In 2008, Pres. Obama remarked:
“You go into these small towns in Pennsylvania and, like a lot of small towns in the Midwest, the jobs have been gone now for 25 years and nothing’s replaced them. And they fell through the Clinton administration, and the Bush administration, and each successive administration has said that somehow these communities are gonna regenerate and they have not.
And it’s not surprising then they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy toward people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.”
A recent article in the American Conservative explains the appeal of Trump to poor, working class whites in a book review interview with J.D. Vance, the author of Hillbilly Elegy.
The two political parties have offered essentially nothing to these people for a few decades. From the Left, they get some smug condescension, an exasperation that the white working class votes against their economic interests because of social issues . . . . Maybe they get a few handouts, but many don’t want handouts to begin with.
From the Right, they’ve gotten the basic Republican policy platform of tax cuts, free trade, deregulation, and paeans to the noble businessman and economic growth. . . . [T]hese policies are culturally tone deaf: nobody from southern Ohio wants to hear about the nobility of the factory owner who just fired their brother.
These Trump supporters don’t relate to elites, feel dismissed and put down by them, and Trump’s willingness to blast the elites is what makes him appealing. While those college-educated corporate types may find his insults undiplomatic and embarrassing, the tone is familiar to the impoverished Appalachian south. Many of them are fiercely proud and still carry the culture of honor from their ancestral Scotland.
He goes on to explain the inherited problems that exist among the poverty class, particularly in term of lack of effective role models and support structure.
I learned domestic strife from the moment I was born, from more than 15 stepdads and boyfriends I encountered, to the domestic violence case that nearly tore my family apart (I was the primary victim). So predictably, by the time I got married, I wasn’t a great spouse. I had to learn, with the help of my aunt and sister (both of whom had successful marriages), but especially with the help of my wife, how not to turn every small disagreement into a shouting match or a public scene.
What about the charge that poor whites are voting against their interest when they don’t vote Democrat?
Well, it’s almost the flip side: stop pretending that every problem is a structural problem, something imposed on the poor from the outside. I see a significant failure on the Left to understand how these problems develop. They see rising divorce rates as the natural consequence of economic stress. Undoubtedly, that’s partially true. Some of these family problems run far deeper. They see school problems as the consequence of too little money (despite the fact that the per pupil spend in many districts is quite high), and ignore that, as a teacher from my hometown once told me, “They want us to be shepherds to these kids, but they ignore that many of them are raised by wolves.” Again, they’re not all wrong: certainly some schools are unfairly funded. But there’s this weird refusal to deal with the poor as moral agents in their own right.
And Vance goes on to point out that empathy and respect alone don’t solve problems:
I admire their refusal to look down on the least among us, but at some level, that can become an excuse to never really look at the problem at all.
Another observation that was interesting is that while these now-Trump-supporters were offended when Obama talked about them clinging to their guns and God, he (perhaps ironically) hit on the very things that can help lift them out of poverty: religion and the military. By replacing their lacking support and role model structures with the discipline and mentoring that they lacked at home, they can help individuals reverse the cycle of poor decision making and judgment that creates more poverty.
For a kid like me, the Marine Corps was basically a four-year education in character and self-management. . . . If you have good mentors (and I certainly did), you are constantly given tasks, yelled at for failing, advised on how not to fail next time, and then given another try. You learn, through sheer repetition, that you can do difficult things. And that was quite revelatory for me. It gave me a lot of self-confidence. If I had learned helplessness from my environment back home, four years in the Marine Corps taught me something quite different.
The other thing the Marine Corps did is hold our hands and prevent us from making stupid decisions. . . . A lot of elites rely on parents or other networks the first time they made these decisions, but I didn’t even know what I didn’t know. The Marine Corps ensured that I learned.
Pres. Benson famously said:
“The Lord works from the inside out. The world works from the outside in. The world would take people out of the slums. Christ would take the slums out of people, and they would take themselves out of the slums. The world would mold men by changing their environment. Christ changes men, who then change their environment. The world would shape human behavior, but Christ can change human nature.”
Part of the purpose of religion is to elevate those who are in poverty through improvements to social structure, better choices, and access to mentoring. These are things religions often do better than struggling families. I have frequently heard the idea at church that we need to teach people, particularly the youth, that they can do hard things. This is used to justify Trek excursions, camping, Eagle projects and missions.
The tension lies in the fact that Mormonism has been more successful at elevating the economic status, family stability and education levels of its membership than many other religions. We are always going to be in the “elevating from poverty” game, though. From the article, the author talks about his dad and the influence conservative religion had on him:
His Christian faith gave him focus, forced him to think hard about his personal choices, and gave him a community of people who demanded, even if only implicitly, that he act a certain way. I think we all understate the importance of moral pressure, but it helped my dad, and it has certainly helped me! There’s obviously a more explicitly religious argument here, too. If you believe as I do, you believe that the Holy Spirit works in people in a mysterious way. I recognize that a lot of secular folks may look down on that, but I’d make one important point: that not drinking, treating people well, working hard, and so forth, requires a lot of willpower when you didn’t grow up in privilege. That feeling–whether it’s real or entirely fake–that there’s something divine helping you and directing your mind and body, is extraordinarily powerful.
At the same time, those who are middle class, upper middle class, and academics often have even better support within their families and through their education than they may be receiving from their wards. Those with vast personal resources and support aren’t the main target audience. The place where growth happens is most often among the humble who come unto Christ without being compelled to be humble; the target audience for church messages is the upwardly striving poverty class. They are looking for something in their lives. They are seekers.
When those who have already amassed education, stability, and financial resources encounter some church messages, they may not feel the need to “cling to religion” as much as someone without those educational, familial and financial resources. The messages are less sticky. When the messages they hear in curriculum and from leaders are not as wise as what they know from other sources, they can become disaffected or critical. Maybe that’s inevitable.
That’s why we have a lay leadership, though. We go from being the recipient of advice to the dispenser of it or as Tracy Jordan says on 30 Rock: “The mento has become the manatee.”