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. If a single slip could produce disaster, then discipline and self-reliance were essential. The basic pattern of life was an underlying condition of peril, warded off by an ethos of self-restraint, temperance, self-control and strictness of conscience.
Frontier towns sometimes went from boomtown to Bible Belt in a single leap. They started out lawless. People needed to impose codes of respectability to survive. 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 — threatening from down below.
Today these places are no longer frontier towns, but many of them 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. A good chunk of his income is off the books. 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. His income can vary sharply from week to week. He doesn’t have much trust in the institutions around him. He has worked on government construction projects but sees himself, rightly, as a small-business man.
This isn’t too different from the hard, independent life on the frontier. Many people in these places tend to 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, then and now, 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.
Then as now, chaos is always washing up against the door. Very few people actually live up to the code of self-discipline that they preach. A single night of gambling or whatever can produce life-altering bad choices. Moreover, the forces of social disruption are visible on every street: the slackers taking advantage of the disability programs, the people popping out babies, the drug users, the spouse abusers.
Voters in these places could use some help. But these Americans, like most Americans, vote on the basis of their vision of what makes a great nation. These voters, like most voters, believe that the values of the people are the health of the 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 only way you build up self-reliant virtues, in this view, is through struggle. Yet faraway government experts want to cushion people from the hardships that are the schools of self-reliance. Compassionate government threatens to turn people into snowflakes.
In her book “Strangers in Their Own Land,” sociologist Arlie Hochschild quotes a woman from Louisiana complaining about the childproof lids on medicine and the mandatory seat-belt laws. “We let them throw lawn darts, smoked alongside them,” the woman says of her children. “And they survived. Now it’s like your kid needs a helmet, knee pads and elbow pads to go down the kiddy slide.”
Hochschild’s humble and important book is a meditation on why working-class conservatives vote against more government programs for themselves. She emphasizes that they perceive government as a corrupt arm used against the little guy. She 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. You and I might disagree with that theory. But 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.