For some time now, a riddle has perplexed observers of American politics: Why do so many working-class Americans vote for Republicans whose policies run counter to their economic interests? It has been widely noted, for example, that high-school educated, working-class red-staters would be hurt most by cutbacks in federal programs like Social Security, Medicaid and Obamacare. Picking up on this theme, Tocqueville too observes that “Southerners are, of all Americans,” the ones “who would suffer most in being abandoned to themselves.” Nevertheless, it is they who most often rail against precisely these programs and the federal government that administers them. “How could this be so?” the Frenchman asks, and then answers:
The South, populated by ardent and irascible men, is irritated and restive. With chagrin it turns its regard on itself; questioning the past, it wonders every day if it is not oppressed. If it comes to find that a law of the Union is not evidently favorable to it, it cries out against an abuse of force in its regard; it speaks up ardently, and if its voice is not listened to, it becomes indignant and threatens to withdraw from a society in which it bears the burden without getting any profit.
In many ways, Tocqueville’s analysis recycles the insights of many sharp liberal commentators from the period before the election. In her deservedly lauded book Strangers in Their Own Land, the Berkeley-based sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild explained the voting patterns of the white working class by appealing to a “deep story” they liked to tell about themselves: a story in which they were often made to wait in line behind immigrants and minorities for the benefits of laws they saw as “unfavorable” to them, such as affirmative action and welfare.
But Tocqueville’s analysis becomes more radical when it comes to root causes. Whereas Hochschild blames the divisions between liberals and Trump-supporters on what she calls an “empathy wall,” the Frenchman blames a more concrete culprit: slavery. Often referred to as “structural racism” on the left, this is the theory that the legacy of racial oppression persists in Southern social relations. “The American of the South,” Tocqueville writes, learns very early on in life that he is “born to command” his social inferiors—e.g. blacks, women, the undocumented—and his habit of “dominating without difficulty” leads him to become “high-minded, prompt, irascible, ardent in his desires, impatient of obstacles.” Having “no necessary work,” he disdains commercial virtues like “patience and tolerance,” and instead learns to love “greatness,” as well as “luxury, glory, noise, pleasures, [and] above all idleness.”
Could such predilections have been at the root of the groundswell for the domineering candidate who opened his presidential campaign by promising, from the lobby of his decadent tower, to return America to its former greatness and glory? Tocqueville’s evidence is mostly anecdotal, so it is hard to evaluate. But his claims offer some promise for explaining the fact that so many Trump voters had seen their economic situation improve during the Obama years. “States in the South actually still grow faster than any realm in Europe,” Tocqueville notes, and yet “they notice their comparative decline” when they regard the growing wealth gap with some of their neighbors. Prosperity in some parts of the country leads to “the intoxication that accompanies a rapid increase of fortune,” while in flyover country it inflames the “envy, distrust and regret that most often follow the loss of it.”
Tocqueville is harder to follow when he moves from structural analysis to abstractions like personality and character. Pace political philosopher Thomas Frank, who suggests that liberals would win more working-class voters with a message better calibrated to their economic self-interest, Tocqueville argues that what needs to be addressed is less the “interests” of such demographics than “their sentiments and their passions.” Surprisingly, Tocqueville does not offer polling data, or evidence from social science, to support this somewhat unorthodox theory. Instead the Frenchman piles these and other unfounded assertions on top of one another, concluding, in a flourish of characteristic melodrama: “If, since the beginning of the world, peoples and kings had had only their real utility in view, one would hardly know what war is among men.”
As foreigners can do, Tocqueville appears at times to overreact to the vitriol he must have witnessed for the first time during the recent election. Having little faith in America’s checks and balances, not to mention its historical tendency toward consensus and moderation, he predicts that the forces driving political polarization, especially wealth inequality and racial tension, could bring America to the brink of “civil war.” True, there are whispers about secession on the coasts—but it seems unlikely it will come to that.
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This article appears in
issue 13 of The Point.
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