Humility, Empathy, Understanding: Democratic Citizenship Skills
"When it seems like people are voting against their interests, I have probably failed to understand their interests."
This is a powerful idea and critique of our common and share tendency to assume 'others' unlike us are wrong, wrong-headed, impatient, missing the point, failing to respect me...when we stumble into conflicts with them.
The idea in this quote directs its critical edge not outward to others, but inward to ourselves.
After the most recent election it has become commonplace for talking heads and average schmoes to pontificate about how confused or outraged they are that our fellow Americans could vote for President Trump, with particular curiosity focused on incredulity over why blue collar and rural Americans--who are now watching as their own health care and other benefits are being dismantled--voted 'against their own interests.'
"When it seems like people are voting against their interests, I have probably failed to understand their interests."
This quote is from the short article below and is important to read. It is important on the race question, which is the author's focus. It is also important on a second, more implicit, point: many were/are not deterred from supporting Trump in response to arguments about preserving the safety net, because they do not want a safety net as much as they want a living wage job and the dignity that comes with it.
Before anyone points out that the safety net is also about dignity, let me add, I agree...but we need to make an effort to understand others beyond concluding they are voting against their interests and that effort needs to include a willingness to frame their interests as they see them. And while a safety net is certainly about dignity, it is also true that given the choice between being taken care of and being able to take care of myself, it is not at all unreasonable to prefer that latter.
One final point. Why is it important to try to understand others in instances like this? Why is it important to see that 'when we assert she is voting against her interests, the most likely conclusion is we have failed to do the work needed to understand her interests?' Why?
First, is the instrumental reason: because it has concrete negative impact on us as individuals and communities when we fail to understand.
If we want to understand why Trump voters are not mobilized when we make salient/publicize (during the campaign and still) that his policy promises will undermine our safety net (health care, unemployment insurance, strong public schools, requirements that keep our air and water clean, and more)...then we need to understand them after hearing from them, engaging with them, talking to them, rather than asserting from the sidelines that they are 'voting against their own interests.'
We cannot claim to understand without this and we cannot pretend to know which policy or candidate to support if we lack an understanding of the conflict. And if we choose to live a life where we assert positions with great confidence on the basis of a consistent failure to do what it takes to understand even our own positions, we choose to live in unconscious default mode, we choose not to contribute to the problem solving needed to strengthen our communities, we choose to become one of those who eventually argues passionately against the importance of empathy & understanding, serious intellectual inquiry, science, and education itself.
Second, is the normative reason: because empathy and understanding are the right thing to do.
This is a short but powerful article from Forbes Magazine, a conservative business publication that has been around forever and is highly respected in the business community and beyond.
Unspeakable Realities Block Universal Health Coverage in the US
Chris Ladd, Recovering Republican
March 2017, Forbes
Election 2016 has prompted a wave of head-scratching on the left. Counties Trump won by staggering margins will be among the hardest hit by the repeal of the Affordable Care Act. Millions of white voters who supported Donald Trump stand to lose their access to health coverage because of their vote.
Individual profiles of Trump voters feed this baffling narrative. A Washington Post story described the experience of Clyde Graham, a long-unemployed coal worker who depends on the ACA for access to health care. He voted for Trump knowing it might cost him his health insurance out of his hope of capturing the great white unicorn – a new job in the mines. His stance is not unusual.
Why are economically struggling blue collar voters rejecting a party that offers to expand public safety net programs? The reality is that the bulk of needy white voters are not interested in the public safety net. They want to restore their access to an older safety net, one much more generous, dignified, and stable than the public system – the one most well-employed voters still enjoy.
When it seems like people are voting against their interests, I have probably failed to understand their interests. We cannot begin to understand Election 2016 until we acknowledge the power and reach of socialism for white people.
Americans with good jobs live in a socialist welfare state more generous, cushioned and expensive to the public than any in Europe. Like a European system, we pool our resources to share the burden of catastrophic expenses, but unlike European models, our approach doesn’t cover everyone.
Like most of my neighbors I have a good job in the private sector. Ask my neighbors about the cost of the welfare programs they enjoy and you will be greeted by baffled stares. All that we have is “earned” and we perceive no need for government support. Nevertheless, taxpayers fund our retirement saving, health insurance, primary, secondary, and advanced education, daycare, commuter costs, and even our mortgages at a staggering public cost. Socialism for white people is all-enveloping, benevolent, invisible, and insulated by the nasty, deceptive notion that we have earned our benefits by our own hand.
