Why Does the Right-wing Working Class Vote Against Its Own Self-Interest?

This question started popping up a couple of months before the 2016 election in reference to Trump supporters. A quick look on the internet will reveal a dozen articles written on this subject in the past two months (regardless of what month you are reading this). Books have been published about it. Written by a Berkeley sociologist, “Strangers in Their Own Land” is touted as one of “6 Books to Understand Trump's Win” according to the New York Times. The author determines that empathy is all that is needed to understand these lost souls as they are not voting so much against self-interest as for deeply held values and emotions. The book presents the information necessary to correctly answer the question, but fails to realize it. Many of the articles written about this subject refer to this book and most of those quote from it. There are now articles appearing that build upon the theme of “Strangers” and extend it.

The deeply held values and emotions ascribed to Trump supporters by the authors writing on this subject are those from America’s mythical frontier: hardworking, long-suffering, fiercely independent, and, most of all, self-reliant. They reason that these values and emotions are the source of their vehement and often violently phrased diatribes against America’s white poor and all nonwhites. They go that far and then stop. They know the formula for getting their material published and that is what they want. Some of them may know that we cannot handle the truth.

It is all very simple. When an operating system breaks down, the user reverts to what it knows. When the tractor won’t start at feeding time, the self-reliant rancher hitches up the team. When the power goes out right before dinner, the self-reliant rancher’s wife fires up the wood stove and gets the oil lamps down. And when the federal government breaks down, they both vote for the system that it replaced.

So, what did democracy replace? What would replace it if it breaks down? The vast majority of our popular “literature” (now known as “entertainment”) is in agreement. This includes the novel the title of which is paraphrased into “Strangers in Their Own Land”. In this genre, the one that treats with the future, feudalism supersedes democracy when it fails. Oh, there may be a Council of this or a Federation of that, but the vast majority of it is presented within the framework of a feudal society and, usually, the fiefdoms are formed by fabulously wealthy individuals and/or their corporations.

In the book “Strangers in Their Own Land”, the strangers are working class whites and the land is Louisiana. “Their own land” is an interesting concept for people that have been there for less than five generations. The book doesn’t tell us what the Chitimacha or the Caddo think of Trump, but it is about Tea Partiers who are, of course, all white. To its credit, the book does speak of these “strangers” actively participating in the rape, plunder, besmirching, and befouling of the entire state of Louisiana (their own land, which they made strange) and doing it for money. One of the opening scenes is of a meeting to discuss whether or not the bayous were really contaminated and how they got that way. The big corp guys were there and denied everything so the entire coliseum cat-called the government regulators blaming them for the paltry shrimp harvest, the need to buy drinking water, and the belly-up fish. Then an old guy got up with a card board sign that read: “I’M THE ONE WHO DUMPED IT THE BAYOU”. The place got real quiet. They had him answering questions for over half an hour during which he said that his boss had him dump drums of waste into the bayous after dark that made him so sick he missed work so after a while they fired him for absenteeism. They all knew where he used to work as he had worked there for twenty something years. They all knew that his old boss—the guy that fired him-- was sitting in the front row. No one said anything to the boss or to the old man. They just moved on. And there—right there---is the answer to the question.

The answer is that those who voted for Trump did not vote for a “President”, they voted for a “Boss”. And not only for a Boss, but for the form of government that they prefer. They do not live in a democracy and, possibly, never have. The social compact no longer requires them to live on the same parcel of land swearing fealty to the same lord that their great-grandfathers did (although many still choose to do so), but they still work for them and fight their wars when called upon. Especially, they voted against the barrel of snakes being offered to them by the Dimocrats: it was obvious that the Dims didn’t believe in a democracy anymore, so it was far better to go with what they know. The tremendous release of energy around Trump’s election was the reassertion of traditional governance, the peeling off and floating away of the last vestiges of the veneer of democracy, the exchange of a hundred possible futures for one predictable present. The allegiance being shown is not to Trump, but to that choice. Perhaps this is what the Europeans are so sad about.

