“Puzzling Arkansas politics” made simple
Incumbent Blanche Lincoln’s (D-AR) win in the 2010 primary elections surprised the political elite. They were similarly perplexed in 2008 when Arkansas and other states voted against Obama and still voted for Democrats to nearly every other political office. How can deep-red Arkansas support an incumbent Democrat like Blanche?
Arkansas and adjacent regions have long bewildered the cognoscenti with their seemingly inconsistent choices. Often this means voting for political opposites: Republicans for President and Democrats for everything else. In 1968, Arkansas voted for segregationist George Wallace for President, dovish liberal Democrat William Fulbright for Senator and Republican anti-segregation Winthrop Rockefeller for Governor. Arkansans managed to vote for the exact opposites on every major political dimension. How can that be?
The answer is simple. It boils down to trusting people you know. Down here we vote for people we can trust. If someone is a lot like you, it’s more likely you can trust him. Even if he has different ideas on some topics. If someone is from where you’re from, he’s easier to trust. Bill Clinton had a lot of negatives, but he was local. He was like us.
Rockefeller wasn’t from Arkansas, but he became local. He chose to come here, farm, start businesses, help people. He became someone we could trust. But when someone comes in from outside and doesn’t do anything to establish trust and doesn’t seem like a local, he can just forget getting many votes here.
Blanche’s opposition featured deep-pocketed special interests teamed with an opportunistic politician who spent his adult life outside the state until he decided to come back and run for office.
This team knew what they were up against. In the final days, their ads tried to paint Blanche as not-one-of-us since she had moved her family to Washington. True as all the criticisms of Blanche might be, they were being made by out-of-state people and money. And they were criticizing one of us.
That’s just not something we cotton to in Arkansas and the other red states who vote for blue-dog Democrats but not out-of-state-interest-group Democrats. Democratic Presidential candidates are getting fewer and fewer votes because they don’t pass the local and trust tests.
Bobby Jindal in Louisiana and Nikki Haley in South Carolina have ancestors from India, but they have proven themselves trustworthy and have become local. The academic elite is confounded by their success because they don’t understand local and trust.
Academic elites are enamored by abstract ideas and sophisticated policy initiatives. The deep red states don’t jump at new ideas. (We say: when the world comes to an end we want to be in Arkansas because everything comes to Arkansas ten years late.) Bill Clinton found that out when he lost his second election for Governor after he proposed a slew of new initiatives. But he went out and restablished trust with the people, didn’t lose another election and was able to establish all sorts of innovative policies.
The American media elite can’t understand such phenomenon because it is removed from the basic motivations which are natural to all of us. The most basic social motivation is to support and help those who are like you and who support and help you (see review of basic research). That motivation is foremost in nearly all countries in the world.
The elites in Great Britain and America have largely forgotten it. Those two countries are gradually being taken over by cultures who still pay attention to that basic motivation. The success of myriad ethnic minorities in the US and Britain depends on their helping and trusting people of their group.
Now and then, we elect leaders who don’t understand this basic motivation. Maybe they have lived all over the place and never known the trust and loyalty which come from really knowing a group of people. Maybe they’ve spent their lives in academia where, lately, the newest idea is what counts and you abandon your home-boys for those who share your ideas. Their motivations are intellectual and urbane. They simply can’t relate to people who are loyal to the people and traditions of a specific geographic area.
This motivation can become a horrendous calamity when it morphs into persecution of those unlike us. Ethnic cleansing in Germany, Rwanda, Yugoslavia and Zimbabwe are all examples of how leaders can use such trust to lead their countries down the garden path to destruction.
Some trot out such examples to try to eliminate this most basic social motivation in say, Germans or Hutus or Afrikaners. The only way to do that is to make the group detest their own ethnic group or country. If you succeed in that, you have undermined the most basic social motivation. People taught to deny their most basic motivations are invariably troubled and their nations decline. (More on basic motivation research is here.)
Places like Arkansas are called red states (because they vote Republican in national elections) but are also blue (because they vote Democratic in state and local elections). They might be called the red, white and blue because they are the foundation for those who love our country.
Any revival of our country depends on building on the basic social motivation of trusting those who share our local mindset. The elite are lost in lofty political ideas (such as nation-building) and complicated policy prescriptions (such as recent health insurance schemes) and disconnected from this basic motivation. When we build on basic social motivations, we go beyond political boundaries and innovative public policy is possible.
Presidents such as Reagan (as Obama pointed out) and Clinton each accomplished a bit of this. Bobby Jindal is doing it down in Louisiana. We can trust such leaders to understand our local concerns and act to solve them. We need more such leaders.