Republicans haven’t taken over red states; Democrats have lost them by not running as real Democrats.
That’s my big takeaway from Alec MacGillis’ fascinating look into the biggest political mystery of our time: why poor white people in red states are not turning out to vote, leaving the field to Republicans elected by more affluent whites in those states.
There a lot of theories as to why this happens.
One of the most famous comes from Thomas Frank, who argued in his book What’s The Matter With Kansas? that poor white people vote Republican because Republicans have duped them into caring about social issues like abortion, guns and gay marriage.
There is a lot to be said for that line of analysis, but Alec MacGillis, has a different theory.
As he explains in a new piece for ProPublica and The New York Times, the problem isn’t that poor white people who have tended to vote Democrat now vote Republican.
No, the problem is that “the people who most rely on the safety-net programs secured by Democrats are, by and large… not voting, period.”
To put it in less wonky terms, Democrats are losing out to Republicans in what have become red states because the people who should vote for Democrats aren’t voting whatsoever, full-stop.
A great example of this, according to MacGillis, is Pike County, Kentucky, which is both a place where 18 percent of households get some sort of government assistance and a place where Kentucky governor-elect and Tea Party favorite Matt Bevin just won 55 percent of the vote.
All logic suggests that Pike County should vote Democratic, and it used to do so pretty much every election, “but 30 percent fewer people voted in the county this month than did in 2003 – 11,223 voters in a county of 63,000, far below the county’s tally of food-stamp recipients, which was more than 17,000 in 2012.”
If all of Pike County’s 17,000 food stamp recipients had come out to vote, we could be talking about how that county was a Democratic stronghold in a sea of red.
But that didn’t happen, and now we’re left with the same old problem of a county – and a state, for that matter – that should go Democratic but instead falls to Republicans.
The situation is pretty similar in other former Democratic shoe-in-states like West Virginia, Arkansas and Tennessee, where pretty much no one comes out to vote, except white middle- and upper-class Republicans.
Not surprisingly, West Virginia, Arkansas and Tennessee are also states that have now flipped red after years of going blue, again, because Democrats are not showing up to vote.
All this, of course, raises the question: Why are poor people, especially poor white people in red states, not showing up to vote?
This is obviously a complex question with a complex answer, but to me, at least, there’s one really big reason why.
It’s because with the exception of a few people like Elizabeth Warren, Sherrod Brown and Al Franken, Democrats don’t run as Democrats any more.
Ever since the “centrist” (aka corporatist) “New Democrats” staged their coup back in the late 1980s and recruited Gov. Bill Clinton, most Democrats have run for office and governed as Republicans-lite.
Instead of pushing progressive values and populist economics, they call for welfare “reform,” talk about how cutting Social Security might be a good idea, and support awful trade deals like NAFTA and the TPP.
Oh, and if that wasn’t bad enough, they also take in millions of dollars in donations from the fat cats on Wall Street, big Pharma and the so-called “defense” industry.
Aside from just adopting Republican talking points, you really couldn’t ask for a better way to alienate the poor – people who already have every reason to be alienated from the political process.
The takeaway here?
Easy: It’s time for Democrats to embrace and run on their party’s core values, the kind of values represented by people like Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Lyndon Johnson and Bernie Sanders, who up until recently didn’t even call himself a Democrat!
That’s the only way Democrats can hope to win elections in red states again.
It really is that simple, because, as Harry Truman once said, “Given a choice between a Republican and a Democrat who acts like a Republican; the voters will pick the Republican every time!”
It’s time for the Democratic Party to stop promoting Democrats who act like Republicans, and return to the progressive roots and values laid out and championed by truly progressive presidents like FDR.