“Almost heaven, West Virginia” sang John Denver. However one would get a rather different impression of the state reading Karen Tumulty’s piece in the Washington Post on West Virginia’s economic struggles, the plight of working class whites, and their changing relationship to Washington and the Democratic Party:
Animosity toward President Obama runs high here. He lost Wyoming County by nearly 56 percentage points last year, despite the fact that registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by 3 to 1.
But as Mitchell and her friends talked more about it, their conversation turned to fears and anxieties that had little to do with party or politics. They discussed the well-paying jobs that had vanished with the coal industry; the crime and drugs that followed; the changing culture that mocks what they hold sacred.
“This county has seen the need for God. We can’t control what’s going on out there in the world, but on this small little corner of our small little town, we can,” said one woman, who gave her name only as Megan.
Ordinary West Virginians used to look to Washington with something close to reverence. It was a partner in good times, a lifeline in bad ones, a powerful ally against the big corporations that came for its coal and timber. By some measures, West Virginia relies more on federal money than any other state.
However this change does not mean the state has become a hot bed of Tea Party economics:
In this state, voter disillusionment does not stem from the big-vs.-small-government debate that rages in Washington. Nor has the tea party movement taken root here to the degree it has elsewhere. . . . Flinty self-reliance is a source of pride; the state’s official motto is “Mountaineers are always free.” But with a population that is older, sicker and poorer than most, West Virginia also depends more on government checks than any other state. Nearly 27 percent of West Virginia’s personal income derives from transfer payments, including retirement, disability, medical, unemployment and welfare benefits.
While Tumulty’s focus is West Virginia, a state with an unusually high proportion of working class whites, these sentiments—hostility toward the federal government, a belief in the value of hard work, cultural anxiety, yet tempered with the reality of dependence on government support to buffer the effects of economic instability and globalization—can be found among the working class across the nation.
Examining these same trends is Henry Olsen in his insightful analysis of Andrew Levinson’s new book The Working Class Today: Who They Are, How They Think and How Progressive Can Regain Their Support. Working class whites, though frequently overlooked as a critical electoral demographic, still represent close to 40 percent of the electorate. This is a significantly larger percentage than many of the popularly touted swing voting blocs. Additionally, working class whites tend to be concentrated in critical swing states across the Midwest. Though Republicans have been carrying their vote in national elections of late, when factoring out working class Southern evangelicals the numbers change significantly. According to Levinson’s research, the Republican emphasis on “You built that,” owning your own business, and increased libertarian rhetoric is in deep conflict with working class instincts and sensibilities.
Sketching a brief vision for how conservatives could persuade working class voters to their side, Olsen recommends a Republican message which situates conservative policy goals; rewarding work, limiting government while preserving a safety net, eliminating corporate welfare, and strengthening the family within the moral framework of working class priorities:
That moral view places emphasis on hard work and effort and gives respect to those who perform it, regardless of how much money is directly earned. It is one that emphasizes that life is about much more than making money or getting ahead: it’s about family, friends, and experiencing the time we have on Earth. Such views cannot be derided as “whiling away the time”; they are central to the working class world and must be respected.
Working class’ respect for family, community, and the dignity of work (whether or not one rises to be a C-level executive) presents a particular opportunity for a savvy Catholic politician. While Catholics have become a more pervasive influence in the Republican Party than they were even a generation ago, and weekly Mass goers are now decisively Republican, their influence has been seen most obviously on social issues such as abortion or marriage rather than in framing and shaping the Republican message on economics. It is the rare Catholic Republican political figure whose views on economic policy bear the clear imprints of Catholic Social Teaching in a way which clearly distinguishes themselves from their non-Catholic colleagues. However if Olsen is right and Republicans ought to seek to broaden their appeal to the working class, the task of connecting working class priorities to conservative policy prescriptions could benefit from the traditional Catholic emphasis on family, the dignity of labor, the principle of solidarity, and the joys of community. Not only could such Catholic influenced policies lead to electoral gains for the party, they might just be the right thing to do.