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Red State, Blue Collar

Greetings.  I am called Grim.  For those who don't know me -- most of you, I expect -- a short background:  I was born and raised in the Great State of Georgia, which made me what you can call a Zell Miller "Mountain Democrat."  I joined the USMC out of high school, and though I was medical'd out sadly quickly, I feel I can honestly say that I did my utmost and have always kept my Oath.  After 9/11, I went to work for the Pentagon and currently the Strategic Command as a contractor.

I am going to start off with something that isn't as military-oriented as BlackFive usually is, but I think you'll find it interesting.

James Taranto, in yesterday's Best of the Web, linked to a post by Slate's Timothy Noah.  Noah is asking again a question that has been asked often since the recent elections:  why won't Red-State poor folks ("working class," as they like to say) vote for Democrats?

James Taranto, in yesterday's Best of the Web, linked to a post by Slate's Timothy Noah.  Noah is asking again a question that has been asked often since the recent elections:  why won't Red-State poor folks ("working class," as they like to say) vote for Democrats?

The working class's refusal to synchronize its politics with its economic interests is one of the enduring puzzles of the present age. Between 1989 and 1997, middle-income families (defined in this instance as the middle 20 percent) saw their share of the nation's wealth fall from 4.8 percent to 4.4 percent. Yet Al Gore lost the white working class by a margin of 17 percentage points, and John Kerry lost it by a margin of 23 percentage points.

Taranto argues that part of the problem is the arrogance of the national party, which labels people as "working class," as if to separate the poor from themselves.  Certainly, mountain folk don't like being looked down upon any more than anyone else.

But I think the real answer is this:  Red-State poor do synchronize their voting with their economic interests. They simply don't agree with national Democrats as to where that interest lies. The national party doesn't understand how wealth is created in the Red States, and so it adopts an agenda that is dead-set against what poor people actually want. The worst thing that can happen for the poor is for national Democrats to get their agenda enacted -- the period of time Noah cites began with Bush I's tax increases, and continued through the Clinton administration's "reforms."

I was talking about Social Security recently over at a blog called the Blue Bus, which is run by a kind, thoughtful young liberal who calls herself Lizard Queen. (Any of you who are looking for a liberal to have real, considered debates with can call on her. Be nice, and she'll be nice back.) I was explaining that the economic realities of the Red States are different from those of Boston, or other Blue areas:

The first few years of our marriage, my wife and I got by on somewhat less than $15,000 a year. It was not financially easy, by any means, but there are strategies available to lower-income people that higher-income people don't use: not only the earned income tax credits, but also market methods such as payment in kind.

For example, I was often able to keep our rent to as little as $100 a month by performing in-kind repairs to the property we were renting in lieu of payment. A higher-income person wouldn't do that, because (a) they'd probably own, and (b) even if not, they'd just hire it done b/c their rate of pay would be higher than that of the repairman. Since mine was lower, I could do the work for less, and thus it made economic sense both for me and my landlord.

The problem with convincing the Red States to adopt a Democratic platform on Social Security isn't that Red Staters are too ignorant of economics to understand the issue. Economic education in schools may be poor, but life experience teaches the poor a lot about what it means to budget. Red State poor understand better than anyone the business of budgeting, which is why Social Security has such low expectations for them.

What Red State "working class" people want is not social programs, which are a bad bet for them. They pay tons of money into FICA, for example, and expect no return -- everyone who has ever written a personal budget can see that there's just going to be too many people drawing checks versus too few working. The Red Stater may or may not know the history of Democratic Socialism: that it was developed in Europe as a means of social control of the poor, a political program designed to pacify people so that they wouldn't give over to Communist revolution against the established governments. The Red Stater can see the effect, though, whether or not he knows the history. Government programs provide enough to keep you alive, but they don't offer any hope of living your dreams. The poor man has every right to his dreams, and in America, every reason to expect that he can get there if he does his best.

I think of my old neighbor Caroline, from Alabama to start with, who opened a barber shop. She also sold beauty supplies. Then she bought a tanning bed, and offered that service. Later she had a guy open a cafe in one corner of the shop, so people could stop in for lunch. Caroline was exactly the person Noah is thinking of: from a very poor background, with limited education. She knew what was best for herself, though, far better than Noah or national Democrats. What she wanted was a tax code that would favor her efforts as a small business, let her take on hands, and help her grow her personal wealth. The last thing she wanted was to have people paying higher taxes for some program: it would take money out of their pockets that they could be spending on her tanning salon or beauty products.

Her economic interest, in other words, was exactly what she was voting for. She didn't have much education, but she knew where her bread was buttered. So she joined small business associations, put some of her money into political donations, joined the NRA, and became a real force for Red State politics.

Drive through any of these states, and there are a thousand little barber shops along any highway of any length. There are garages and auto body shops, landscapers, cabinet makers. These aren't fools who don't know how to synchronize their interests with their politics. They're people making a rational call on how to improve their lives. They don't want to be given a handout. They want you to get out of the way.

The evidence can be seen in a few graphs, available thanks to TaxProf. Here is the graph of median national incomes, compared with the Red/Blue map: Democratic states are richer. Here is the map of "Tax Friendliness." Red States elect people who will promise lower taxes. Same with the economic freedom map. And lest people think that this is Red State selfishness, an unwillingness to help the poor, it is also the same with the charitable donations map.

Put that all together, and here's the real picture: the national Democratic party is the party of the rich, not the Republicans. The national Democratic party is the party of social control of the poor. The Republican party actually favors the interests of the "working class" -- of the literally working poor.

My guess is that they're scratching their heads because the party is led by John Kerrys, who have never been poor themselves. It sounds like a great deal to the Kerrys of the world -- hey, I'll give you money out of my pocket, me and my rich friends! Why won't you vote for us?

It's not foolishness. The working poor understand the cost of that handout better than the folks in Washington, Boston, or Hollywood. They know where their interests lie. The Red States are Red because they are poor, not in spite of being poor.

Until the Democratic Party gets its head on straight about this, we Mountain Democrats are in for a long and lonely time. But it's worth holding out. We remember James Jackson, founder of the Democratic Party down in Georgia. He stood up to bullets in four duels, in order to fight for the principle of the yeoman farmer.

That's who Caroline is. You want her vote, you get up and fight for her.