09 May 2012

Why poor Americans vote Republican

One of the mysteries of American politics is why so many of the poorer, government-dependent jurisdictions vote for the party that pushes for smaller government and reduced social programs. An article in the May issue of the New Internationalist offers an explanation. The article points out that, for example, the county where per capital food stamp payments are the highest in the U.S.—Owsley County, Kentucky—votes overwhelmingly Republican. States such as Mississippi, Arkansas and Tennessee, where residents on average get the highest portion of their income from government supports, are also solidly Republican, the party of the rich.

One reason may be that they are Bible Belt states whose people are more swayed by moral issues than economic ones. They vote, therefore, for whoever is most opposed to gay marriage and abortion rather than for whoever most supports assistance for the poor.

Another reason is political illiteracy. A study by Cornell University professor Suzanne Metler showed that 40-44 per cent of people receiving Social Security, unemployment benefits or Medicare insist they have not used a government program. This resounding ignorance was epitomized by an elderly gentleman who, at a town hall meeting about Obama's health care legislation, shouted, "Keep your government hands off my Medicare." Medicare, a federal program of health care for the aged, is one of the nation's most successful and popular institutions.

This disconnect between reality and ideology works powerfully against achieving a more equitable society, the best guarantee of a healthy society. It does, however, work wonders for the Republican Party, a testament to their highly effective campaign of government-bashing.

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