The very thing that the Founding Fathers saw as problem number one: the return of the nobility and a royal family has not come to pass—it never left. It wasn’t the aristocracy that came here—they already had their manors and castles—it was the upwardly mobile merchants who couldn’t get one. They bought 10,000 acre tracts of land from the king and came over here to build their manors. They indentured their servants and brought them, too. The American War of Independence wasn’t personal for them: it was business. The rich merchants still measured their wealth in the old coin and dreamed of success in the old ways. If democracy was an attempt to graft a new tree onto an old trunk, then for about one-third of the citizenry it never took. The old tree lives on. But don’t think that the other two thirds are bright-eyed enthusiasts for democracy. Half of them don’t care, they just don’t see themselves as vassals (they are much too independent). That leaves us. And that is about how the American “electorate” breaks down.

Actually, when you adopt this point of view, even for a minute, a lot of things come into perspective. It explains why polling places are no longer protected, why voters are treated like chattel, why Presidents use the word “democracy” to justify blowing the limbs off of little children (say the magic word and you can kill anybody any time), why national elections are so transparently rigged, and why the courts are not interested in any of it except, of course, when they are given the opportunity to appoint a President. And who, really, needs more proof than that? Certainly, the two national political parties no longer operate within the framework of democracy and haven’t since at least the 1980’s. It explains why the members of the DNC look at us the same way that the members of the RNC do: naïve weaklings hoping for equality due no more respect than suckers who can’t take a joke. Think of the look on Boxer’s face as she left the Nevada State Convention daring anyone to complain. How could anyone who watched the Republican nomination process that ended up with Donald Trump see anything but a changing of the bosses? The vassals let it be known that it was time to drop all this democracy crap and install a Boss. Here come the new boss same as the old boss, but with democracy you never knew what you were really getting until too late.

Democracy can be reassembled and re-energized, but it will be a long, hard slog to do it and there are too few with the heart and the guts to get it done within the party system. We have all been discouraged and diminished by the duplicity and outright betrayal of the supposed champions of truth, justice, and the democratic way. The Reeps saw that much, much more clearly than we did. The high point of the Dimocratic (please pardon me for refusing to honor them with the correct spelling) Party was the entirely symbolic crowning of a woman as the Speaker of the House. Symbolic because they then proceeded to do nothing at all. That was it, end of message. The last thing this country needs is another political party. The two we have now have proven beyond any shadow of a doubt that political parties have outlived their usefulness as the catalysts for an American democracy. Whatever vessel arrives to attempt the rescue of the shattered remnants of American democracy from the tides of feudalism must needs be much, much different from those. I wonder what it might be.

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dkmich's picture

I was asked by one of them where the money would come from for all of our noble and naive causes if we didn't have elite billionaires. I responded, us. It is amazing how passive and accepting some people are. Lazy intellect? Beaten submissive?

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"Religion is what keeps the poor from murdering the rich."--Napoleon

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riverlover's picture

@dkmich Some are now dumbed down in school. And some like me feel too old and weak to do this battle again. And some of the youth just starting out are too busy getting more qualifications to better themselves and get more pay to have time for this futile practice of researching candidates and voting. It seems like a setup.

11 users have voted.

Hey! my dear friends or soon-to-be's, JtC could use the donations to keep this site functioning for those of us who can still see the life preserver or flotsam in the water.

@dkmich There is a implicit belief in many people that universe is rightly organized in a class hierarchy. Those at the top are the ones who give us our daily bread. They rightly take the lion's share of a societies profits, because it was they who created that wealth.

Business schools and the popular business media teach this as thee central world view. It is the heroic CEO and a few of his cronies who are solely responsible for wealth creation--so therefore they can keep that wealth for themselves. They are the proverbial "leaders" that the business community goes on and on about. And that is the unstated belief system that every working person enters into going into their first or last job.

Say yah, those at the top of our system give us our daily bread. It is they who do and should run the society.

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ggersh's picture




Great Essay!!!

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“We now live in a nation where doctors destroy health, lawyers destroy justice, universities destroy knowledge, governments destroy freedom, the press destroys information, religion destroys morals, and our banks destroy the economy”

Chris Hedges

Pluto's Republic's picture


And it wasn't much of a milkshake to begin with.

9 users have voted.


