From My Thesis: Self-Interest and Voting

For progressives who are especially attuned to situations of oppression and injustice, the plight of rural white working-class people should be a concern. Instead, they are dismissed because of their repugnant political beliefs, with no understanding of how or why they arrived at those beliefs. White progressives still advocate for and stand alongside black Americans, Muslims, or Hispanic people, despite the existence of some poll numbers showing, for instance, the level of antipathy among these groups for the rights of LGBT people.[1] Why is the same consideration not extended to the rural white working class?  Hochschild calls this the ”empathy wall,” that which inhibits the understanding of another’s deep story, and the resultant inability to have empathy or understanding for those very different from us.[2]

Finally, this is a group that is largely disdained and derided by other populations. As noted above, Nancy Isenberg has traced this history of cultural alienation in her book. This has resulted in the determination by advocacy and political groups that rural white working-class people aren’t worth the time. One particularly pernicious narrative applied to them is the idea that they, politically, they vote and support candidates who go against their own interests. This infantilizing narrative robs rural white working-class people of their own agency. To reduce the interests of white working class people to merely economic considerations is to reduce the humanity of these people, and to disparage their ability to make rational choices about their own lives. Additionally, it is a narrative firmly entrenched in a neo-liberal, market oriented world, one where the only legitimate choices to be made (at least by those we look down our noses at) are strictly economic in nature. Christians especially should eschew such essentializing narratives about human beings.

Instead, we need to understand that people make decisions – rational decisions – for a variety of reasons that are ultimately personal for each person. If any economically distressed person chooses to vote for and support candidates or policies that are not directly beneficial to their financial well-being, but instead picks a candidate that speaks to their cultural, social or identity priorities, then it is important to view that as a legitimate and reasonable choice to make, even if we abhor the positions and policies endorsed by such a vote. Even more importantly, if Christians claim to care about these people, then we must understand the real reasons behind these actions, and take real, concrete steps to address them, rather than dismissing them as irrational and self-destructive actors undeserving of our attention. The electoral results of 2016 demand such a response, not to mention the inherent dignity of each person.

[1] Pew Research Center, ”Support for Same-Sex Marriage at Record High, but Key Segments Remain Opposed,” June 2015, accessed March 25, 2019,

[2] Hochschild, Strangers In Their Own Land, 5.

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