Montana Viewpoint: Voting against one’s best interest still perplexes Democrats

Jim Elliott

Democrats constantly wonder why so many working people vote “against their own economic self-interests.” Their current head-scratcher is the recent tax bill, which hands out billions of dollars to the wealthy and big business and peanuts to middle-class working people.

And not just peanuts but, according to independent analysts, eventual tax increases and higher health insurance costs.

The Democrats’ error is that they believe most people make rational decisions about their lives, when the Republicans know that most important decisions are driven by emotion. Politics is more often driven by the powerful uniting people against a manufactured enemy than by uniting all people in a common cause. What follows in largely based on an excellent article by Joshua Zeitz in the December 31, 2017 issue of Politico.

The ability of powerful interests to recruit those they have exploited to do battle on behalf of the powerful is nothing new. The Politico article uses the period of Reconstruction in the South after the Civil War as illustration. There the alliance between plantation owners and white sharecroppers and laborers was created to prevent the rise of black Americans to citizenship and power. It continued through the Jim Crow period well into the 1960s.

Southern poor whites—and there were plenty of them—were continually and casually subject to economic abuse by the ruling gentry. They owned nothing of value and farmed the land of wealthy people on shares—a percentage of the proceeds from the crop. In what was then by far the poorest part of America, the only thing poor whites had going for them was that they were not black. They were constantly reminded by the gentry that they—gentry and poor white alike—had a common enemy in the black people.

On this basis the plantation owners built a political coalition with the very people that they were exploiting economically—a coalition that lasted 100 years. It did not advance the cause of poor whites, it did nothing to better their economic condition, it did nothing for them other than allow them to be treated as somewhat respectable citizens able to go where they pleased. In contrast, the blacks were treated as second class citizens, forbidden entry to white establishments and white schools and were often in fear of their lives for simply not being white.

Together the landed gentry and the poor white passed laws that benefited the wealthy at the expense of the poor white laborers by keeping wages low. In 1935 the historian W.E. B. Du Bois wrote about the method “…[W]hich drove such a wedge between white and black workers that there probably are not today in the world two groups of workers with practically identical interests who hate and fear each other so deeply and persistently and who are kept so far apart that neither sees anything of common interest.”

Laws passed in the Jim Crow era by the rich-poor coalition further advantaged the wealthy at the expense of working white people. In an early form of voter suppression poll taxes were instituted to keep blacks from voting, but they kept poor whites from voting as well. Basically, a person had to pay to exercise their right to vote. This resulted in such low voter turnout in the South that in 1936 a congressman from Georgia was elected with a total of 5,137 votes in a district with a population of 263,606. At that time, in the South 25% of eligible voters went to the polls, outside of the South it was 75%.

The use of surrogates to fight an enemy is nothing new, and inventing an enemy for them to fight is nothing new. What we are seeing in America today — pitting Americans against each other for political gain — is just another iteration of a cynical age old con game. It was wrong in the past, it is wrong now.

Jim Elliott served sixteen years in the Montana Legislature as a state representative and state senator and four years as chairman of the Montana Democratic Party. He lives on his ranch in Trout Creek.