Economic Anxiety in White Conservative Voters

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Strangers In Their Own Land" by Arlie Russell Hochschild. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What is economic anxiety? How does it relate to the beliefs of white conservatives?

Economic anxiety is one factor in why white conservatives continue to vote Republican. While the blame for the loss of wealth might be mislaid, the undeniable fact is that many white working-class people have seen their wealth decline over the years.

Read more about economic anxiety and what it means.

Economic Anxiety and Loss of Status

Closely tied to the idea that they are being displaced by line jumpers is the notion, popular among those on the right, that they are losing their once-privileged social status. White Christian men in particular (who comprise a disproportionate share of the Republican base) believe that they have lost their dominance in both the economic and cultural spheres, leading to economic anxiety and racism.

Declining Wealth

While you may disagree with the political views espoused by Tea Party members, particular the association of economic anxiety with racism, it is impossible to deny that many white working-class people have indeed lost ground within the nation’s economic hierarchy. To many, this certainly feels like they are being robbed of their just rewards.

People born after 1950 have, on average, seen their real incomes (wages when adjusted for inflation) steadily decline as they get older, leading to an alarming downward mobility. This is the inverse of the fabled American Dream—people are doing worse than the generation that preceded them.

This trend is especially true for people without a college education, as is the case with many Tea Partiers in southwestern Louisiana. Global economic developments have exacerbated this trend. Globalization has made it easy for large multinational corporations to export low-wage, low-skill manufacturing jobs overseas; moreover, automation greatly reduces the need for human workers. 

Once-thriving communities across the United States have been hollowed out and destroyed, leading to economic misery and social decay. For a certain subset of white men, their inability to provide for themselves or their families is a deep source of emasculating shame. This affront to their honor leads them to cast about for someone to blame for their plight—and in their outrage and despair, they are increasingly drawn to far-right politics of resentment.

(Shortform note: To learn more about how the economic decline of America’s manufacturing sector has impacted white working-class communities, read our summary of JD Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and a Culture in Crisis.)

Economic Anxiety in White Conservative Voters

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Carrie Cabral

Carrie has been reading and writing for as long as she can remember, and has always been open to reading anything put in front of her. She wrote her first short story at the age of six, about a lost dog who meets animal friends on his journey home. Surprisingly, it was never picked up by any major publishers, but did spark her passion for books. Carrie worked in book publishing for several years before getting an MFA in Creative Writing. She especially loves literary fiction, historical fiction, and social, cultural, and historical nonfiction that gets into the weeds of daily life.

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