Categorized | Media, National

Why Workers in Red States Vote Against Their Economic Self-Interest

 

The Fear Conundrum

 

Robert Reich
RobertReich.org

 

LAST WEEK’s massive spill of the toxic chemical MCHM into West Virginia’s Elk River illustrates another benefit to the business class of high unemployment, economic
insecurity, and a safety-net shot through with holes.  

Not only are employees eager to accept whatever job they can get.  
They are also unwilling to demand healthy and safe environments. 

The spill was the region’s third major chemical accident in five years, coming after two investigations by the federal Chemical Safety Board in the Kanawha Valley, also known as “Chemical Valley,” and repeated recommendations from federal regulators and environmental advocates that the state embrace tougher rules to better safeguard chemicals.

No action was ever taken.  State and local officials turned a deaf ear.  The storage tank that leaked, owned by Freedom Industries, hadn’t been inspected for decades.

But nobody complained.

Not even now, with the toxins moving down river toward Cincinnati, can the residents of Charleston and the surrounding area be sure their drinking water is safe– partly because the government’s calculation for safe levels is based on a single study by the manufacturer of the toxic chemical, which was never published, and partly because the West Virginia American Water Company, which supplies the drinking water, is a for-profit corporation that may not want to highlight any lingering danger. 

So why wasn’t more done to prevent this, and why isn’t there more of any outcry even now?

The answer isn’t hard to find.  As Maya Nye, president of People Concerned About Chemical Safety, a citizen’s group formed after a 2008 explosion and fire killed workers at West Virginia’s Bayer CropScience plant in the state, explained to the New York Times:  “We are so desperate for jobs in West Virginia we don’t want to do anything that pushes industry out.”

Exactly.

I often heard the same refrain when I headed the U.S. Department of Labor.  When we sought to impose a large fine on the Bridgestone-Firestone Tire Company for flagrantly disregarding workplace safety rules and causing workers at one of its plants in Oklahoma to be maimed and killed, for example, the community was solidly behind us– that is, until Bridgestone-Firestone threatened to close the plant if we didn’t back down.

The threat was enough to ignite a storm of opposition to the proposed penalty from the very workers and families we were trying to protect.  (We didn’t back down and Bridgestone-Firestone didn’t carry out its threat, but the political fallout was intense.)

For years political scientists have wondered why so many working class and poor citizens of so-called “red” states vote against their economic self-interest.  The usual explanation is that, for these voters, economic issues are trumped by social and cultural issues like guns, abortion, and race.

I’m not so sure.  The wages of production workers have been dropping for thirty years, adjusted for inflation, and their economic security has disappeared.  Companies can and do shut down, sometimes literally overnight.  A smaller share of working-age Americans hold jobs today than at any time in more than three decades.

People are so desperate for jobs they don’t want to rock the boat.  They don’t want rules and regulations enforced that might cost them their livelihoods.  For them, a job is precious– sometimes even more precious than a safe workplace or safe drinking water.

This is especially true in poorer regions of the country like West Virginia and through much of the South and rural America– so-called “red” states where the old working class has been voting Republican.  Guns, abortion, and race are part of the explanation.  But don’t overlook economic anxieties that translate into a willingness to vote for whatever it is that industry wants.

This may explain why Republican officials who have been casting their votes against unions, against expanding Medicaid, against raising the minimum wage, against extended unemployment insurance, and against jobs bills that would put people to work, continue to be elected and re-elected.  

They obviously have the support of corporate patrons who want to keep unemployment high and workers insecure because a pliant working class helps their bottom lines.

But they also, paradoxically, get the votes of many workers who are clinging so desperately to their jobs that they’re afraid of change and too cowed to make a ruckus. 

The best bulwark against corporate irresponsibility is a strong and growing middle class.  But in order to summon the political will to achieve it, we have to overcome the timidity that flows from economic desperation.  

It’s a diabolical chicken-and-egg conundrum at the core of American politics today.

 

 

* * * * * * * * *

ROBERT B. REICH, Chancellor’s Professor of Public Policy at the University of California at Berkeley and Senior Fellow at the Blum Center for Developing Economies, was Secretary of Labor in the Clinton administration.

Time Magazine named him one of the ten most effective cabinet secretaries of the twentieth century.

He has written thirteen books, including the best sellers “Aftershock” and “The Work of Nations.” His latest, “Beyond Outrage,” is now out in paperback. He is also a founding editor of the American Prospect magazine and chairman of Common Cause.

His new film, “Inequality for All,” is now available on iTunes, DVD, and On Demand.

 

We thank Dr. Reich for allowing us to reprint his column here for our readers. 

Dr. Reich frequently writes about  the interesting crossroads of economics, politics, and ethics.  Where they collide and conflict, history shows economics is always the victor.

2 Responses to “Why Workers in Red States Vote Against Their Economic Self-Interest”

  1. Patrick Q. Clark says:

    For years political scientists have wondered why so many working class and poor citizens of so-called “red” states vote against their economic self-interest. The usual explanation is that, for these voters, economic issues are trumped by social and cultural issues like guns, abortion, and race.

