University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Telecommunications
Back in 2004, journalist and historian Thomas Frank wrote the political book “What’s the Matter with Kansas?”
Frank explores a political landscape historically dominated by left-wing [opulist movements, until conservatives started using social issues like abortion and gay marriage to appeal to the working class.
In doing so, Republicans were able to sway middle class and low-income citizens to vote against their own economic interests.
He argues the political discourse in America’s heartland has moved from discussion of economic mobility and opportunity to culture war issues, which are based in perceived anger toward “liberal elites.” Eleven years later, Kentucky has become the new face of this phenomenon.
Prior to the Nov. 3 gubernatorial election, Kentucky was known as the only Southern state where Democrats dominate most levels of government. But with Republican candidate Matt Bevin’s victory over Democrat Jack Conway, Kentucky might be the new Kansas.
During the campaign Bevin spoke against raising the minimum wage, advocated dismantling the state’s online insurance market Kynect, and posited restructuring the Medicaid expansion. And yet Bevin’s largest amount of support came from the most impoverished areas of the state which have high numbers of Medicaid recipients.
Polls consistently had Conway ahead of Bevin throughout the race, and yet Bevin defeated Conway by nearly nine percentage points. Political experts have suggested several reasons for how this happened, such as low interest among Democratic voters and conservatives being less likely to participate in polls.
Another likely reason is that religious conservatives, which make up a huge voting community in Kentucky, were motivated by the situation surrounding Rowan County Clerk Kim Davis.
The escapade involving Davis and her refusal to issue marriage licenses in wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to legalize same-sex marriage received national attention, and Bevin showed support for Davis’ cause, turning a relatively insignificant issue into a culture war issue on which many conservatives base their votes.
Bevin’s victory should serve as a wakeup call to those on the left and even the center. The Democratic base was not motivated in this election, and the party paid the ultimate political price on Election Day. Regardless of whether or not they are justified in their sentiment, much of working class America is angry, and Republicans have proven to be more capable of capitalizing on the emotions of the citizenry and turning them into victories.
Cheyene Miller is the managing editor of the Kentucky Kernel, for which he wrote this column. It also appears at http://kykernel.com/2015/11/19/kentuckians-voted-against-their-own-interests/.