On April 18, 2022, Paul Krugman of The New York Times editorial board published an op-ed titled “Republicans Say, ‘Let Them Eat Hate’.” The commentary was largely focused on former President Trump’s endorsement of JD Vance for the Republican Senate primary in Ohio.
JD Vance made a name for himself for his 2016 memoir “Hillbilly Elegy,” which drew widespread and respectful attention, because it offered a personal take on a real and important problem: the unraveling of society in Appalachia and more broadly for a significant segment of the white working class. Following Trump’s 2016 win, many networks turned to Vance for insight as to why so many white working-class voters saw Trump, a wealthy real estate tycoon, as their champion.
Back in 2016, Vance offered substantive insights into the grievances of the white working-class but was also critical of Trump who he described as “cultural heroin.” But today, as Krugman observes, Vance has made a striking about-face:
“Neither Vance nor any other notable figure in the Republican Party is advocating any real policies to address this problem They are happy to exploit white working-class resentment for political gain, but when it comes to doing anything to improve their lives, their implicit slogan is, ‘Let them eat hate.’”
Indeed, the Republican Party seems intent on defeating any bill that comes before the House and the Senate that could help to elevate the working class, whether it is health care, education, the child tax credit, or the popular elements of the Biden administration’s ‘Build Back Better’ bill.
In fact, if it wasn’t for three Republican senators – Susan Collins, Lisa Murkowski, and the late John McCain – the Republican-led House and Senate would have killed the Affordable Care Act in 2017.
Is it possible that the survival of the Republican Party depends upon the perpetuation of white working-class grievances and resentment?
Clearly, the white working-class in the Rust Belt, and more broadly rural middle America, has suffered greatly in the 21st century. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, manufacturing employment reached an all-time peak in 1979 of 19.6 million. In June 2019, manufacturing employment stood at 12.8 million, down 6.7 million or 35 percent from the all-time peak. Since the closure of factories, the outsourcing of manufacturing jobs, and the automation of numerous industries, the quality of life for many working-class communities have failed to keep up with rising costs.
Between 2008 and 2010, the Great Recession and residential mortgage crisis made an already bad situation worse. The US Government did little, if anything, to help alleviate the suffering of working-class families who lost their jobs and their homes while investing hundreds of billions of dollars to bail out the banks that largely caused the problem in the first place.
The legitimate grievances of the working class and government inaction have contributed to Congress’s approval rating of 20% or less for much of the past 15 years. While the rich got richer, the working class got poorer. This increasing income and social inequality gave rise to a populist movement that brought Donald Trump to the White house.
While many Republican politicians are eager to exploit the anger and despair of those who have been adversely impacted most by the economic shifts of the past 50 years, they offer no real solutions. Nor do they support legislation that can help the working class, despite the urging of social and religious leaders who represent working-class constituencies.
On February 14, 2022, civic and religious leaders of multiple faiths called on President Biden and the entire US Senate in an open letter to not abandon the Democrats’ Build Back Better agenda. Signatories to the letter came from Christian and Jewish traditions as well as numerous national and regional interfaith groups who represent millions of people of faith and hundreds of thousands of faith communities.
As I have highlighted in the past, the right-wing media propaganda machine rages on against Build Back Better. They employ their capital to turn their viewers and readers against Build Back Better when, paradoxically, most Republican voters support the most significant provisions in the bill.
The provisions in Build Back Better that a majority of Republican voters support include paid family medical leave, affordable child care, the child care tax credit, clean energy and climate resilience, and climate-related tax breaks. According to the Economic Policy Institute, the Build Back Better Act would support 2.3 million jobs per year in its first five years.
There is something deeper philosophically that fundamentally drives Republican legislators to oppose any legislation that can help to alleviate the anger and despair of working-class Americans. In January 2020, Pew Research Center published a major study on Americans’ attitudes regarding income inequality, and how Democrats and Republicans differ on whether addressing economic inequality requires major changes to the economic system.
Section 3 of the study addressed what Americans see as contributors to economic inequality. This section delineated the responses of Republican and Democratic voters by income levels, with upper-income families having annual incomes greater than $120,400. Among upper-income Republicans, 74 percent believe that income inequality is an outcome of the different lifestyle choices people make. Only 42 percent believe it is a function of outsourcing of jobs and only 33 percent believe it is due to problems in our educational system. Less than 20 percent believe that it is a result of the automation of jobs, and only 17 percent believe that some people start out in life with more opportunities than others.
Among upper-income Republicans, only 31 percent believe the federal government has a responsibility to assure everyone has adequate medical care. Less than 20 percent believe that the government has any responsibility to assure every American has an adequate standard of living and adequate housing.
The concept of meritocracy, as described in detail in Michael Sandel’s book, The Tyranny of Merit is alive and thriving in the Republican party. In its essence, the modern-day GOP believes that not only those in the top income bracket deserve to be there, but that those on the bottom deserve to be there as well.
Given the outside influence of upper-income Republicans on the party, it should come as no surprise that GOP legislators have no interest in passing policies that can help lift the working class up and address income inequality. They firmly believe that people alone can address their desperation without any help from the government.
Normally I take every opportunity to declare my political stand as an independent. But this to me is the height of hypocrisy, politicians exploiting in the most shameful way the desperation of an entire segment of the American population for political gain, while at the same time having no intention to help lift them up.
Rich Zacaroli has served for over 30 years on numerous boards of non-governmental organizations in the education, cultural exchange, community development, and banking sectors. He is chair of the board of directors of Greenheart International. He is a member of Rotary International, a Paul Harris Fellow, is President-elect of the Rotary Club of South Sacramento, and serves on the Pastoral Council for the Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament.