Sunday, November 22, 2015

Can Bernie's Brand Of Socialism Reach Alec MacGillis' Lost American Workers


Let's say that all the assumptions and conclusions in Alec MacGillis' NY Times piece, Who Turned My Blue State Red?, are spot on. He was trying to explain why poor areas vote for politicians-- conservatives-- who want to slash the safety net and he did a good job at it. One step further... can Bernie Sanders turn this into a November victory?

We'll come back to MacGillis in a moment. First, though, Take a look at this stats, tweeted by the Marquette Universitt Law School's new poll:
84% of those polled say “govt is run by a few big interests who are out for themselves.” 14% disagree with that.
72% of Republicans, 91% of Democrats, 86% of independents agree “govt is run by a few big interests.”
66% of Republicans, 70% of Democrats, 70% of independents agree “govt ignores the interests of hard working Americans.”
69% of those polled say income differences in America are too large. 28% disagree.
43% of Republicans, 90% of Democrats, and 72% of independents agree that income differences in America are too large.
48% of those polled agree that government should do something to reduce income differences. 49% disagree.
22% of Republicans, 73% of Democrats, 46% of independents agree govt should do something about income inequality.
And then this from John Nichols:

Voters agree with Bernie on his core issues. Will they vote for him against a Republican if he manages to defeat the establishment Democrat running against him-- and trying to steal his populist platform? MacGillis warns that just agreeing with someone on the issues isn't the same as having a vote in the bag-- far from it in fact. He reminds his readers right off that bat that "parts of the country that depend on the safety-net programs supported by Democrats are increasingly voting for Republicans who favor shredding that net."
In his successful bid for the Senate in 2010, the libertarian Rand Paul railed against “intergenerational welfare” and said that “the culture of dependency on government destroys people’s spirits,” yet racked up winning margins in eastern Kentucky, a former Democratic stronghold that is heavily dependent on public benefits. Last year, Paul R. LePage, the fiercely anti-welfare Republican governor of Maine, was re-elected despite a highly erratic first term-- with strong support in struggling towns where many rely on public assistance. And earlier this month, Kentucky elected as governor a conservative Republican who had vowed to largely undo the Medicaid expansion that had given the state the country’s largest decrease in the uninsured under Obamacare, with roughly one in 10 residents gaining coverage.

...In eastern Kentucky and other former Democratic bastions that have swung Republican in the past several decades, the people who most rely on the safety-net programs secured by Democrats are, by and large, not voting against their own interests by electing Republicans. Rather, they are not voting, period. They have, as voting data, surveys and my own reporting suggest, become profoundly disconnected from the political process.

The people in these communities who are voting Republican in larger proportions are those who are a notch or two up the economic ladder-- the sheriff’s deputy, the teacher, the highway worker, the motel clerk, the gas station owner and the coal miner. And their growing allegiance to the Republicans is, in part, a reaction against what they perceive, among those below them on the economic ladder, as a growing dependency on the safety net, the most visible manifestation of downward mobility in their declining towns.

...[Some of these folks] are at one level voting against their own economic self-interest, to the extent that the Republican approach on taxes is slanted more to the wealthy than that of the Democrats. This was the thesis of Thomas Frank’s 2004 best seller, What’s the Matter With Kansas, which argued that these voters had been distracted by social issues like guns and abortion. But on another level, these voters are consciously opting against a Democratic economic agenda that they see as bad for them and good for other people-- specifically, those undeserving benefit-recipients who live nearby.

...Eastern Kentucky now shows up on maps as the most benefit-dependent region in the country. The welfare reforms of the 1990s have made cash assistance hard to come by, but food-stamp use in the state rose to more than 18 percent of households in 2012 from under 10 percent in 2001.

With reliance on government benefits so prevalent, it creates constant moments of friction, on very intimate terms, said Jim Cauley, a Democratic political consultant from Pike County, a former Democratic bastion in eastern Kentucky that has flipped Republican in the past decade. “There are a lot of people on the draw,” he said. Where opposition to the social safety net has long been fed by the specter of undeserving inner-city African-Americans-- think of Ronald Reagan’s notorious “welfare queen”-- in places like Pike County it’s fueled, more and more, by people’s resentment over rising dependency they see among their own neighbors, even their own families. “It’s Cousin Bobby-- ‘he’s on Oxy and he’s on the draw and we’re paying for him,’ ” Mr. Cauley said. “If you need help, no one begrudges you taking the program-- they’re good-hearted people. It’s when you’re able-bodied and making choices not to be able-bodied.” The political upshot is plain, Mr. Cauley added. “It’s not the people on the draw that’s voting against” the Democrats, he said. “It’s everyone else.”

This month, Pike County went 55 percent for the Republican candidate for governor, Matt Bevin. That’s the opposite of how the county voted a dozen years ago. In that election, Kentucky still sent a Republican to the governor’s mansion-- but Pike County went for the Democratic candidate. And 30 percent fewer people voted in the county this month than did in 2003-- 11,223 voters in a county of 63,000, far below the county’s tally of food-stamp recipients, which was more than 17,000 in 2012.

