Thomas Edsall, the Columbia journalism professor who periodically writes well-researched articles for the New York Times, has an important piece exploring why poor white Americans often vote against their economic self-interest. Democrats are often frustrated when their efforts to expand healthcare and other social safety net programs generate a backlash amongst people who need and make use of them. The reason, Edsall explains, is “last place aversion.”
While I wouldn’t equate most of these Americans with Pap in Huckleberry Finn, he is a dramatic example of the process at work.
Edsall describes “last place aversion” as follows:
In a paper by that name, Ilyana Kuziemko, an economist at Princeton, Taly Reich, a professor of marketing at Yale, and Ryan W. Buell and Michael I. Norton, both at Harvard Business School, describe the phenomenon in which relatively low income individuals “oppose redistribution because they fear it might differentially help a ‘last-place’ group to whom they can currently feel superior.” Those thus positioned “exhibit a particular aversion to being in last place, such that a potential drop in rank creates the greatest disutility for those already near the bottom of the distribution.”
Among the findings of this group of researchers: people “making just above the minimum wage are the most likely to oppose its increase.”
This leads to the question of “deservingness,” a phrase that reminds me of Eliza Dolittle’s father proudly proclaiming himself a member of “the undeserving poor” in Pygmalion. For many Americans, poor people of color are undeserving by definition:
Even more important than “last place aversion,” though, is the issue of what we might call deservingness: white Americans, more than citizens of other nations, distinguish between those they view as the deserving and the undeserving poor and they are much more willing to support aid for those they see as deserving: themselves.
“Americans believe that the poor are lazy; Europeans believe the poor are unfortunate,” report Alesina and Glaeser.
Other academics note the same phenomenon:
Lars Lefgren, a professor of economics at Brigham Young University and the lead author of The Other 1%: Class Leavening, Contamination and Voting for Redistribution, emailed me about his research:
Individuals are more willing to vote for redistribution when they perceive the recipients as being deserving. By this I mean that the recipients are willing to work hard but were experiencing bad luck that left them in need of assistance.
This distinction often translates into a differentiation between poor whites and poor minorities.
In the midst of one of his drinking sprees, Pap goes on and on about how the government, which should be favoring him, is instead protecting a black college professor who (in his mind) should be enslaved:
“Oh, yes, this is a wonderful govment, wonderful. Why, looky here. There was a free nigger there from Ohio—a mulatter, most as white as a white man. He had the whitest shirt on you ever see, too, and the shiniest hat; and there ain’t a man in that town that’s got as fine clothes as what he had; and he had a gold watch and chain, and a silver-headed cane—the awfulest old gray-headed nabob in the State. And what do you think? They said he was a p’fessor in a college, and could talk all kinds of languages, and knowed everything. And that ain’t the wust. They said he could vote when he was at home. Well, that let me out. Thinks I, what is the country a-coming to? It was ’lection day, and I was just about to go and vote myself if I warn’t too drunk to get there; but when they told me there was a State in this country where they’d let that nigger vote, I drawed out. I says I’ll never vote agin. Them’s the very words I said; they all heard me; and the country may rot for all me—I’ll never vote agin as long as I live. And to see the cool way of that nigger—why, he wouldn’t a give me the road if I hadn’t shoved him out o’ the way. I says to the people, why ain’t this nigger put up at auction and sold?—that’s what I want to know. And what do you reckon they said? Why, they said he couldn’t be sold till he’d been in the State six months, and he hadn’t been there that long yet. There, now—that’s a specimen. They call that a govment that can’t sell a free nigger till he’s been in the State six months. Here’s a govment that calls itself a govment, and lets on to be a govment, and thinks it is a govment, and yet’s got to set stock-still for six whole months before it can take a hold of a prowling, thieving, infernal, white-shirted free nigger, and—”
Such sentiments help explain why Trump got so much mileage out of Obama’s supposedly false birth certificate and his supposedly preferential admissions treatment by Harvard Law School, not to mention all the teleprompter jokes. Many saw our 44th president as Pap sees the “p’fessor.” It also explains the outbreaks of anti-government sentiment whenever attempts are made to rectify past racial injustice.
Had Trump been running for office at the time Huckleberry Finn is set, I have no doubt that Pap would have broken his resolve to “never vote agin.”