White, Poor, and Resentful

Here’s a curious thing — In the past few weeks, 671,288 Kentuckians filed for unemployment benefits. That’s equal to a third of the workforce in the state. In itself, that’s not surprising. Kentucky is not famous for white collar telecommuter-type jobs. The biggest employers are manufacturers, especially auto makers. After that the state’s economy mostly rests on mining, agriculture, and tourism. These are not economic sectors doing especially well right now. Even horse racing is shut down.

Further, Kentuckians on the whole are not a wealthy lot to begin with. The state ranks 45th in household income among the 56 U.S. states and territories. In 2018, median household income in Kentucky was $48,392, and per capita income was $26,948. So one imagines that a large portion of Kentuckians live from paycheck to paycheck.

Now, here’s the curious part. One would think, in a sane world, that a senator from Kentucky would be working hard right now to get some relief benefits to his constituents. This is especially true if that senator were up for re-election this year. But here in Bizarro World, Kentucky’s Senator Mitch McConnell is leading Republican efforts to quash any further relief packages that might benefit ordinary folks. McConnell wants to wait and see if the first round of $1200 checks have any stimulating effects on the economy before considering another round. But those checks were mostly relief, not stimulus, meant to let people buy food and pay bills. McConnell is also said to be (suddenly) worried about the deficit, even though running it up by cutting taxes on the wealthy was just grand with him.

Oh, and Kentucky’s other senator, the even more worthless Rand Paul who has recovered from covid-19, appears to have voted against nearly all of the stimulus-relief bills that have gone through the Senate this year. He missed some votes while he was ill, or he might have voted against all of them.

How do these bozos get elected? Well, Kentucky is about 88 percent white and is also one of the least educated states, ranking 45th out of 50 states in educational attainment. And less-educated white people are loyal Republican voters.

At WaPo, Jonathan Capehart has a column/podcast up called ‘Dying of whiteness’ during the coronavirus pandemic. Capehart interviews Jonathan Metzl, the director of Vanderbilt University’s Center for Medicine, Health and Society, who wrote a book called Dying of Whiteness: How the Politics of Racial Resentment is Killing America’s Heartland.

“It was kind of a warning of the lengths to which white working class voters could either have underlying racism or be manipulated to vote in support of wealthy donors and corporations, but against their own lifespans,” Metzl told me in the latest episode of “Cape Up.” “And it’s just been on steroids since this pandemic started.”

At a moment like this, says Metzl, when people are desperate, they fall back on more extremist ideologies. And Trump has been masterful at exploiting their resentments and fears.

Some non-urban whites also might feel invicible to the coronavirus, because the teevee news shows us deaths in big cities and also deaths among black and brown people, as I wrote in the last post. So they aren’t afraid of the virus and believe they are being forced to suffer economic deprivation because it’s hurting those other people, and they resent it. The government is forcing them to wear masks and shelter in place and go without a paycheck for something that isn’t their problem, as they see it.

Protesters near Kentucky state capitol last month.

Kentucky is about average in per capita infections and deaths, and so far the virus spread has been mostly in the urban areas. Rural Kentucky has been barely touched. And, maybe rural Kentuckians will be spared, in part because of the mitigation policies they resent. We’ll see. But we can’t necessarily count on a big poor white backlash against Mitch McConnell’s stinginess.

The one bright spot in this mess is Democrat Andy Beshear’s win over incumbent Matt Bevin in last year’s gubernatorial election. Yeah, that was just last November. Seems like years. Bevin campaigned by wrapping himself in Trump, so to speak. But as I wrote last year, Beshear won not only in the cities and suburbs; he also won some rural counties. And that was mostly because Beshear promised to let people stay on the state’s expanded Medicaid program, while Bevin had vowed to pull the plug on Medicaid. So, rural Kentuckians don’t always vote against themselves.

Oh, and chip in to help Amy McGrath build the grassroots team that can defeat Mitch McConnell.

A billboard in Kentucky