COMMENTARY: Finding common ground to rebuild prosperity

A puzzling phenomenon in American politics is when voters support candidates who have policies adverse to their economic interests.

For example, lower-income, rural voters consistently vote Republican despite the fact that, as documented by several studies, policies promoted and enacted by Republicans have primarily benefited the wealthy and led to historic increases in economic inequality.

An early explanation was that these voters had been duped into voting against their economic interests by candidates who diverted their attention from economic issues to social and cultural ones. The simplicity of this narrative caused it to be readily accepted by the media and political punditry despite lack of evidence for its veracity. Recent research, though, has provided a more nuanced understanding of the above puzzle.

In “The Politics of Resentment,” Katherine Cramer spent several years listening to how groups of citizens in numerous Wisconsin small towns made sense of politics. She uncovered a common ideology pervading these groups that she labeled “rural consciousness” which is characterized by a strong sense of economic injustice, a belief that rural concerns and communities have been abandoned, and that government would never allocate resources justly to their communities. The implication of her findings is if their perceptions could be changed, their voting behavior would also change.

These voters are keenly aware of how the economic shocks of the last four decades have been cruel to their communities, but where the disconnect comes is that these are not just problems for rural communities; all working- and middle-class voters have suffered from wage stagnation and disparities, job losses, diminished economic mobility and increasing concentrations of wealth and income among the rich.

Most significantly, though, as Larry Bartels has demonstrated in Unequal Democracy, the gap between rich and poor has widened greatly under Republican administrations, but has narrowed under Democrats. The key to the above puzzle, then, is not that these rural voters are dumb, it’s that in their experience government policies have not provided much relief to their economic misery — and often have compounded it.

Their learned distrust and resentment of government, while understandable given this fuller picture, has nevertheless led to voting behavior that continues to undermine their own interests and ultimately the interests of many others.

Considering the above, progress toward meeting shared challenges must start with overcoming this resentment and rebuilding trust in government. This will not be easy. For starters, though, efforts must be made to reach out to these voters with concrete programs clearly and honestly targeted to their concerns. This means counteracting approaches that have: 1) channeled rural consciousness into intense resentment against government; 2) turned that resentment into success at the ballot box; and 3) brazenly enacted and defended policies that have undercut rural and urban communities alike while claiming that’s what these voters say they want.

All of us across this great land want and need policies that preserve, protect, and advance our economic dignity and well-being. We deserve nothing less.

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Rob Baker, Ph.D., teaches political science at Wittenberg University and is a regular contributor.