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Fear is why workers in red states vote against their economic self-interest

Robert Reich, professor of public policy | January 16, 2014

Last week’s massive spill of the toxic chemical MCHM into West Virginia’s Elk River illustrates another benefit to the business class of high unemployment, economic insecurity, and a safety-net shot through with holes. Not only are employees eager to accept whatever job they can get. They are also also unwilling to demand healthy and safe environments.

The spill was the region’s third major chemical accident in five years, coming after two investigations by the federal Chemical Safety Board in the Kanawha Valley, also known as “Chemical Valley,” and repeated recommendations from federal regulators and environmental advocates that the state embrace tougher rules to better safeguard chemicals.

No action was ever taken. State and local officials turned a deaf ear. The storage tank that leaked, owned by Freedom Industries, hadn’t been inspected for decades.

aeriel view of company on river

Freedom Industries on the Elk River, Charleston, W.Va. (Google Maps via Wikimedia Commons)

But nobody complained.

Not even now, with the toxins moving down river toward Cincinnati, can the residents of Charleston and the surrounding area be sure their drinking water is safe — partly because the government’s calculation for safe levels is based on a single study by the manufacturer of the toxic chemical, which was never published, and partly because the West Virginia American Water Company, which supplies the drinking water, is a for-profit corporation that may not want to highlight any lingering danger.

So why wasn’t more done to prevent this, and why isn’t there more of any outcry even now?

The answer isn’t hard to find. As Maya Nye, president of People Concerned About Chemical Safety, a citizen’s group formed after a 2008 explosion and fire killed workers at West Virginia’s Bayer CropScience plant in the state, explained to the New York Times: “We are so desperate for jobs in West Virginia we don’t want to do anything that pushes industry out.”


I often heard the same refrain when I headed the U.S. Department of Labor. When we sought to impose a large fine on the Bridgestone-Firestone Tire Company for flagrantly disregarding workplace safety rules and causing workers at one of its plants in Oklahoma to be maimed and killed, for example, the community was solidly behind us — that is, until Bridgestone-Firestone threatened to close the plant if we didn’t back down.

The threat was enough to ignite a storm of opposition to the proposed penalty from the very workers and families we were trying to protect. (We didn’t back down and Bridgestone-Firestone didn’t carry out its threat, but the political fallout was intense.)

For years political scientists have wondered why so many working class and poor citizens of so-called “red” states vote against their economic self-interest. The usual explanation is that, for these voters, economic issues are trumped by social and cultural issues like guns, abortion, and race.

I’m not so sure. The wages of production workers have been dropping for thirty years, adjusted for inflation, and their economic security has disappeared. Companies can and do shut down, sometimes literally overnight. A smaller share of working-age Americans hold jobs today than at any time in more than three decades.

People are so desperate for jobs they don’t want to rock the boat. They don’t want rules and regulations enforced that might cost them their livelihoods. For them, a job is precious — sometimes even more precious than a safe workplace or safe drinking water.

This is especially true in poorer regions of the country like West Virginia and through much of the South and rural America — so-called “red” states where the old working class has been voting Republican. Guns, abortion, and race are part of the explanation. But don’t overlook economic anxieties that translate into a willingness to vote for whatever it is that industry wants.

This may explain why Republican officials who have been casting their votes against unions, against expanding Medicaid, against raising the minimum wage, against extended unemployment insurance, and against jobs bills that would put people to work, continue to be elected and re-elected. They obviously have the support of corporate patrons who want to keep unemployment high and workers insecure because a pliant working class helps their bottom lines. But they also, paradoxically, get the votes of many workers who are clinging so desperately to their jobs that they’re afraid of change and too cowed to make a ruckus.

The best bulwark against corporate irresponsibility is a strong and growing middle class. But in order to summon the political will to achieve it, we have to overcome the timidity that flows from economic desperation. It’s a diabolical chicken-and-egg conundrum at a the core of American politics today.

Cross-posted from Robert Reich’s blog.

Comments to “Fear is why workers in red states vote against their economic self-interest

  1. This makes me feel so sad and hopeless! I feel that we are living in such a corrupt time in our history! We need to make changes! We need to all get behind the idea that only we can make the changes! We need to stop buying products from companies that abuse their power!

    I hope Americans will stop buying Volkswagon products to support the workers who are denied the right to feel safe enough to vote for unionizing their job! The one true way to protect their rights as employees!

  2. Bob, the paramount fact of life today is that the world is in social, political, economic and environmental chaos and no one appears to be able to do anything about it.

    Meanwhile the decline of our civilization accelerates because, as evolutionary biologists and neuroscientists keep proving, we act as if we are mentally incapable of preventing destructive chaos that is destroying our long-term future.

    We can’t even deal with current challenges of change when all of our institutional leaders are stuck in the past with negative cultural values that are accelerating our decline.

    Please keep up your great work because your leadership can make the right things happen if our institutions will allow it.

  3. I grew up in that area and what you state in your article is partly true, but I believe it goes so much deeper than that. It is more about traditional values, ignorance, fear of change (even if it is in one’s best interest) and of course, religion

    A very strong “cast type” social system which supplies just enough individual self esteem also helps to keep that great big ball rolling in favor of “the Company” or “the government”.

    I honestly believe that they do not know how they are being held back by their own beliefs. They all complain and argue about corporations and politics, but ignorance gets in the way of reason and reality. Frustrating!!!!

  4. It’s not all about $$$ – why would they want to vote for “progressives” who refer to them “white trash” “Jesus freaks” or “Flyover Country”? You spit on them b/c you find them repulsive and strange and foreign but then wonder why they do not vote for you? It’s because they have SELF-RESPECT.

  5. Bob, a paramount prerequisite for solving poverty problems around the world is to guarantee equal rights for all women around the world.

    Two key reasons for this conclusion are that men have failed to solve poverty problems throughout the history of civilization, and women’s brains are designed for survival because of their responsibilities for childbearing and raising families.

    • Great Society failed, because there was a loophole, and with that loophole, the out-of-wedlock birthrate tripled in less than 15 years. If policy had encouraged a married couple in the household, rather than encouraging a single mother head of household, there would had been plentiful amounts of money to lift families into the lower middle class.

      With all of the out-of-wedlock births, Great Society created more poverty than it solved.

  6. Bob, what you are documenting is the most inconvenient truth that the majority of the human race is still trying to meet basic Physiological needs for air, food, drink, sleep, warmth and exercise in order to achieve just the lowest level of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, and can’t even get to the next level of Safety.

    The historical fact of life is that politicians and intellectuals keep failing to meet the challenges of change.

    Bob, you are a role model for educating and motivating us to achieve all levels in the Hierarchy of Needs. I wish you and all your social sciences colleagues the greatest success in making the right things happen in this world of increasing social, political, economic and environmental chaos.

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