Allen over Jim Webb. The pattern here is glaringly obvious.
Except, as I mentioned above, for one other variable: race. In 2008, for instance, Greensville County, which is 32.45% dependent on government transfer payments, went 64%-35% for Obama-Biden over McCain-Palin. The demographics of Greensville County: 60% African American, 38% non-Hispanic White. This pattern is repeated over and over again, throughout Virginia and across America: places where dependency on government is high are also the “reddest” politically, as long as they are also the “whitest” demographically. If dependence is high and the localities are heavily minority, the pattern breaks down almost completely. (note, for instance, that Prince William County is now “majority minority,” and that its voting trends are wildly different in “federal”/”presidential” years and odd/state election years).
What’s the answer to this seeming conundrum? Why would white people resent receiving government benefits, while non-whites apparently don’t resent it (or don’t resent it enough to outweigh other factors in their voting decisions)? As this diary points out, the answer is obvious: it’s a result of “thirty-plus years’ carpet-bombing by the right-wing noise machine, of poisonous AM talk radio all day and Fox News all night, of finger-pointing, race-baiting political ads, of welfare queen straw men and endless scapegoats of varying shades of brown.”
Don’t believe that? Well, then, I strongly recommend that you watch Boogieman: The Lee Atwater Story, which clearly lays out how Republicans have done it since the late 1960s. Here’s Atwater himself, explaining:
You start out in 1954 by saying, “Nigger, nigger, nigger.” By 1968 you can’t say “nigger” – that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states’ rights and all that stuff. You’re getting so abstract now [that] you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is [that] blacks get hurt worse than whites. And subconsciously maybe that is part of it. I’m not saying that. But I’m saying that if it is getting that abstract, and that coded, that we are doing away with the racial problem one way or the other. You follow me – because obviously sitting around saying, “We want to cut this,” is much more abstract than even the busing thing, and a hell of a lot more abstract than “Nigger, nigger.”
In the year 2012, of course, it’s even less acceptable to use blatant racism than it was 30 or 40 years ago. So, today, it’s usually done in a lot more subtle, dog-whistle style. However, it’s important to point out that this election cycle, we’ve actually seen Republican candidates for president this cycle actually make us feel like we’ve gone right back to the bad ol’ days (e.g., Newt Gingrich talking about how Barack Obama is the “food stamp president”; Rick Santorum ranting that he doesn’t want to “make black people’s lives better by giving them somebody else’s money”).
The bottom line, though, whether it’s subtle or obvious, the Republican Party’s strategy to destroy the old Democratic coalition of northern liberals and southern “Dixiecrat” whites was exactly what Lee Atwater did: use racial and cultural “wedge issues” to keep poor, working-class, and even middle-class whites receiving large amounts of government transfer payments from voting the same way as minorities receiving government transfer payments. In addition, Republicans have relentlessly demonized government, even as they grab as much government money as possible, whether in the forms of subsidies to corn growers, extremely cheap mining and grazing rights on public lands, individual transfer payments, etc., etc.
You see it clearly here in Virginia, where Bob McDonnell constantly bashes and belittles government, even as Virginia is among the states most dependent on federal largesse for its prosperity. Take away the federal government, including both civilian, military, and “private” contractor, plus all the spinoff business that comes along with all those people living in Virginia, and the Commonwealth begins to look a lot more like poverty-stricken Alabama or Mississippi or West Virginia than what the relative prosperity many of us are used to in Virginia nowadays.
Yet, according to Bob McDonnell, who either is wildly ignorant, totally delusional, ruthlessly ambitious, or simply lying through his teeth (my bet is on a combination of the four), the “Virginia story” is all about private companies wanting to set up shop here because of our “friendly business climate.” Well, sure, except for the overwhelming federal role in Virginia’s economy, plus the fact that corporate relocations to Virginia often involve heavy doses of taxpayer-funded corporate welfare payments to those companies to get them to come here. If that’s free market conservatism, then I’m Grover Norquist. Heh.
Seriously, though, the upshot of all this is depressingly clear: there is a sharp, dysfunctional, utterly bizarre disconnect between peoples’ political behavior – such as their laughably ignorant slogan that “government should keep its hands off our Medicare,” or voting for (Republican) politicians who want to slash the government benefits on which they rely – and their receipt of heavy doses of government assistance. One could call it a “bit the hand that feeds you” mentality, or “displaced anger/hostility,” or any number of things (see your nearest shrink for further details). There’s also a disturbing racial element here, which Republicans like Lee Atwater have been masters at exploiting for nearly 50 years now. So, next time you hear a Republican politician bashing government, just remember: this is all part of a long-term, deliberate strategy – to transfer wealth and power to the (already) most wealthy and powerful, while stoking “wedge issues” and the “politics of resentment” to persuade tens of millions of Americans to vote for them. Don’t fall for it.