Thursday, July 3, 2014

Poverty Level Republicans (You Gotta Love 'Em)

You've probably seen this book making the rounds at one time or another. Originally published in 1937, Hill's purported rags-to-riches instruction manual has entered the inner ring of all-time best-sellers (reportedly racking up some 20 million copies at the time of his death in 1970). Of course, it's a tad light on specifics, though Hill apparently believes that visualization is sufficient to get the heavy lifting done: "You may as well know, right here, that you can never have riches in great quantities unless you work yourself into a white heat of desire for money, and actually believe you will possess it."

It's not a stretch to imagine such disparate characters as the Beach Boys' lead singer, Mike Love, corporate raider T. Boone Pickens and the late "Queen Of Mean", Leona Helmsley, reading such passages aloud to themselves, nodding their approval: "Some day, I'll stand at the top of the pile...and when I do, there won't be any stopping me."

My introduction to Hill's book came as a teenager, after my late father -- who was a contractor -- brought it home from a job one day, shaking his head. When I queried further, it turned out that Dad's latest client had practically pressed the book into his palm, suggesting that he give Hill's ideas a try. What did Dad have to lose? Besides, once he finished reading it, he wouldn't avoid the only logical conclusion...and become a Republican, since they were the cash-endowed ones, right?

However, my dad had no interest in joining The Party Of No, let alone voting for any of their so-called representatives...especially after doing jobs here or there for members of the local GOP hierarchy, who'd often treated him (as he told me) "like just another dumb laborer"...even though he'd largely educated himself after the Second World War ended, primarily by reading just about every book he could get his hands on. Suffice to say, Mr. Hill's masterpiece sat gathering dust on the shelf in our den, and my dad never broached the subject again.

Dear Old Dad's encounter with Napoleon Hill's ideology ("What the mind of man can conceive and believe, it can achieve") marked my first encounter with a new phenomenon: The Poverty Level Republican.  The above graphic sums up the distinction cleverly enough, but for those who just tuned in, it's the opposite of the image typically associated with the Elephant Set: those grubby little "One Percenters" that we all keep hearing so much about.  However, I don't hate them for voting Republican, because there's a rational undercurrent behind such choices: they're only looking after their own best interests (such as reducing their individual tax burden to infinitesimal levels...but I digress).

I began seeing more Poverty Level Republicans after starting college. Overall, they tended to occupy the bottom or lower middle class rungs of the American economic ladder, which didn't dim -- not for a second -- their admiration for such up-and-coming conservative spear carriers as our newly-elected fortieth president, Ronald Reagan, or his eager acolytes (including supply-side gurus like Arthur Laffer and Milton Freidman, for example). They boasted a comically exaggerated self-confidence in their own bootstrapping abilities, even if that "some-day-my-ship-will-come-in" moment seemed an awfully long way off (as in, "dig-up-John-Lennon-to-reunite-the-Beatles" or "Finding-Jimmy-Hoffa's-perfectly-mummified-body-in-an-oil-drum-in-Southfield" territory).

However, you never heard any resentment voiced towards a political system that had only just begun its hellbent descent toward record levels of inequality. Hell, they wanted to become rich -- or, at least, well to do -- so why vote for anyone trying to interfere with the emerging Trickle-Down way of doing business? At the same time, the Poverty Level Republicans I met couldn't wait for the day that Reagan would finally push those mooching welfare queens right off the couch, and into the cold, where they so rightfully belonged.

If that meant putting off social equity a little bit longer, so be it. If that meant having to brown bag it a couple more times per week, so be it. If that meant stitching together two, three or even four part-time jobs to cobble enough money for tuition, housing or meal plan rates that were already approaching stratospheric levels, so be it. If that meant putting off major life decisions like getting married, or buying a house, to pay back those student loans -- which were also ratcheting into outer space -- so be it.

Whatever personal difficulties lay ahead, Poverty Level Republicans just confidently asserted that their personal boom time lay just around the corner (even if they didn't know which corner)...or President Reagan would give one of those folksy, but blistering fireside chats on TV, and whip those pinheads in Congress back into line...then everything would work out somehow, in its own surreal American way. You had to love optimism like that, even if no empirical evidence suggested the remotest chance of the above-mentioned scenario happening.

