Most of us are asking – what on earth just happened? I have my own share of questions, namely how such an urban-focused primary created such a rural-based general campaign. With this new electoral map, however, I think there’s one conclusion we must discuss: this is the nationalization of what’s been called “the southern strategy”.
Somewhat rapidly, a section of national media has pushed back on understanding this as neatly tied together by former industrial workers in the Midwest switching party alignments. The Washington Post provides some of the best county-level data in maps like this:
While, yes, this casts doubt on a narrow connection between deindustrialization and racial radicalization, in many ways it suggests a broader dissolution in the upper Midwest – of a one unionized, White, largely Democrat-aligned, working class. Mechanization and globalization have given that group a bit of a one-two punch economically, and perhaps the instability that’s fostered has accelerated another recent trend – the decline of union membership and union support among them. Much of their local economic and social structure – which created nationally distinctive voting patterns – is gone now… so perhaps too are their Democrat-aligned ways.
It’s important to note that White people in much of the rest of the country went through this process long ago. It’s essentially the Southern Strategy writ large – that politicians can appeal to the distinctively White anxiety that people of color are getting a greater piece of the pie to distract us from political and economic conditions shrinking the pie overall.
That this is seen as a uniquely Southern phenomenon is a bit of a shame – it’s long been a huge factor in the inland West and Great Plains regions too among other corners of the country. Obama’s time in office, although one in which he has been soundly elected and reelected, has seen this strategy march to the north and east. First, it spread across Missouri, Tennessee, Kentucky, and West Virginia, but now, as the Post’s map shows, it’s progressed starkly into Ohio, Iowa, and it’s beginning to reach into Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and even upstate New York.
Minnesota is feeling these effects too – but like New York or Illinois, it’s buoyed by a huge urban center that makes up such a large portion of the state population that this mainly rural change can’t quite swing the state. It’s possible that with more extensive urban turnout this effect would have been similarly masked in Michigan and Pennsylvania. That may have already happened in 2012 and perhaps even 2008. It’s possible that this is a more dramatic map than what the new electoral equilibrium actually is. It’s also possible that this realignment among rural White voters isn’t complete, and that Democratic returns may continue to decline in rural areas in northern states, particularly in Minnesota, New Hampshire, and Vermont.
There are a couple of hazily antithetical options the Democratic Party has before it. Michael Moore and a variety of other commentators from the Upper Midwest have argued that “the people” need to “take over the Democratic Party“. It’s unclear what that means, but to recapture the demographic that’s proven so comfortable with racist sentiment seems impractical. While they may yet be won back with economic populism, that group has largely voted in such a way that shows they increasingly prefer economic racialism. Even if they personally see no benefits, they might prefer knowing someone else experiences greater or more severe economic losses.
As noted earlier, low turnout in this election was a particularly urban phenomenon in increasingly majority-minority districts, exacerbated perhaps by the top of the ticket having such a history of collusion with racist policies. Likewise, while the self proclaimed yet shockingly White progressive wing of the party often speaks favorably of ending those policies, they haven’t delivered. Worse yet, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren have both discussed a willingness to work with a Trump administration on infrastructure and other economic policies. A large chunk of White academia appears to be lining up behind those racialized economics.
Those “progressive” politics ignore the ways in which Trump’s economic vision is predicated on furthering the patterns by which those benefits are primarily or even only available to White people. If a portion of the Democratic Party can demonstrate a commitment to lower income people of color – who are the reason Democrats still carried the working class in this presidential election – maybe turnout surges, the margins move back into the Party’s favor in Michigan and Pennsylvania, and continue to improve in Arizona and Georgia. That is the new direction of real economic populism in this country, which now has a working class that is largely if not a majority of color.
Key among the provisions the Democratic Party must work on in those and other states to tap into the new demography of this country, however, are the twin pair of disenfranchisement and incarceration. Trump won not only those states but also Florida, North Carolina, and more due to the racist reality of who has the right to vote. If that changes, so does the map, into one that fully takes advantage of the emerging rural-urban split by opening up southern and southwestern states with growing and diversifying urban centers. This is a strategy that’s already changed the map – transforming Nevada and Colorado into strikingly Democratic-leaning states based off of just two key cities – Las Vegas and Denver.
Democrats have a choice between a strategy like that, which is based off of forging ahead with new economic and social realities in the country, or attempting to recapture some rural White voters. In opting for the latter, there are some jobs that potentially could be brought back to the United States from the other countries they are now performed in, but even outside of the questions of how to do that, there’s the reality that that’s not where many of these disappearing jobs have gone. Huge numbers of them have been lost to automation, without any sort of imaginable reversing “fix”. What’s more, many of the jobs this once unionized rural White working class are still here and they’re still doing them.
Seeking to turn back the clock on not only off-shoring but also technological advancement and race relations seems not only a tall order, but a futile effort to salvage a fading voting pattern among a shrinking number of people in only one region of the country. That would be an intriguing response to an election where the Democrats were charged with not thinking enough about all demographics.