Most people think Republicans are the party of the rich. Not so. The rural Republicans who dominate the party are far from wealthy. The average per capita income of states where both houses of the legislature are Republican is 32nd, well below the median of 25th. The average per capita income of states that have either rejected or are leaning against participating in the Medicaid expansion is 31st.
While the Republican states rank slightly better than average in private job creation, things are going downhill. Their average ranking was 21st in 2012 and 24th in 2013.
To truly slay the paradigm that Republicans are the party of the rich, take a look at the 2012 presidential election results. The five highest per capita income states resoundingly voted Democratic, the five lowest were landslides for the Republicans.
Although Republican Mitt Romney continually bragged about his home state, Massachusetts, during the election, voters weren’t so proud of him. He couldn’t even get 40% of the state’s votes.
The five wealthiest states don’t account for a lot of Electoral College votes. However, they more than level the fundraising playing field for common sense Democrats. Table 2 also helps debunk the theory that Supreme Court decisions blocking fundraising restrictions are a great advantage for Republicans. As the 2012 election showed, the new rich in the high income states can more than hold their own against old Republican money.
The messages that former Republican Vice-Presidential candidate Sarah Palin, Wisconsin Representative Paul Ryan and Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker deliver doesn’t sell to the well educated rich. Their messages appeals to those who want simple, easily understandable solutions, regardless if they have any chance of success.
The angry rural birds
As Republican states attempt to outdo each other in passing nonsensical economic policies, abortion restrictions that federal courts quickly throw out and ignore the dire straits our health insurance industry is in without Obamacare reforms, it is worthwhile to try and understand the voters behind the legislators. What follows is firsthand experience that applies to many rural areas in the United States.
In 1985, Frugal Ron left rural West central Wisconsin and never looked back. What he left behind were many prejudiced and racist neighbors that fought change, ostracized anyone attempting to improve their lot in life and were quick to blame everyone and anyone for problems of their own making. Little did Frugal Ron know that almost 30 years later, these folks would control Wisconsin’s state government.
People in rural areas like to think they are the moral backbone of the U.S. Sometimes they tend to forget certain things. During the time when today’s 50-70+ year old Republicans were in school, rural teen-age pregnancy was prolific. Frugal Ron remembers a stretch in the late 1960’s when three presidents in a row of the Taylor Lutheran Church youth group became pregnant during their terms. After that, boys were elected president.
Teenage pregnancy has been a part of rural Wisconsin’s culture for generations. Farm kids understand gestation lengths early. Frugal Ron and his classmates found that it was a rare set of parents that had a full nine months between their marriage and the birth of their first child. Some couples dropped out of school and worked on the family farm, taking over when the older generation retired. Women age fast on farms and those with teenage pregnancies lost their youth and never experienced independence.
Older, white rural Americans are traditionalists. Men are the wage earners and the head of the family. Women need to stay home and have babies. They correctly figured out birth control changed this balance.
While most of these rural voters are passionate about ending access to legal abortions, they are even more passionately against any solution for reducing abortions that includes freer access to birth control. Rather than reducing abortions, there seems to be more focus on rolling back women’s reproductive rights to the level of simpler times.
Between farmers and the businesses that support them, agriculture is the heart of rural America. During the 1990’s, the industry made major changes as brains replaced brawn. Experts recommended that producers expand and dramatically change their farming methodology. Most rural farmers figured they knew better and ignored the advice. This was a big mistake. While a few producers grew and prospered, farms that had been in the family for generations withered and died. When you are the one who turns out the lights last on a multi-generation family farm, you need someone to blame.
Teachers make an easy target. As their unions got more power, they were able to get higher salaries. Schools are funded by property taxes, which along with sales taxes are the only taxes unsuccessful farmers pay. While hardworking farmers struggled, they saw teachers enjoying a middle class life at their expense.
For many, education is the great equalizer. It is a means for hard-working people from humble beginnings to reach their dreams. In rural areas, the best and the brightest go off to college and are never seen again. With the exception of larger farm owners and their support system, the education thing didn’t work out real well. They either never left for college or dropped out and went back home. These folks place little or less value on quality education.
However, the worst animosity is saved for the poor and anyone getting public assistance. While last generation farmers struggled to make ends meet, many were forced out of business because they couldn’t find anyone to do the menial backbreaking jobs that dominate their obsolete operations. Small farmers can pay less than minimum wage and many couldn’t understand why unemployed people wouldn’t work for them. Most of these present and past farmers are convinced there are plenty of jobs available. The problem is the unemployed are too lazy to work.
Changes in agriculture that impacted today’s angry Republicans
Agriculture has evolved into two camps. There are the large, progressive operations typically owned by families with college degrees. Theses folks are Republican and because they are afraid Democrats will pass environmental laws forcing them to farm the way they did 30 years ago, they continue to vote against Democrats. This group is also supported by a well-educated agribusiness sector that typically lives in rural areas
The second segment are small and retired farmers. These people often have limited incomes. Their inability to change and a propensity to listen to the wrong people define who they are.
Following are some other predominant views held by, white, rural low-income Wisconsin Republicans gleaned from many years of living and working with them…
- They’ve been politically ignored for decades until Governor Scott Walker came along. Walker, also a college dropout, makes rural residents believe he is one of them. These folks are followers and they needed a leader. Walker fills that role.
- They hate change. The idea that white people are becoming a minority in the U.S. is one of their biggest fears. A two-term African-American president is almost more than they can stand.
- They believe America has lost its moral compass, largely due to Democratic Party policies. Their solutions are to elect God-fearing Republicans and get Jesus back into the schools.
- “Experts”, no matter how well-connected or the level and quality of research they have to back their positions, are ignored if they don’t agree with their views.
- If faced with a choice, the majority of this group would rather see their health insurance coverage decline than to see poor people’s improve.
- Simplistic solutions that don’t affect them are preferred. For example, ship all the Mexicans back to where they came from and then end all welfare. Make all the people on welfare take the Mexicans’ old jobs or starve.
Wisconsin, like many states with large rural populations, is a state of haves and have-nots. Many of the rural have-nots are in this group because of youthful indiscretions, an inability to change and their undervaluing of education. Some never left rural Wisconsin. Others tried and when they couldn’t make it anywhere else, they came back. These aren’t happy people and they take their anger out on whoever they currently believe have taken advantage of them. Sadly, because of some creative reapportionment, the have-nots are setting state policies.
Governor Walker’s “no compromise” stance echoes that of his rural supporters. They aren’t striving to improve the state. Their goals are focused on making health care less accessible for the poor, making the lives of women seeking abortions more difficult and getting prayer back into schools by subverting public school funding to religious based private schools. Don’t expect much progress in the short-term.
There are bright spots. One is that Republican Governor Walker faces an election in 2014. He is vulnerable if his job creation record stays abysmal and his arrogance stays sky-high.
The second bright spot is that a longer-term change is occurring. As older Republicans die, no one replaces them. Rural areas continue depopulating, making it difficult for the next reapportionment to give them the same legislative clout.