One of the tragic ironies of Barack Obama's presidency, it appears, is that some of his most ardent haters are the "99 Percenters" that he's trying to save -- even if it's from themselves. A recent Yahoo News story that Your Humble Narrator came across puts the whole situation nicely in perspective, focusing on why those "red state" Kentuckians can't bring themselves to support Obama.

I won't belabor the contents but what's funny (and sad) is the deepest hatred coming from the people with the least money -- and the most to lose. As one Kentucky resident (Eric Miller) observes, "If there weren't government programs, it would be a ghost town." Yet, in the same breath, he states: "The Republicans, they are the ones that know...raised up like we have, you know. Know what it's like, what we need, what shouldn't been taken away."

Such comments are downright surreal, especially when you consider the Republican-dominated House of Representatives' attempt last year to cram steep food stamp cuts down the throats of gents like Mr. Miller, who gets by on $380 per month.  Congress's recent decision to let additional unemployment extensions expire -- "not with a bang, but a whimper," as T.S. Eliot would say -- is another indicator of how the political class feels about the pesky 99 Percenters they claim to represent so ardently.

At best, they view them as a nuisance to fool into re-electing them; at worst, they harbor a deep-seated hatred and hostility toward the Eric Millers of the world. After all, various members of the Elephant Set have openly boasted of "starving the beast" as a strategy -- the theory being, if you continue gutting social programs past the point of no return, the poor will eventually shrivel up and blow away, just like all those tumbleweeds you've seen lately at dead malls across America. 

So why do the Eric Millers of the world, then, vote for the people who seemingly stay up around the clock, thinking of new ways to keep down?  Various explanations have been trotted out to try and account for the Poverty Level Republican phenomenon, which you can read below, too. Speaking from experience, however, I personally see little or no point in trying to explain bullshit for bullshit's sake. In my time, I've seen a more mundane phenomenon at work.  

People display a remarkable knack for doublethink.  They rail against "welfare moochers," even they collect food stamps and cash assistance themselves. They vote against ballot proposals and millages -- even renewals, which are considered no-brainer propositions in municipal circles -- yet are the first to scream for the services that have long evaporated  They fight like a wounded bear cub for whatever government benefits they collect, even as they pay lip service to that moth-eaten cliche that's all too frequently trotted out during the latest national debate ("America must learn to live within its means").

Contrary to what some of my left-of-center friends think, I don't believe these inconsistent attitudes reflect a desire to get rich quick anymore -- hell, with so many people broke and leveraged to the hilt, the New American Dream is simply getting out of debt.  The simpler explanation comes down to a quote attributed to Mark Twain, though I haven't managed to track down its source: "Few political systems are as ingenious as getting people to vote against their own best interests as this one."  

That's as good an explanation as I've heard for the current administration's struggles. When Obama came to Capitol Hill in 2008, he hoped, prayed and stated that -- somehow, somewhere, doggone it -- people would line up behind him, whether they agreed with him or not, for the sake of the nation. It's the kind of kabuki theater that causes seasoned political journalists to piss their pants with laughter, but apparently, our Commander In Chief really believed that scenario would happen.

Alas, such dew-eyed dreamin' and doe-eyed optimism collided head-on with The Party Of No...and their accomplices, the Poverty Level Republicans. Meanwhile, the collateral damage continues, with everyone else paying the price. In short, it's business as usual. --The Reckoner

Links To Go (And Get Depressed By): Against Their Own Interest: Why The Rural Poor Vote Republican Poor Kentucky Has No Stomach For Obama
[Note: This is only a partial recap, since the link apparently doesn't exist anymore -- and I don't want the Copyright Cops chasing me down if I post it all here.  Anyway, the resulting discussion should give you a good feel for the actual content.]

The New York Times Opinion Pages: Moochers Against Welfare


  1. I hope you don't mind, but I've cited you in my blog. :)

  2. No, not at all! I didn't see a lot of commentators addressing the whole "poverty level Republican" phenomenon, which is what moved me to write this post in the first place. Thanks for stopping and checking out the neighborhood (so to speak) -- come back any time! --The Reckoner