In Maine, Mr. LePage was elected governor in 2010 by running on an anti-welfare platform in a state that has also grown more reliant on public programs-- in 2013, the state ranked third in the nation for food-stamp use, just ahead of Kentucky. Mr. LePage, who grew up poor in a large family, has gone at safety-net programs with a vengeance. He slashed welfare rolls by more than half after imposing a five-year limit, reinstituted a work requirement for food-stamp recipients and refused to expand Medicaid under Obamacare to cover 60,000 people. He is now seeking to bar anyone with more than $5,000 in certain assets from receiving food stamps. “I’m not going to help anybody just for the sake of helping,” the governor said in September. “I am not that compassionate.”

His crusade has resonated with many in the state, who re-elected him last year.

That pattern is right in line with surveys, which show a decades-long decline in support for redistributive policies and an increase in conservatism in the electorate even as inequality worsens. There has been a particularly sharp drop in support for redistribution among older Americans, who perhaps see it as a threat to their own Social Security and Medicare. Meanwhile, researchers such as Kathryn Edin, of Johns Hopkins University, found a tendency by many Americans in the second lowest quintile of the income ladder-- the working or lower-middle class-- to dissociate themselves from those at the bottom, where many once resided. “There’s this virulent social distancing-- suddenly, you’re a worker and anyone who is not a worker is a bad person,” said Professor Edin. “They’re playing to the middle fifth and saying, ‘I’m not those people.’”

Meanwhile, many people who in fact most use and need social benefits are simply not voting at all. Voter participation is low among the poorest Americans, and in many parts of the country that have moved red, the rates have fallen off the charts. West Virginia ranked 50th for turnout in 2012; also in the bottom 10 were other states that have shifted sharply red in recent years, including Kentucky, Arkansas and Tennessee.

In the spring of 2012, I visited a free weekend medical and dental clinic run by the organization Remote Area Medical in the foothills of southern Tennessee. I wanted to ask the hundreds of uninsured people flocking to the clinic what they thought of President Obama and the Affordable Care Act, whose fate was about to be decided by the Supreme Court. I was expecting a “What’s the Matter With Kansas” reaction-- anger at the president who had signed the law geared to help them. Instead, I found sympathy for Mr. Obama. But had they voted for him? Of course not-- almost no one I spoke with voted, in local, state or national elections. Not only that, but they had barely heard of the health care law.

This political disconnect among lower-income Americans has huge ramifications-- polls find nonvoters are far more likely to favor spending on the poor and on government services than are voters, and the gap grows even larger among poor nonvoters. In the early 1990s, Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky freely cited the desirability of having a more select electorate when he opposed an effort to expand voter registration. And this fall, Scott Jennings, a longtime McConnell adviser, reportedly said low turnout by poor Kentuckians explained why the state’s Obamacare gains wouldn’t help Democrats. “I remember being in the room when Jennings was asked whether or not Republicans were afraid of the electoral consequences of displacing 400,000-500,000 people who have insurance,” State Auditor Adam Edelen, a Democrat who lost his re-election bid this year, told Joe Sonka, a Louisville journalist. “And he simply said, ‘People on Medicaid don’t vote.’”

...So where does this leave Democrats and anyone seeking to expand and build lasting support for safety-net programs such as Obamacare?

For starters, it means redoubling efforts to mobilize the people who benefit from the programs. This is no easy task with the rural poor, who are much more geographically scattered than their urban counterparts. Not helping matters in this regard is the decline of local institutions like labor unions — while the United Mine Workers of America once drove turnout in coal country, today there is not a single unionized mine still operating in Kentucky.

But it also means reckoning with the other half of the dynamic-- finding ways to reduce the resentment that those slightly higher on the income ladder feel toward dependency in their midst. One way to do this is to make sure the programs are as tightly administered as possible. Instances of fraud and abuse are far rarer than welfare opponents would have one believe, but it only takes a few glaring instances to create a lasting impression. Ms. Edin, the Hopkins researcher, suggests going further and making it easier for those collecting disability to do part-time work over the table, not just to make them seem less shiftless in the eyes of their neighbors, but to reduce the recipients’ own sense of social isolation.

The best way to reduce resentment, though, would be to bring about true economic growth in the areas where the use of government benefits is on the rise, the sort of improvement that is now belatedly being discussed for coal country, including on the presidential campaign trail. If fewer people need the safety net to get by, the stigma will fade, and low-income citizens will be more likely to re-engage in their communities-- not least by turning out to vote.
Can Bernie reach the men and women in places like Kentucky and Maine who haven't been voting? He's saying the right stuff but is his message about socialism-- or democratic socialism-- reaching them and are the hearing him? Tragic if the one candidate willing to address their needs in decades can't get to them. One thing is certain though; Hillary has nothing for these people.

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