If Older White Voters Want to Go Against Their Own Interests, Why Stop Them? Let Me Count the Ways

by Neil H. Buchanan

What's the matter with Kansas so much of the United States?  One of the enduring questions posed by the last few decades of Republican extremism is why so many people vote against their own interests in favor of the party of plutocrats.

Thomas Frank turned himself from merely an excellent journalist into a brand name with his 2004 instant phenomenon: What's the Matter with Kansas?  What happened to the prairie populism that sent people from Kansas and other lightly populated states -- like Senators Frank Church of Idaho, Dick Clark of Iowa, Tom Daschle of South Dakota, and other center-left types in the second half of the Twentieth Century -- to serve in Congress?  Democrats used to be very competitive there, and although Kansas itself surprised everyone this year with a resounding defeat of an anti-abortion constitutional referendum in August and the reelection of their Democratic governor over a Trumpist Republican in November, the middle of the country still is dominated by White people -- especially old White people -- who repeatedly send far-right Republicans to Washington and their state capitals.

Explaining why that has happened is far too big a task for a single column, so here I want to offer a short analysis addressing a related question: Why not just say, “F*ck ‘em!”?

I should note up front that this column is arguably more of a memo to myself than anything else, as the answer to my coarsely-worded question is in truth quite simple.  Even so, it continues to be tempting simply to give up on people who seem bent on guaranteeing their own immiseration.  Why should anyone help people who affirmatively work against their own security and safety?

The easy answer to Frank's question is simply an application of coalition politics.  People do not have the option of choosing parties or even individual politicians who perfectly represent all of their views, so they have to choose what matters most to them.  Arguably, culture-war issues are more important than economic issues to non-wealthy Republican voters; and if that is the case, they are simply expressing their preferences quite clearly.  There is, in that view, nothing "the matter with" them, because they simply put different weights on various issues than Frank thought they would.

These voters could be saying essentially this: "I'm willing to have no union representation at my work, to suffer decades of wage stagnation, to face increasingly dangerous working and living conditions as workplace and environmental regulations are gutted, to be ripped off by banks and large corporations as consumer protections are shredded, and to watch my community destroyed by opioids as Republicans protect the corporations that made billions from that crisis.  Why?  I hate immigrants, gays, and minorities.  God, guts, and guns, baby!!"

Of course, that last one (guns) involves seeing many non-othered people kill each other, and even though voters overwhelmingly favor at least the most basic gun-control measures, many people not only will not seek out candidates who would support those sensible semi-solutions but will enthusiastically embrace the political party that squashes even the most minor movement toward sanity.  Nonetheless, there is nothing inherently difficult about understanding when people say that they care more about social issues than economic issues.  Maybe there is no real mystery here.

That explanation does, however, at least raise the question of why there is so little political entrepreneurship around the possibility of a socially conservative and economically liberal coalition, or the opposite.  Yes, third parties are impossibly disadvantaged in the US, but what about the Republicans' so-called autopsy after losing the 2012 elections so decisively?  They talked about being less bigoted -- not just sounding less racist, but in fact supporting things like slightly-less-awful immigration laws -- but their voters in 2016 ended up choosing a hateful, racist buffoon with obvious fascist tendencies.  And we certainly have not seen a serious movement to "get Kansas right," that is, pro-worker economics married to cultural conservatism.

Even though they have lost three straight national elections (2018, 2020, and 2022 -- with the rather important caveat that they rode gerrymandering to a House takeover this year), the Republicans are at best tiptoeing up to the line of maybe, possibly, one day considering the prospect of standing up a little bit to Trump and his fanatical base.

And this is all continuing to happen even as Trump has finally gone from showing fascist tendencies to simply announcing that he wants to shred the Constitution to take and keep power.  And everyone yawns.  Honestly, how on Earth is that not the biggest, scariest, story being covered nonstop by every media and political outlet in the world?  I have been a nonstop Debbie Downer for the last seven years on this topic, but now that Trump has validated nearly every scary prediction that I have made, the general response has been little more than: "Wow, that's bad, isn't it?  So what do you think Marjorie Taylor Greene threatened to do to Kevin McCarthy?  And will the Hunter Biden investigations turn up another 'Hillary's emails' moment, a la the Benghazi investigations?  Wait, what were we saying about Trump again?  Something about the Constitution, I think."

