A few days ago, John Paul Brammer (@jpbrammer) wrote an insightful experienced-based Twitter essay about how some poor white folks tend to see themselves. Brammers argument can be broken down as the following:
- Most poor white folks do not base their identity on their poverty. They view their poverty as temporary and believe that they will be rich one day.
- Low income white folks, especially men, believe that the reason for their poverty can be explained by unfair obstacles that have been placed in their way. These obstacles have been causing their failure to become wealthy, not the country’s economic system.
- They believe that if they cannot transcend poverty, that means they have a character flaw. Trump’s scapegoating of immigrants appealed to them as a way to rationalize their failure without blaming themselves.
Brammer’s thread reminded me of Katie Grimes’ essay “There is no such thing as the white working class.” I encourage you to read Grimes original work, but the crux of her argument can be articulated as the following:
- Racial injustice does not exist because of economic injustice.
- The only reason to differentiate the white working classes from working class people of color is to convey the expectation that white supremacy will/should work for poor white people.
- Low-income, white people are not being tricked into their support of racist and xenophobic policies/politicians. White people “do not endorse white supremacy because [they] do not know any better; [they] believe that white supremacy is good because [they] want to believe it so.”
At the core of both of these essays is the question of agency and awareness of the working class white voter. Is the working class white Trump supporter really voting in their own best interest?
When it comes to the voting patterns of low income white people, is their choice to vote against their financial interests in order to achieve the kind of social order they desire a cognitive one?
Ian Haney López wrote a book called Dog Whistle Politics. His thesis is that politicians have been using coded language, frequently referred to as “dog whistles” to stir up racial anxieties and resentment in white American voters. American politicians have been using these rhetorical tactics for decades to convince many white voters to vote against their best financial interests. In Haney López’s words: “some voters are led astray by appeals to social concerns and do not recognize their actual economic interests.”
Prioritizing social concerns over economic ones is not an usual phenomenon in American society. A wealthy liberal voter does exactly that when they decide to vote for a higher tax rate for themselves in order to provide more governmental services for people with less resources. This is a conscious choice that this voter is making.
When it comes to the voting patterns of low income white people, however, is their choice to vote against their financial interests in order to achieve the kind of social order they desire just as cognitive? Grimes says yes. Brammer is not sure.
Ronnee Schreiber outlines the history of conservative women’s activism in American politics in her book Righting Feminism: Conservative Women and American Politics. She defines conservatism as the opposite of feminism, the key goal of which is to liberate women living in a patriarchal society. When discussing conservative women she warns that “it is critical to consider them [as acting] on their own terms.”
This is a crucial point. To state that all low-income white folks who voted for Trump have been duped is a) calling them unintelligent and b) overlooking that even liberals vote against their own financial self interests.
We cannot simply wrap Trump’s unprecedented victory in a tiny little bow called “racism” or “stupidity” and expect it to solve any problems. White working class voters did not vote irrationally — they voted for what they wanted. And they prioritized social issues over their personal financial benefits because they truly believe that once the country they live in looks and behaves the way they want it to, their financial burdens will be lifted.