The Biggest Contradiction?

Image of Thomas Hart Benton painting

An interactive map and a recent in-depth New York Times article raise the question progressives here have grappled with for a long time: Why do red-state Oklahomans increasingly vote against their own financial interests by electing conservatives?

I’ve been asking that question here on Okie Funk since at least 2006 following the publication of Thomas Franks’ book What’s The Matter With Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America. In the book, Franks argues that conservative politicians use cultural wedge issues, such as abortion, to win votes while promoting an ideology that is financially detrimental to most people’s lives in places like Kansas and Oklahoma.

While Oklahomans, for example, elect politicians who profess to be small-government advocates and want cuts in entitlement programs, they also take advantage of government financial assistance in increasing numbers. It’s a striking contradiction.

An interactive map recently published in The Times shows that in some Oklahoma counties, the percentage of government money used as income is more than 35 percent, far above the national average of 17.6 percent. In Pushmataha County in southeastern Oklahoma, for example, 38.95 percent of all income is derived from government benefits programs, such as Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and unemployment insurance. In Tillman County in southwestern Oklahoma, the rate is 35.11 percent. Oklahomans rely on the government for assistance in huge numbers, and that’s nothing new.

As columnist Paul Krugman recently pointed out, “there’s no mystery about red-state reliance on government programs.”

Yet Oklahomans continue to elect politicians such as U.S. Sen. Tom Coburn, a Republican, who would cut government programs and essentially reduce their income and potential income.

So it’s an old issue, but it deserves to be revisited periodically. The Tea Party rhetoric of limited government and self-reliance doesn’t match the reality in Oklahoma. It’s the largest political contradiction of our era, and there doesn’t seem to be any resolution in the foreseeable future.