One of the perpetually puzzling aspects of voter behavior in the midwest and heartland of the USA, as seen from a progressive viewpoint, is the extent to which poor and economically depressed areas of the country vote Republican, despite the reality that Republican actions to reduce or eliminate “safety net” programs will negatively impact those areas, and despite Democratic party support for measures such as the Affordable Care Act, which have resulted in a large number of people now enjoying health coverage for the first time.
Whenever the decisions of humans collectively fail to make sense, it is tempting to write those decisions off as the result of stupidity, indoctrination or some other defective decision-making process. While attractive, this is self-reinforcing for the worldview of the person engaging in the dismissal, while also absolving them of further responsibility for analysis. (Think of the phrase “they don’t get it”. This is most commonly deployed as a discussion-closing dismissal).
If you go back far enough, everybody in the continental USA is a descendant of immigrants. However, when considering the dynamics of the modern USA, it is probably best to start with the original European settlements, which gave rise to the modern USA.
One interesting pattern that sociologists have noted is that the descendants of recent immigration (starting at the end of the 19th century and continuing to the present day) lean to the left and Democratic in their voting patterns.
A paper that I discovered online (and did not bookmark, so now I am unable to find it) discusses this difference and contrasts it with the voting patterns of the heartland. The paper explains that there were effectively three waves of immigration into the USA:
Wave 1: 1760 to 1840
Wave 2: 1840 – 1890
Wqve 3: 1990 – present day
The thesis of the paper is that the Wave 2 immigrants settled the midwest and the heartland, coming mostly from Ireland, Scotland and to a lesser extent Germany and Scandinavia. Many of the moves were triggered by social upheaval (a good example being the Potato Famines in Ireland, which led to mass emigrations). They brought with them the rugged individualism mindset (essential in an era where they grew up in an agrarian society) and a deep suspicion of government, who had in many cases, by arbitrary and capricious discrimination, tossed them from their original places of residence. Those immigrants, nearly all white and religious, are the original antecedents of many heartland Americans, and many of their values still exist today in their descendents.
Wave 3 immigrants are much more ethnically diverse, comprising, in many cases, people from minority communities who were victims of persecution (the classic example being Jewish people who increasingly emigrated to the uSA in the early years of the 20th Century as anti-Semitism arose in Europe). Rather than government persecution based on the fact that they were poor, the persecution was in many cases based on the fact that they were more educated and successful than the majority communities in which they lived. Those immigrants tended to settle in coastal cities and clustered in the North East and (to a lesser extent) the West Coast, and tended to avoid the heartland. They brought with them values of hard work, but also of education and the need for governments to be protectors of social justice and the integrity of the legal system.
So, if you find the thesis in the paper to be compelling, part of the difference in voting patterns can be explained by the differing origins and careabouts of the newly arrived populations of different parts of the USA.
Now, the wretched question of why those damn rural voters vote against their better interests?
It turns out that there is a rather simple answer. It is explained in this article here.
The people who really are at the bottom of the heap – the really poor, chronically unemployed etc. etc. are unlikely to vote. This is not news. We have known for a while that, in most democracies, non-voters are disproportionately comprised of poor and marginalized groups. They have given up on participating in a system that they probably believe is rigged against them.
The people who are driving voting patterns in many rural areas are the people the next level up on the economic ladder. They are mostly employed, but they feel insecure, simply by looking at the people below them, they are probably thinking “I could be like those guys if things get worse”. They are seeing increasing dependence on welfare by the people below them (in an economically depressed area this is kind of a “Duh!” thing that is bound to happen) but that makes them resentful of those people, who they regard as unable or unwilling to better themselves. Hence the juvenile slogans about “moochers” and “takers”. It is a defensive variant of Othering, the separation of the world into the Deserving (Me and Folks like Me) and the Undeserving (those moochers and takers and People Not Like Me).
In this climate of FUD, political messaging based on resentment memes will find a ready audience. The GOP messaging of self-reliance and personal responsibility also resonates with potential voters who are not at the lowest economic level. It is part of the inherited value system of the heartland immigrants. Get government out of the way, the values say, and everybody will be better off.
if you want a compelling example of how distorted the voting behaviors can apparently become, this article about rural Kentucky throws the paradox into sharp relief. However, it is only incomprehensible if you think that the poorest people are the GOP voters. The people who gave Donald Trump 82% of the vote in Whitley County KY were not the long-term unemployed, who most likely would be eligible for Medicaid (if they were able to work out how to use it). The ACA proportionately helped working people, who still, despite the help, voted overwhelmingly for Donald Trump. While some of the reasoning in this article by supporters of Donald Trump seems to lie somewhere between cloud-cuckoo land and fantasy island (especially the idea that Trump didn’t really mean it when he and the GOP said they would repeal the ACA), the underlying discontent with “business as usual” politics, and the visceral appeal of Donald Trump to people who are fed up with stagnant wages and declining economic activity in their local regions completely negated any single benefit from the ACA.
Goerge Lakoff would, at this point, be nodding his head and explaining that the result in the heartland are perfectly comprehensible when you realize that people vote values, not policies. That is another reality that has to be overlaid on the electorate to fully understand the paradox. However, at its heart, the seemingly puzzling failure of electors to vote their own self-interest is not actually a paradox at all if you understand how various economic tiers participate in the electoral system.