This, in turn, provides the most obvious answer to the question that I asked at the beginning of this column.  Why not let the White people who have turned Ohio, Iowa, and Missouri from competitive to brightish-red suffer the consequences of their grievance-over-economics preferences?  Well, because they are not merely choosing to live with lower wages and dirtier drinking water.  They are supporting a political movement and a major American party that show no evidence of stopping until they destroy American constitutional democracy.  That is bad for everyone, most especially the people who suffer the brunt of the culture-war panics that bring us things like Florida's "Don't Say Gay" bill and anti-trans violence.

Even short of the catastrophic political consequences, however, the problem with taking a f*ck-'em attitude is that there are people who will unjustly suffer the economic consequences.  Not all Mississippians are stuck with non-potable water; Black Mississippians are.  People who have no choice but to work under Amazon's brutal conditions did not all vote for Republicans.  When less than half the country decides to mindlessly oppose things like the Green New Deal, because they have been told that it is simply bad without being told why (and that environmentalism itself is an assault on their all-American values), not only the majority of Americans but the world as a whole suffers both immediate and multi-generational consequences.

Thinking about multi-generational consequences, in turn, brings me back to my wheelhouse.  My writings over the last fifteen or so years about intergenerational justice have their origin in my economics dissertation, which addressed the question of whether taking on federal debt was good or bad for the economy, which I soon expanded to the question of whether "our children and grandchildren" are being harmed by large social spending programs like Social Security.

The answer is that Social Security, at worst, did not cheat post-Baby Boomers.  Of equal importance, it turns out that any attempt to undo the nonexistent "generational theft" that Boomers supposedly perpetrated would actually harm younger generations, not older ones.  (See here for an academic-length explanation.)  Nonetheless, Republicans in Congress are now eagerly planning to take the global economy hostage once again via the debt ceiling, this time very explicitly to force large cuts in Social Security and Medicare spending.

Shortly before the midterm elections last month, Paul Krugman’s column pointed out that red states would be hurt the most by Republicans' plans to slash "entitlements," including their idea to increase the retirement age once again.  (Once again?  Yes, Social Security's retirement age is 67 for anyone born after 1959, not 65.)   He points out that this is another example (akin, I would note, to public attitudes about gun control) where Republican elites' policy views are wildly unpopular:

The biggest gap in views [between the wealthy and most voters] is on Social Security, where the rich, by a large margin, want to see benefits reduced while the general public, by an even larger margin, wants to see them increased.

And Republicans are taking the side of the rich.

As I noted above, Republicans' support -- especially in the what's-the-matter-with-Kansas part of America -- is led not only by White people but by old White people.  And if they are in favor of hurting themselves, why not let them have their way?  Why should people like Paul Krugman (and Neil Buchanan) bother to continue arguing in favor of economic policy (especially retirement policy) that is economically progressive and politically blind? Why not let the idiots suffer the consequences of their bigotry and political obtuseness?

Again, part of the answer is that it continues to be difficult for me to believe that the people voting for Republicans understand the deal.  Trump himself went out of his way in 2016 to say that Social Security and Medicare are sacrosanct.  Beyond that, plenty of older people who did not vote for Republicans would suffer the same consequences that the people in hyper-conservative places like The Villages in Florida will suffer.

More to the point, however, none of those older people are likely to suffer many -- or any -- consequences if Republicans get their way.  Transition rules will be needed to prevent any explicit benefit cuts from undercutting reliance interests, and increasing the retirement age of course does not affect today's retirees at all.  One of the frequent cries from the save-our-children-and-grandchildren-from-this-evil-government-borrowing crowd is that future generations cannot yet vote, so we need to be responsible and protect their interests from the greediness of short-term thinking by current (especially nearer-to-death elderly) voters. And although that argument is often misapplied (mostly disingenuously), in this case that is exactly the point.

Republicans gained the House and have near-Republicans like Joe Manchin on their side in the Senate in large part because of older White voters who are making decisions that will reverberate down to their children and grandchildren, and beyond.  They cannot be allowed to destroy what we have: not just a semi-functioning democratic republic but a bare-bones -- yet absolutely essential -- retirement system.  Younger people have too much at stake.