There are two ugly and stupid lines of “thought” — it is generosity to call this that — in American politics that are inseverable, each being the inverted form of the other: the proposition that black Americans are held hostage on a Democrat-run “plantation” where they exchange their moral and political autonomy for a pittance in welfare benefits, and the proposition that white voters — especially the poor, exurban, God-haunted ones — are too distracted by racial bigotry and homosexual terror to understand that they are “voting against their own interests.”
I wrote about the first half a decade ago and have nothing much to add except that far too great a share of the Republican party and far too much of the right-wing broadcasting ecosystem remains committed to this idiotic rhetorical trope, which neither accurately describes the political situation of African Americans nor offers a useful way to recruit them to the conservative cause.
The locus classicus of the “poor conservatives vote against their own interests” analysis — the white plantation theory — is Thomas Frank’s What’s the Matter with Kansas?, which stands alongside Jonathan Franzen’s novel Freedom and the tragically disfigured film American History X in the annals of failed attempts to depict conservative thinking and conservative habits of mind. The journey from cliché to red flag of intellectual laziness is short: The most recent example to cause me to wince is in Monday’s New York Times, in which Alex Kotlowitz invokes the cliché — not only the same ignorant thought, but the same familiar words in the same banal order — in his review of Storm Lake, the memoir of a small-town newspaper editor recently awarded the Pulitzer Prize, writing of “white men and white women who are rabid Trump supporters” who “seem to vote against their own interests.”
Implied in the assertion that poor whites do not understand their own interests is the assumption that affluent white progressives such as Alex Kotlowitz, a journalist and filmmaker who writes for the New York Times like his father before him, or Thomas Frank of Mission Hills — Kansas, yes, and 97 percent white and the third-wealthiest municipality in the United States — do. There is some reason to be skeptical of that proposition, in much the same way as there is to be skeptical of Republicans’ insistence that black voters would come over to the GOP if they just really gave Sean Hannity a good fair listen.
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