  2. Joe Blow says:

    “The usual explanation is that, for these voters, economic issues are trumped by social and cultural issues like guns, abortion, and race.”

    …and religion.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks


Leave a Reply

HumSentinel on Twitter

RSS Progressive Review

  • Department of Good Stuff: Ecology
    350.org Climate Progress Daily Climate Inside Climate News Tree Hugger Sheldon Whitehouse […]
  • Fast food workers only twice as welfare dependant as adjunct professors
     Percent on public assistanceLabor Center, BerkeleyZaid Jilani AlterNet  -  During [the recession],  “the number of people with master's degrees who received food stamps and other aid climbed from 101,682 to 293,029, and the number of people with Ph.D.'s who received assistance rose from 9,776 to 33,655.”“Everyone thinks a Ph.D. pretty much guarant […]
  • How the left is doing better in Europe than in America
    Thomas J. Scott, Truthout - Unlike the United States, democracies in the European Union are witnessing the emergence of social movements that are pushing back against political elites who cater to financial interests that have threatened the social safety nets commonly found in many European parliamentary systems. In Spain, Italy, Greece, and to a lesser ext […]
  • Coverage of Hillary Clinton changing
    Progressive Review - Having covered Clinton family misdeeds since the early 1990s, we're aware of how little mainstream coverage of many of them has actually occurred. So we were startled to see this story in the Washington Post which actually discusses issues such as Whitewater in a way we have rarely seen in conventional media before. It's not co […]
  • Welcome aboard
    Howard Dean “delivered a stinging critique of modern day capitalism, warning that the economic system is ‘going to fail’ unless substantial efforts are made to regulate the financial industry and reduce income inequality,” the New York Observer reports.  Gary Hart: “Our Founders created a republic and, being keen students of the history of republics beginnin […]
  • Neo-liberalism causes mental illness
    Common Dreams - Four hundred mental health experts signed an open letter warning that Britain's austerity cuts, and neo-liberalism more broadly, are profoundly damaging to quality of life and psychological well-being."The past five years have seen a radical shift in the kinds of issues generating distress in our clients: increasing inequality and o […]
  • Farmers come out against TPP
    Popular Resistance - Over 110 farm, food and consumer groups urged members of Congress in a letter  to oppose trade promotion authority or “fast track” legislation that would pave the way for trade agreements detrimental to farmers, ranchers and food systems, such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership....Proponents of fast track assert that future trade agreement […]
  • Communities taking back privatized water
    Andrea Germanos, Common Dreams - In communities across the world, people are taking back their water. Cases of remunicipalization—getting what were privatized water and sanitation services back under public control—is the focus of a new book by the Netherlands-based Transnational Institute), and offers welcome respite from tales of the ever-encroaching reach […]
  • Here's why broadcast media isn't telling you about TPP
    Intercept […]
  • Greedsters attack Grand Canyon
    Daily Beast - If a collective of big money investment interests have their way, the 5 million people who flock to the Grand Canyon’ breathtaking vistas every year will also soon be able to get in some shopping and catch a film on an IMAX theatre built right on top of the canyon’s rim.These investors have partnered with a faction of the native Navajo tribe’s […]
  • Police blotter: Kid charged with felony for toying with teacher's computer
    Electronic Freedom Foundation - A 14-year-old eighth grader in Florida, Domanik Green, has been charged with a felony for “hacking” his teacher’s computer. The “hacking” in this instance was using a widely known password to change the desktop background of his teacher’s computer with an image of two men kissing...Usually, when it comes to bad laws related to […]
  • Word
    "It's always best on these occasions to do what the mob do." "But suppose there are two mobs?" suggested Mr. Snodgrass. "Shout with the largest," replied Mr. Pickwick -- Charles Dickens, 'Pickwick Papers' […]
  • FBI uncovers utlimate Al Qaeda plot: to watch US collapse of its own accord
    Onion - Putting the nation on alert against what it has described as a “highly credible terrorist threat,” the FBI announced today that it has uncovered a plot by members of al-Qaeda to sit back and enjoy themselves while the United States collapses of its own accord.Multiple intelligence agencies confirmed that the militant Islamist organization and its num […]
  • The loneliest mile in town
    From our overstocked archivesSam Smith, 2006 - When I was a radio newsman in the late 1950s, I would sometimes snag the late or early shift and have to drive from my apartment on Capitol Hill the hundred blocks or so out 16th Street to Silver Spring. The streets were dark, silent and empty and I would turn on a black radio station and listen to The Cabbie […]
  • Green notes
    Jacqui Deveneau  -  Thanks to a solid result in the recent state election, three members of the Green Party of Germany have been sworn in as Ministers in the Hamburg government. Katharina Fegebank, Jens Kerstan and Till Steffen will be handling the science, environmental, and justice portfolios in the aftermath of a coalition agreement reached with the Socia […]