My family’s generous health insurance costs about $20,000 a year, of which we pay only $4,000 in premiums. The rest is subsidized by taxpayers. You read that right. Like virtually everyone else on my block who isn’t old enough for Medicare or employed by the government, my family is covered by private health insurance subsidized by taxpayers at a stupendous public cost. Well over 90% of white households earning over the white median income (about $75,000) carried health insurance even before the Affordable Care Act. White socialism is nice if you can get it.
Companies can deduct the cost of their employees’ health insurance. That results in roughly a $400 billion annual transfer of funds from state and federal treasuries to insurers to provide coverage for the Americans least in need of assistance. This is one of the defining features of white socialism, the most generous benefits go to those who are best suited to provide for themselves. Those benefits are not limited to health care.
When I buy a house for my family, or a vacation home, the interest I pay on the mortgage is deductible up to a million dollars of debt. That costs the treasury $70 billion a year, about what we spend to fund the food stamp program. My private retirement savings are also tax deductible, diverting another $75 billion from government revenues. Other tax preferences carve out special treatment for child care expenses, college savings, commuter costs (your suburban tax credit), local taxes, and other exemptions.
By funding government programs with tax credits rather than spending, we have created an enormous social safety net that grows ever more generous as household incomes rise. It is important to note, though, that you need not be wealthy to participate. All you need to gain access to socialism for white people is a good corporate or government job. That fact helps explain how this welfare system took shape sixty years ago, why it was originally (and still overwhelmingly) white, and why white Rust Belt voters showed far more enthusiasm for Donald Trump than for Bernie Sanders. White voters are not interested in democratic socialism. They want to restore their access to a more generous and dignified program of white socialism.
In the years after World War II, the western democracies that had not already done so adopted universal social safety net programs. These included health care, retirement and other benefits. President Truman introduced his plan for universal health coverage in 1945. It would have worked much like Social Security, imposing a tax to fund a universal insurance pool. His plan went nowhere.
Instead, nine years later Congress laid the foundations of the social welfare system we enjoy today. They rejected Truman’s idea of universal private coverage in favor of a program controlled by employers while publicly funded through tax breaks. This plan gave corporations new leverage in negotiating with unions, handing the companies a publicly-financed benefit they could distribute at their discretion.
No one stated their intention to create a social welfare program for white people, specifically white men, but they didn’t need to. By handing control to employers at a time when virtually every good paying job was reserved for white men the program silently accomplished that goal.
White socialism played a vital political role, as blue collar factory workers and executives all pooled their resources for mutual support and protection, binding them together culturally and politically. Higher income workers certainly benefited more, but almost all the benefits of this system from health care to pensions originally accrued to white families through their male breadwinners. Blue collar or white collar, their fates were largely united by their racial identity and employment status.
Until the decades after the Civil Rights Acts, very few women or minorities gained direct access to this system. Unsurprisingly, this was the era in which white attitudes about the social safety net and the Democratic Party began to pivot. Thanks to this silent racial legacy, socialism for white people retains its disproportionately white character, though that has weakened. Racial boundaries are now less explicit and more permeable, but still today white families are twice as likely as African-Americans to have access to private health insurance. Two thirds of white children are covered by private health insurance, while barely over one third of black children enjoy this benefit.
White socialism has had a stark impact on the rest of the social safety net, creating a two-tiered system. Visit a county hospital to witness an example. American socialism for “everyone else” is marked by crowded conditions, neglected facilities, professionalism compromised by political patronage, and long waits for care. Fall outside the comfortable bubble of white socialism, and one faces a world of frightening indifference.
When Democrats respond to job losses with an offer to expand the public safety net, blue collar voters cringe and rebel. They are not remotely interested in sharing the public social safety net experienced by minority groups and the poorest white families. Meanwhile well-employed and affluent voters, ensconced in their system of white socialism, leverage all the power at their disposal to block any dilution of their expensive public welfare benefits. Something has to break.
We may one day recognize that we are all “in it together” and find ways to build a more stable, sensible welfare system. That will not happen unless we acknowledge the painful and sometimes embarrassing legacy that brought us to this place. Absent that reckoning, unspoken realities will continue to warp our political calculations, frustrating our best hopes and stunting our potential.
Chris Ladd, former GOP Precinct Committeeman, author of The Politics of Crazy and creator of PoliticalOrphans.com
Here is the link to the article at Forbes:
The argument here is related to earlier work by a well-known political scientist, Ira Katznelson, who wrote the book titled
When Welfare Was White: The Untold History of Racial Inequality in 20th Century America
Here is a link to a review of Katznelson’s book: