Laurel and I picked a great weekend to visit my daughter, Celeste, and her family for the first time in Laguna Niguel, California, where they moved the rea few months ago.
The late November weather was in the 80's. The sky was clear and sunny.
Here we are in a triple-selfie -- Laurel, Celeste, me -- enjoying the nearby Dana Point beach, where bikini-clad southern Californians defied the calendar (I guess there were men on the beach also, but I didn't notice them).
Soon after we landed at the Orange County Airport and reached the Laguna Niguel area I started to repeat what would be an oft-stated mantra to my daughter and her family: Everything looks so perfect here.
The streets are broad, smoothly paved, litter-free. There aren't any tacky billboards or other large signs. The architecture of both homes and businesses flows together beautifully. Almost everybody is well-dressed, attractive, and fit. There's even a more lightly-traveled toll-freeway for those with disposable cash who want to avoid the rush hour crush on I-405.
Also, the residents are mostly white. And well-to-do.
Driving around, I didn't see one homeless person. Nor did we encounter anyone asking for money. This part of southern California struck me as almost eerily perfect, given a certain definition of that word, "perfect."
But getting into that subject would lead me astray from the point of this post. Which is that it is completely understandable why Orange County in general, and the area where my daughter's family lives in particular, would lean strongly Republican.
Life is good there.
The average cost of a nice, but not extravagant, house seems to be around a million dollars. Lots of good-looking people are out and about shopping, dining, recreating. The bird of the American dream has come to roost in Laguna Niguel and the even-more-chic artsy oceanside town of Laguna Beach.
So why not vote for the politicians who promise to keep taxes low and government small? Most people here have plenty of money. They aren't dependent on social programs -- aside from the retired folks who push away the reality of how Medicare works.
But why would people in much less affluent areas vote Republican against their own interests?
This is a perplexing question. I've thought that the reason lay in social issues such abortion and same-sex marriage, where firmly-held religious/moral beliefs trump a voter's economic and other interests.
However, a New York Times story, "Who Turned My Blue State Red?: Why Poor Areas Vote for Politicians Who Want to Slash the Safety Net," casts a different light on this issue. It looks like the working poor are more irked at the non-working or barely-working poor than they are at the GOP's wildly excessive tilt toward the interests of the 1%.
It is one of the central political puzzles of our time: Parts of the country that depend on the safety-net programs supported by Democrats are increasingly voting for Republicans who favor shredding that net.
...In eastern Kentucky and other former Democratic bastions that have swung Republican in the past several decades, the people who most rely on the safety-net programs secured by Democrats are, by and large, not voting against their own interests by electing Republicans. Rather, they are not voting, period. They have, as voting data, surveys and my own reporting suggest, become profoundly disconnected from the political process.
...The people in these communities who are voting Republican in larger proportions are those who are a notch or two up the economic ladder — the sheriff’s deputy, the teacher, the highway worker, the motel clerk, the gas station owner and the coal miner. And their growing allegiance to the Republicans is, in part, a reaction against what they perceive, among those below them on the economic ladder, as a growing dependency on the safety net, the most visible manifestation of downward mobility in their declining towns.
...I’ve heard variations on this theme all over the country: people railing against the guy across the street who is collecting disability payments but is well enough to go fishing, the families using their food assistance to indulge in steaks.
Though Salem, Oregon, where I live, isn't really a poor area, or a "red city," some of the same dynamics are playing out here.
People in the wealthier parts of town -- south and west Salem -- both lean conservative and vote at a considerably higher rate than the lower income, more liberal people in other areas.
This is a big reason why a recent vote on a ballot measure to impose a very small (.21%, one fifth of a percent) payroll tax on Salem businesses failed.
Salam is the only city of its size in the Northwest that doesn't 'have evening or weekend bus service. The payroll tax would have restored these services, making it much easier for people without a car to get about (including getting to their jobs) outside of 9-5 Monday-Friday.
This wasn't a radical proposal. Cities to our north and south, Portland and Eugene, impose a much higher payroll tax on businesses to fund decent mass transit.
But the measure failed for a couple of reasons: the Salem Chamber of Commerce funded a sleazy anti-payroll tax campaign filled with falsities and half-truth; and voter turnout was very low. Apparently the lower income people without cars who would benefit most from improved bus service didn't bother to turn in their ballots in this off-year election.
Those opposed to the payroll tax implied (both explicitly and implicitly) that users of the Cherriots bus system were undeserving: out of work, not paying their way, lazy, undeserving feeders at the public trough. The reality, of course, is much different.
People ride the bus for a wide variety of reasons: personal, financial, environmental, health.
Mass transit benefits the entire community, yet Salem's right-wingers argued that only those who use mass transit should pay for it -- an obviously absurd notion that would mean only families with children should pay for public education.
So the New York Times story appears to point to widespread political truths.
That pattern is right in line with surveys, which show a decades-long decline in support for redistributive policies and an increase in conservatism in the electorate even as inequality worsens. There has been a particularly sharp drop in support for redistribution among older Americans, who perhaps see it as a threat to their own Social Security and Medicare.
Meanwhile, researchers such as Kathryn Edin, of Johns Hopkins University, found a tendency by many Americans in the second lowest quintile of the income ladder — the working or lower-middle class — to dissociate themselves from those at the bottom, where many once resided.
“There’s this virulent social distancing — suddenly, you’re a worker and anyone who is not a worker is a bad person,” said Professor Edin. “They’re playing to the middle fifth and saying, ‘I’m not those people.’ ”