Politics of the rural poor

Amy Swanson, Staff Reporter

So many residents of the rural poor seem to vote against their best interests, according to Philip Lewin.

Lewin, assistant professor of sociology at Florida Atlantic University, gave his lecture titled “Living at the Bottom, Voting for the Top: The Politics of the Rural Poor” on Nov. 3.

Lewin’s study focused on a county in Central Appalachia. Referring to it using the pseudonym Shale County, he said it is one of the poorest counties in America.

The New York Times ranked it as one of the most difficult places to live in the U.S., Lewin said, as it suffers from extreme poverty, high unemployment and low life expectancy.

While many of its residents rely heavily on government assistance, it is one of the most Republican districts in America. This means that the majority of inhabitants tend to embrace a political party that wants to reduce or even eliminate the very programs they depend on.

It is also a major coal-mining area with poorly run, dangerous working conditions. Toxic chemicals released from the mines create extreme environmental pollution and high rates of cancer and disease.

However, despite all of the damage the industry has caused, people in the town still show overwhelming support for it and resist most environmental reform.

“This goes along with the larger theoretical idea that oppressed populations tend to identify with politicians or employers who might harm or exploit them—people who seem to enact policies that have a detrimental effect on their quality of life,” Lewin said.

Another example could be found with ongoing investigations into the large amount of corrupt local officials. While these officials have been accused of crimes from tampering with election machines to embezzling federal aid money, residents still resist the federal investigations to convict them. This is in line with other research findings.

“It’s much more common for people to remain inactive when they’re getting exploited, abused, manipulated or taken advantage of than to protest those conditions,” Lewin said.

He mentioned different theories to explain why people who are in the poor or working class tend to vote more conservatively.

These include social theories, which are especially relevant to the 2016 election. The theories argue that white working class people used to vote based on economic concerns. However, now, as they have begun to lose their prominence to other demographics, they vote Republican to limit immigration and protect their white privilege.

That said, Lewin stated many of these theories are flawed. This is why he used political epistemology to study Shale County, as the study looks at how someone’s political beliefs are actually developed.

“If we’re watching television and we see a political claim come up, how do we decide if it is true or false?” he asked. “Through what filter do we process that information?”

The answer includes the opinion of other trustworthy people or whether the belief falls in line with what one already knows.

As for Shale County, Lewin looked at the experiences residents had that may have shaped their political beliefs.

Many have had negative experiences with local and state governments, giving the example of a man who was given a run-around when trying to seek help for mining-related issues.

Another major factor was that community members feel looked down upon by those outside the county. Therefore, Lewin said he believes some of their political views come from a need to prove their character.

This could explain their opposition to the Democratic Party’s environmental platform. They thought it would harm the coal industry, where miners symbolize things like masculinity, selflessness and dedication to one’s family and community.

Lewin concluded that Shale County residents’ political views aren’t about being misinformed, but were a way to achieve cultural goals.

The lecture was hosted by the Criminal Justice Club and Sociology Club.

Rachel Cassidy, president of the Sociology Club, said this talk was scheduled at a great time.

“We felt that with the election coming up, this would be a very fitting speaker to come and talk to us about the voting patterns of certain demographics, and why they are influenced to vote the way they do,” Cassidy said.

Cassidy believes these types of events are important to the OU community.

“They contribute to the cultural experience on campus, as well as serve as an educational opportunity, giving students a real-world application to what is taught in the classroom,” Cassidy said.

The next Sociology Club event will be held in January, when a guest speaker will share his experience as a part of an expedition team in South Africa that discovered skeletons of an extinct species.

For more information on the sociology club, visit its Facebook page.