The Southern Electorate

It is easy enough to find fault for Hillary losing the election. Her staff did not spend enough resources on Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan, and so Trump took the election because of narrow margins of victory in those three states. The media did not do their job in that they first treated Trump as a clown and so gave him too much air time and never properly vetted him. And, of course, Hillary failed to provide either a galvanizing positive message or personality. Couldn’t the campaign have turned the corner by turning out some twenty thousand more women taken with the idea of the first woman President?  The campaign was not able to make them care. But the real culprits, which is always the case in a democracy, is the voting public, which did not turn out because of insufficient enthusiasm for Hillary as a candidate or else decided to vote for someone who is a bigot and an ignoramus. Mind you, that does not make the voters bigoted or ignorant. It just means that is who they voted for and that is condemnation enough.

For a while now, people have been trying to figure out the nature of this electorate, whether in their present guise as Trump voters or in a previous guise as Tea Party supporters. Forget those working class people in the Rust Belt states. Only a switch of ten thousand or so votes in any one of those carried by Trump would have given Hillary the Presidency. Consider instead what happened in the Old Confederacy. Trump carried all of those states except Virginia. How did that happen, especially since Obama had carried some of them in his elections? Well, the turnout of Black voters had helped Obama, but that also means that the anti-Black vote would not have been as important in this just past election. Instead, the Southern voters brought with them a level of hatred not to be expected against a candidate just because she was a woman. There never was anything to the private server issue, and yet they wanted to lock her up. What is it that is getting to those Southern voters that leads to such vitriol that they are willing to put aside their perception of all the shortcomings of their preferred candidate? They knew he was a misogynist and a womanizer and crude in his talk and his manner but it didn’t matter. What’s up?

A much discussed recent portrayal of the Southern mentality is presented by Arlie Russell Hochschild, a Berkeley sociologist who spent a great deal of time in Louisiana interviewing people who seemed to be voting time and time again against their interests. They voted for the candidates supported by the corporations that were despoiling the landscape they loved and they railed against Big Government even though it was that government in Washington that provided them with Social Security and health care and large transfer payments to local government. Hochschild explains this as the result of a narrative that shows these Southern voters as left behind while other groups, such as Blacks and women, have been given special privileges. She trots out that narrative to her interviewees for her book “Strangers in Their Own Land” and they say that she got it right.

This is the thesis that has been pursued by Liberals and Radicals since the Fifties when it was used to explain McCarthyism and, most notably, by Richard Hofstadter, who explained Progressivism as the result of the downward mobility of the people who supported that movement. These people are suffering and so they take it out in right wing politics even though rationally that goes against their self-interests. Hochschild updates the theory for the new millennium.

But the very first interview Hochschild presents belies that explanation. It is with an oil engineer, one of nine children, who was the first in his family to go to college, his father a plumber. He would seem to be an example of how far the South had been transformed from an area of ignorance to one of expertise, the truly New South that had left racism and misogyny behind. Indeed, one can reverse the cause of right wing sentiment and suggest that it is the upwardly mobile who believe they have risen enough to be critical of Washington politics rather than just part of the masses who disregard politics. They are entitled to their opinions too. The question is where those opinions come from.

Sociologists since the Seventies have wondered about this. Why did the labor-immigrant coalition break down? The usual answer offered then and not much improved on since then is that social issues came to predominate for people who were no longer as insecure about their financial situation as they had been a generation before. If you can’t sell people on getting rid of their Social Security, then sell them on the affront of abortion and affirmative action to their sense of morality and fairness. That is in keeping with the idea that those disaffected with one or another Establishment are upwardly mobile. They care about the issues that they believe confer on them the respectability of being middle class. They are no longer trailer trash.

If that is the case, then we have not made as much progress in our collective social consciousness over the past fifty years than we thought we had. The same old bugaboos of race and gender inequality are still with us, especially in the Old South, even if we would like to believe otherwise and the Southern whites keep telling us that they are not racists or misogynists. Yes, there are no longer separate drinking fountains or lynchings, but there are voting hardships established in states that fifty years ago barred Blacks from voting, and there are hurdles placed in the way of abortion clinics so that fewer and fewer of them can operate in the Deep South. The South still resists becoming modern and no apologetics by Hochschild, playing more the part of the ethnographer sympathetic to her informants than the objective sociologist, can whitewash the political and cultural situations that pervade there.