“God, Gays, and Guns”: Are Poor Whites Voting Against Their Own Best Interest?

If your first reaction to the above heading was, “huh?” then congratulations, you are sane in an insane world. Now allow me to corrupt you with an explanation.

The context for this connection was Nancy Pelosi speaking to Gwen Ifill and Judy Woodruff of the PBS NewsHour before the second night of the Democratic National Convention began, telling them that non-college-educated, low-income white males tend to vote against their own economic interests because of what she called “the three G’s,” referring to the alliterative cliché popularly used to capsulize hot-button issues: “God, gays, and guns.” She added the further explanation, “God being a woman’s right to choose.”

Again: huh?

But it’s time for me to stop playing coy. I understand – though I almost wish I didn’t – enough of the political shorthand involved here to have an idea of what Pelosi meant. When we’re accustomed to breathing the toxins of our political atmosphere, it becomes disturbingly easy to take popular political shorthand for granted, as if it referred to natural and logical connections. But a closer look at her brief offhand comment reveals much that is troubling – and not, in fact, logical.

It is troubling, first of all, that the reference to “God” is reduced to a stand-in reference to abortion, or more precisely, opposition to abortion. The more innocuous, albeit superficial, reason for this may simply be to preserve the convenient alliteration. The consequence of the catchy mnemonic, however, is the breezy implication that religion is the only possible explanation for why anyone would oppose abortion – an assumption with which the admirably clear-thinking human rights advocates at Secular Pro-Life, to name one prominent example, would beg to differ. [1]

A further layer of disturbing irony is that, in order to translate “God” as a shorthand allusion to abortion, Pelosi resorted to what is essentially a form of political longhand, with “a woman’s right to choose” being a handily recognizable euphemism to frame the issue in terms of personal choice, individual rights, and gender equity. It’s such a familiar euphemism that many (unfortunately on both sides) accept, without a second thought, the implicit dichotomy between the value of female lives and fetal lives, or the false assumption that abortion is always freely chosen. [2]

Now to take a step back: the main thrust of her statement, that people who fall within a particular demographic are knowingly voting against their own interests for the sake of an ideology, is dangerously dismissive, and plays right into the marketing strategy of the Trump campaign.  Whether the people in question are in fact voting against their own interest by aligning with the GOP is a matter for debate, but the point is they don't believe that's what they're doing, and it’s important to understand why.

PBS NewsHour
English writer Emma Lindsay made one of the best such efforts [3] I’ve seen this year, writing earlier about the exact same kind of dismissal that Pelosi and many others have made:

“While the majority of democrats I know do tend to keep it civil with each other, nearly all of them will rail on ‘ignorant’ republicans who ‘vote against their own best interests.’ Thing is, Trump supporters don’t vote against their best interests, democrats just don’t understand the interest they care about most.

“It’s dignity….

“We are depriving the white working classes of their means to give. As we export manufacturing jobs internationally and as we streamline labor with technology, we start moving people to the sidelines. It’s not just that they have less money, it’s that their identity as providers is being threatened. This is why they are often so against welfare. Even if it would fix their financial situation, it would not fix their identity problems. It would hurt their dignity. While the working class is undoubtedly worried about the economy, we already know many will not vote in their economic best interests. They vote for the candidate who promises a return to dignity, and it’s not because they’re dumb. It’s because they care about their dignity more than they care about their finances.”

Lindsay goes on to summarize one of the more convincing explanations for the darkly tinged swell of Trumpian populism that continues to befuddle and alarm many of us in America and beyond, and it has to do with what sociologists call “last place avoidance.”

To summarize, no one wants to occupy the “last” place in society. No one wants to be the most despised. As long as racism remains intact, poor white people are guaranteed not to be “the worst.” If racism is ever truly dismantled, then poor white people will occupy the lowest rung of society, and the shame of occupying this position is very painful. This shame is so painful, that the people at risk of feeling it will vote on it above all other issues.

None of this is by any means to mitigate, let alone justify, the evil of racism. It is especially because racism is such a pernicious evil that, as Lindsay argues, it is better to seek to understand the emotional motivations that drive it than to use the charge of racism as a mere “end point,” a means of proving one’s own moral superiority and looking good to one’s peers. And there, as Lindsay further explains, is the kicker: the social factors that motivate white racists and white “race allies” (that is, to enhance one’s social standing) can be painfully similar.

Which leads her to conclude,

“Yet, the fact that we are similarly motivated — white racists, white allies, and people of color alike — is the key to fixing this whole mess. We must find ways for the working class to maintain its dignity, we must find a way for them to have jobs that are satisfying to them, we must find a way for them to contribute to culture. We must find a way for them to feel heard. Which, by the way, are the exact same goals we need to have for oppressed races. We all need the same thing, and until we find a way to give it to more people, we will fight each other for it.”

As I see a not negligible segment of the U.S. population placing their hope of being heard in a brash businessman who is frighteningly skilled at pretending to care about their economic interests, I am as aghast as anyone at how easily they are being played. And yet, while that hope is certain to be a false one, the angst at its source is all too real. [4] To dismiss the voting habits of people who may be motivated by that angst with no effort to actually understand them is naive and condescending, and exactly the thinking (or failure to think) that creates the kind of vacuum that a self-aggrandizing businessman can come along and take advantage of.

More recently on PBS, David Brooks called Donald Trump “the wrong answer to a right problem.”  Indeed, Trump’s perverse talent for pretending to take seriously the problems and anxieties of some who feel unheard is all the more reason – if human dignity were not enough – for anyone on either side of the aisle, and not least his opponents, to actually take them seriously.

Julia Smucker

Julia Smucker writes for Vox Nova .