Why America’s Conservative Parties Are So Angry
Republican America is poorer, more violent and less healthy than democratic America. But Republican blame is misplaced.
Decades of political decisions and policies have created a massive and growing chasm between the economic and social catastrophe unfolding in small towns and rural America, and the prosperity and safety of cities and suburbs. Many of these thriving urban and suburban areas have reaped the rewards of electing largely moderate and capable Democratic leaders. Meanwhile, rural areas elected Republicans from a party that was increasingly incompetent, corrupt and willing to engage in outright racism to win the election.
This disparity can affirm progressive ideas about successful and inclusive governance, but it also has serious implications for the country as a whole.
Anger is brewing in Republican America, along with conspiratorial fabrications about who to blame for their condition. A harbinger of this trend is Antlers, Oklahoma, where I grew up: a once-thriving town in the southeastern part of the state, bordering the lush Ouachita foothills with dense forests, abundant agriculture and lucrative tourism resources. The city rebuilt after a devastating 1945 tornadobut he did not resist the politics of the 21st century.
Racially and politically, Antlers is typical of much of rural Oklahoma, a state forged from 19th-century territory reserved for Native American tribes forcibly removed from other parts of the United States. Antlers is now 75% white and 22% Native American or mixed race, but with very few Latino, Asian or black residents. In 2020, Antlers and his county, Pushmataha — which backed former President Bill Clinton in 1996 and even Jimmy Carter against Ronald Reagan in 1980 — voted Republicans, 85% Democrats.14%, compared to 80% for Republicans in 2016, 54% in 2000 and 34% in 1996.
Wood’ social statistics are more than alarming. Nearly a third of its inhabitants live in poverty. Median household income, $25,223, is less than half $55,557 from Oklahomawhich in turn is well below the national median of $74,099 in January 2022.
The most well-off ethnic group in Antlers is Native Americans (median household income, $35,700; 48% with an education beyond high school; 25% living in poverty). That’s still well below the national median, but conditions for the white population are dismal: a median household income of $24,800, only 41 percent with a post-secondary education, and 30 percent living in poverty.
In a growing national trend, the median household incomes of people of color, according to the US Census Bureau, now exceed those of whites in nearly 200 of 1,500 Republican Trifecta counties—those in which the party controls the governor’s office and both legislative houses of state government (see Figure 1). It is a visible factor that has fueled complaints from Trump voters that white people diminished status.
In the most telling statistics, white Antlers are nearly twice as likely to die from a gun as Native Americans (see Figure 2). Compared to whites nationally, whites in Antlers suffer from mortality rate drugs and alcohol (1.3 times the national average), suicide (1.5 times), all violent deaths (1.8 times), homicides (2.5 times) and beatings fire (2.6 times).
The numbers on paper look pretty bad. Seeing them on the ground is a new kind of scary. When I grew up in Antlers 60 years ago and visited it 20 years ago, my family’s old block consisted of well-maintained middle-class houses overlooking yards for chickens and horses. When I last visited in January 2022, I found the houses all boarded up or opened by the wind (see photo above). There are hundreds of abandoned houses with collapsing roofs and walls and empty lots filled with trash alongside barely intact but still occupied houses.
However, Antlers is not entirely devastated. He wears a shiny Built in choctaw travel center funded by casino revenue, which is also invested in Native American well-being. And there are booming neighborhoods, including a posh suburb of mansions upriver from the city. The 2,300 residents of Antlers can enjoy three liquor stores and seven new marijuana dispensaries.
A widening social and economic chasm
Across America, the partisan gap in gross domestic product per capita is also huge and growing: $77,900 in Democratic-voting areas, versus $46,600 in Republican-voting areas. Antlers and Pushmataha County are not alone: 444 Republican counties have a GDP per capita below $30,000, and 10 times as many people live in these counties as in the seven low-GDP Democratic counties. Whites in about 40% of all Republican counties have lost income over the past two decades. And the Trump administration has not helped its base. During his presidency, the overall GDP per capita gap between Democrats and Republicans widened by an additional $1,800.
It is not just an urban-rural divide. For the largest urbanized states, the three states under Democratic control of all branches of government (California, New York, and Illinois) had significantly higher GDPs per capita than the three largest states under Republican control (Texas, Florida, and Ohio ).
The right-wing duck that hard-working white people subsidize welfare-cheating cities is backward. Democratic counties, with 60% of the US population, generate 67% of the nation’s personal income, 70% of the nation’s GDP, 71% of federal taxes, 73% of charitable contributions, and 75% of state and local taxes.
Like Antlers, white Republican America is also suffering violent death rateincluding suicide, homicide, firearms and drunk driving accidents, far higher than whites in Democratic America and higher than non-whites everywhere. To top it off, Americans governed by Republicans are much more likely to die from COVID-19. As the mortality gap between Republican and Democratic areas widens over time, the life expectancy for whites in Republican voting areas (77.6 years) is now three years shorter than that for whites in Democratic areas (80.6 years), shorter than those for Asians and Latinos everywhere, and only a few months longer than Blacks and Native Americans in Democratic Zones.
Polls and studies consistently show that white Trump supporters, usually older, are furious with “loss of status“and in fear of being”replacedby non-whites. This Whites are lagging behind in major economic, health and security indices is not due to victimization by immigrants and liberal conspiracies, but to victimization by other white people and self-inflicted alcoholism, drug overdose and suicide.
Is the solution to America without division massive federal programs to improve the struggling economies and troubled social conditions of Republican America, then? Aside from the problem that Republican members of Congress (and two recalcitrant democrats) have sabotaged beneficial initiatives, former President Barack Obama has already tried it. From 2010 to 2016, the Obama administration’s economic stimulus created millions of new jobs and thousands of dollars in real median income growth for whites in urban and most rural areas, reversing the recession under Republican President George W. Bush.
Yet despite these gains, white voters have vehemently rejected Democrats in successive elections. Today, Trump’s grassroots voters elect candidates who share their racial resentment and imagined victimization, not those that actually improve their security and economic well-being.
Despite the superficial resemblance of the crumbling neighborhoods, trash-filled lands, and widespread poverty of the Antlers and conditions in a devastated city of color like Camden, New Jersey, the origins of their devastation are very different. Camden is the product of systemic racism and industrial abandonment inflicted on poor, mostly non-white residents powerless to prevent their exploitation. Antlers is the predictable endgame of white majorities who had better options instead of empowering incompetent and corrupt demagogues (segregationist Democrats in the past; nihilistic Republicans today) who flatter white claims to racial privilege and religious while granting largesse to rapacious foreigners.
Poverty in cities and on reserves mainly requires a sustained political will to work with people who welcome the effort. In contrast, repairing white rural poverty against the angry, undemocratic recalcitrance of most white people themselves requires entirely new political thinking that we have yet to imagine.
Mike Males is a Senior Fellow at the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, Senior Fellow of YouthFacts, and author of five books on American youth.