While there is a lower class, I am in it, and while there is a criminal element I am of it, and while there is a soul in prison, I am not free. — Eugene Debs, 1918

The answer is that those who voted for Trump did not vote for a “President”, they voted for a “Boss”.

I can understand why someone would want to be associated with winners, but do these people not see themselves in the mirror?

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Alligator Ed's picture


0 users have voted.

to say the least. The critique of the original "Berkeley sociologist, “Strangers in Their Own Land” is touted as one of “6 Books to Understand Trump's Win” according to the New York Times"
pretty much says it all. My first take away might be... just what could a Berkeley academic know about life in the heartland? And then cheered by editors at the NYT? What could they know?

The absolute facts are that the economic situation in this country is abysmal for the working class. Their share of the tax burden has been going up over the last 60 years while the corporates has been going down.


Security in the workplace that was at one time guaranteed by workers rights has been eroded since Reagan and actively supported by the neoliberals. In the working class their livelihood is controlled oftentimes by an investor class that is far removed from the workers. As an example, a local factory being closed near me and being moved to Mexico is owned by investors. They so much match what Hawking said (paraphrasing badly), that they have goals but no moral compass.

I won't burden anyone with the charts showing the effect that the trickledown economic policies have had on the state of worker employments. IE: Why working class Americans voted with their middle finger

"The WWC is plagued by crisis within and without — household income in this group has been all but stagnant for 40 years. The mortality rate for whites 45 to 54 years old with no more than a high-school education has increased by 134 deaths per 100,000 people from 1999 to 2014. Opioids arrived and factories left. Democrats at best didn’t seem to notice; at worst they seemed to be causing misery by supporting NAFTA and mass immigration that drives down wages while imposing environmental policies meant to crush carbon-intensive industries. Then they mocked their victims as rednecks on the wrong side of history."


Here's what the heartland really looks like: “I’m as Poor as Shit”: A Look at Downward Mobility in Lancaster, Ohio

"Disgust and shame have come to define the attitudes of Lancaster’s citizens towards rising drug addiction and poverty in their once prosperous town on the western foothills of the Appalachian Mountains. But Brian Alexander in his new book Glass House: The 1% Economy and the Shattering of the All-American Town makes the case that Lancaster’s decline is not the result of individual “bad” decisions, like not using birth control, dropping out of high school and getting addicted to opioids. Instead, it’s the consequence of deregulatory economics on Wall Street that eviscerated working-class communities in small towns across the United States.

In 1947, Forbes magazine ran a feature article on Lancaster, Ohio—arguing that the town was “the epitome and apogee of the American free-enterprise system.” In its heyday, Lancaster, situated “atop a sea of natural glass,” was home to the world’s largest glassware manufacturer, the Anchor Hocking Glass Company. For decades, young Midwestern couples flocked to Lancaster for good-paying industrial jobs that required no more than a high school diploma."
Mirroring the decline of unions in the United States, Anchor Hocking, for decades Lancaster’s largest employer, has lost 80 percent of its jobs since its peak in the 1960s—today providing less than 1,200 jobs to Lancaster’s 39,000 residents.

Lancaster’s unwinding began in the late 1970s, when the corporate leadership of Anchor Hocking began to prioritize stock values over manufacturing productivity. In 1978, Anchor Hocking went public. The company’s corporate executives, who for the first time weren’t based in Lancaster, began pandering to the interests of shareholders and executives. A series of Wall Street-run corporations and private equity firms increased profits and lowered costs by firing hundreds of Anchor Hocking workers, and slashing away at the wages and retirement funds, healthcare benefits, and vacation days for the remaining employees—all while paying themselves multi-million dollar salaries. Between 2011 and 2012, Anchor Hocking paid $54 million to the private equity firm Monomoy Capital Partners in dividends and advisory fees, sending Anchor Hocking to bankruptcy court. CEO John Sheppard alone received $2,281,966 in 2012."


In 2008 Obama promised hope and delivered workers to be sacrificed on the altar of the investor class. Trump also promised and some people decided to follow him.

The actual fact is that the Berkeley author is assuming that anyone who didn't buy into the continuation of the status quo was supporting Trump. While that might have been true for some workers, the bulk of them just threw their middle finger at the whole theater.

