Over the past two months the Trump administration and the Republicans in Congress have proposed a budget and two health care plans that would take benefits away from core Republican constituencies, especially working-class voters. And yet over this time Donald Trump’s approval rating has remained unchanged, at 40 percent. During this period the Republicans have successfully defended a series of congressional seats.
What’s going on? Why do working-class conservatives seem to vote so often against their own economic interests?
My stab at an answer would begin in the 18th and 19th centuries. Many Trump supporters live in places that once were on the edge of the American frontier. Life on that frontier was fragile, perilous, lonely and remorseless. The basic pattern of life was an underlying condition of peril, warded off by self-restraint, temperance, self-control and strictness of conscience.
Frontier religions were often ascetic, banning drinking, card-playing and dancing. And yet there was always a whiff of extreme disorder – drunkenness, violence and fraud.
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Today these places are no longer frontier towns, but many still exist on the same knife’s edge between traditionalist order and extreme dissolution.
For example, I have a friend who is an avid Trump admirer. He supports himself as a part-time bartender and a part-time home contractor, and by doing various odd jobs on the side. He has built up a decent savings account, but he has done it on his own, hustling, scrapping his way, without any long-term security.
This isn’t too different from life on the frontier. Many people in these places see their communities the way foreign policy realists see the world: as an unvarnished struggle for resources — as a tough world, a no-illusions world, a world where conflict is built into the fabric of reality.
The virtues most admired in such places are what Shirley Robin Letwin once called the vigorous virtues: “upright, self-sufficient, energetic, adventurous, independent minded, loyal to friends and robust against foes.”
The sins that can cause the most trouble are not the social sins — injustice, incivility, etc. They are the personal sins — laziness, self-indulgence, drinking, sleeping around.
Voters in these places could use some help. But these Americans, like most Americans, vote on their vision of what makes a great nation.
In their view, government doesn’t reinforce the vigorous virtues. On the contrary, it undermines them — by fostering initiative-sucking dependency, by letting people get away with their mistakes so they can make more of them and by getting in the way of moral formation.
The way you build up self-reliant virtues, in this view, is through struggle.
In her book “Strangers in Their Own Land,” sociologist Arlie Hochschild quotes a woman from Louisiana complaining about the childproof lids on medicine and seat-belt laws. “We let them throw lawn darts, smoked alongside them,” the woman says of her children. “And they survived. ”
Hochschild argues that these voters may vote against their economic interests, but they vote for their emotional interests, for candidates who share their emotions about problems and groups.
I’d say they believe that big government support would provide short-term assistance, but it would be a long-term poison to the values that are at the core of prosperity. It’s a plausible theory. Anybody who wants to design policies to help the working class has to make sure they go along the grain of the vigorous virtues, not against them.