It’s easy to understand why the wealthy might vote for the Republicans: Republicans cut their taxes. What’s harder to understand is why lower-middle class voters would choose the Republican Party, who would cut benefits that help them. In the New York Times last week, Alec MacGillis claims that lower-middle class voters favor the Republicans because these voters think poor voters are abusing benefits. While that might be art of the equation, MacGillis neglects the essential role of race.
The article attempts to explain the rising trend of lower-middle class voters electing officials who want to cut social programs on which those voters rely. This trend, of lower-middle class workers voting against their interest, seems baffling, especially if you’re an economist like me who assumes everyone is rational. These voters often have very little and would benefit from additional social spending, but they vote to make their difficult lives potentially even more difficult. The article includes quotes from one women who once relied on social programs but now opposes them. For a wealthy person, lower social spending doesn’t have a major impact, but for many of these voters, republican policies will likely lower their economic well-being.
MacGillis contents that perceived laziness of welfare recipients is responsible for this transition. There is also a virulent distancing between “workers” and “non-workers” as lower-middle class people try to distinguish themselves from the very poor. This distancing results in a lack of sympathy for those receiving welfare and a feeling that welfare recipients are lazy and undeserving.
This claim seems credible, but it misses the essential importance of race in this phenomena. The lower-middle class voters MacGillis identifies are generally white and voting against people they think are black. The Wages of Whiteness helped me identify these voters as rational. They are voting to preserve the wages of whiteness. The benefits they receive from keeping poor blacks below them outweighs the costs of cutting social spending. There is clearly a racial element to this phenomena that MacGillis does not recognize.