Addendum: After I reread my comment I realized I didn't say why it was confusing. My fault entirely. The essay is a critique of the original papers and is well presented. I believe it would have been better if there were an introductory paragraph explicitly stating a disagreement with the original papers.

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SparkyGump's picture


3 users have voted.

The real SparkyGump has passed. It was an honor being your human.


Thank you for this!

Also - what choice were people offered, when they were denied Bernie and stuck with either the TPP-pushing Mad Bomber Fracking Queen and a scammy lying cheater whose erratic behaviour at least promised to throw a monkey-wrench into the Deep State works? A lot of people voted Not-Clinton.

Then there's the massive corporate and other media propaganda campaigns until recently more heavily aimed at the right-wingers, brainwashing them to vote against their own interests.

Bernie roused a lot of people who were then told they could vote only for one evil or another, but for nothing good, because only the Two-Corporate-Party Trade-Off could win, which meant that people lost either way... what an unholy mess!

7 users have voted.

Psychopathy is not a political position, whether labeled 'conservatism', 'centrism' or 'left'.

A tin labeled 'coffee' may be a can of worms or pathology identified by a lack of empathy/willingness to harm others to achieve personal desires.

strollingone's picture

@exindy @exindy @exindy @exindy Thank you for this detailed and insightful expansion of the subject at hand. I found the before and after of a specific community to be most compelling. Confusion may arise from the attempt to demonstrate that the bloc in question has not voted against its self-interest while not disagreeing with the author's conclusion that empathy is the best response to the individuals who are assigned to that bloc. Your critique has allowed me to further separate the issues. I find that while I am annoyed at the author for failing to follow through to the obvious (insert smiley face here) conclusion, I am in disagreement with those who refer to her work in order to support their presumption.

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Alligator Ed's picture

@strollingone Even though I have read two of yours, in reverse order, you have a way of writing densely but coherently on very complex subjects. Like your "what condition my condition is in" essay, there is a lot to digest. In fact, one answer or response thread is insufficient to develop your analyses. Let me start with one:

The last thing this country needs is another political party. The two we have now have proven beyond any shadow of a doubt that political parties have outlived their usefulness as the catalysts for an American democracy. Whatever vessel arrives to attempt the rescue of the shattered remnants of American democracy from the tides of feudalism must needs be much, much different from those. I wonder what it might be.

With this I disagree. The only non-violent way out of this mess is to have multiple, reasonably equally matched political parties. Usually none will predominate as is the virtue of the parliamentary system. Therefore coalitions must be formed, always with an inherent tension between the coalition partners, should their "ally-of-the-day" deviate upon the prearranged "deal" or understanding of what the aims of the coalition should be. Coalition partners rarely agree on everything, which is why they independent parties within a coalition. Eventually coalitions fail because those tensions become too great. Yet new coalitions will form, replacing the old.. When multiple parties are in politics, providing no one party is a solid majority, elections become more meaningful.

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strollingone's picture

@Alligator Ed @Alligator Ed @Alligator Ed
parties may well prove to be well placed. Certainly, it would provide a yuge step up from the situation that progressives find themselves in now. However, and as you stipulate, such an arrangement works only as a benefit of "the virtue of the parliamentary system". We do not have such a system in this country. In Europe, such systems seem to require the ability to hold open elections at the drop of a hat. As you know, our Constitution does not include that possibility. We should assume that this is intentional since the document was written by men who were fully aware of the workings of such a parliament. Could the present system be modified to include such a possibility? Yes, of course. Is it likely to happen? No, of course not. Most Americans hold such an approach in open contempt. They see it as fractionalized and, therefore, fractured government. Look at the machinations entered into following the very few times the the electoral college failed to produce a winner. It would be far easier to create a parallel to the current system with a union of like minds not subject to any of the current rules and regulations aimed at political parties. If it was structured as a 501(c)(4), then the NRA would have to support it. That is the kind of union that I am talking about. Why not take advantage of the structure that is already there? How many times have you seen on this site the wringing of hands over the power of the NRA? If rifles have such a power base, why shouldn't progressives?

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Thank you so much for your thoughtful and fact-full post.

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