There's a sudden scramble to discover exactly "what went wrong" with the 2016 election, and how an Agent of Chaos such as Donald Trump defeated Hillary Clinton, a candidate who, as her most dedicated supporters liked to remind us, was the most qualified person ever to run for President. It appears there were quite a few reasons, but one of the more talked about is the fact that Clinton was unable to get enough votes from white working-class people. The demographic once reliably voted Democratic, but has drifted toward the Republican side over several decades.
Now, political analysts and Democratic Party insiders are trying to figure out how that demographic can be won over again. That's a problem with many causes, but it's long been known that white Americans living outside of densely populated cities tend to be more conservative than their counterparts residing in urban environments. Looking at post-election maps showing where voters for Trump and Clinton were concentrated, America looks like an ocean of red with blue borders on the coasts. It's not quite that simple, as education is also a huge factor, but far fewer progressive voters reside in the "flyover" countryside than in America's big cities. A recent article in The Atlantic pointed out, "The voting data suggest that people don't make cities liberal — cities make people liberal." The same article notes, "The gap is so stark that some of America's bluest cities are located in its reddest states. Every one of Texas' major cities — Austin, Dallas, Houston, and San Antonio — voted Democratic in 2012, the second consecutive presidential election in which they've done so."
Clearly, there's a political/social schism between whites living in big cities and those residing in smaller communities and rural areas. It's a culture war that's been around for ages, with distrust and animosity continuing to grow between both camps. While it once was enough to find at least some common ground based on all of us being Americans, nowadays there seems to be more than one America, and the folks living in each don't see eye to eye on much of anything.
One doesn't have to go far to see this culture war reflected in our entertainment. Stereotypes of urban progressives are as common as slimy lawyer characters in television shows and movies. Usually depicted as being intelligent but lacking real-world experience and championing ridiculous causes, they're portrayed as irritating, smug and condescending. It's even easier to find unkind depictions of rural Americans — whether we're laughing at the hijinks of wealthy rednecks in The Beverly Hillbillies or being scared to death of venturing into the countryside and encountering Leatherface and his murderous family, Hollywood has been exploiting fear of country folk for years.
Looking back to the monstrous rednecks in Deliverance or Easy Rider and realizing there's an entire sub-genre of horror films encompassing The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Hills Have Eyes, and countless other redneck scare films, the message to city folk has been clear — "People living in the country are dangerous; journey away from cities at your own risk."
That mutual distrust has created an environment in which Americans living in different types of communities tend to vote very differently and view each other with suspicion. Many working-class whites living outside of large cities apparently feel abandoned by both major parties, but seem especially alienated from the Democrats. In a recent Slate interview with The New Yorker's George Packer, he observed that "In the absence of either party doing a whole lot for them, they drifted toward the party that at least seemed to have a feel for their way of life, sounded more like them, saw the world more like them." Packer went on, explaining, "This was a grievous illusion, but it was a powerful one in the absence of a Democratic Party that knew how to reach those voters."
Many Democrats I've spoken to have contemptuously repeated the "they vote against their best interests" line in regards to struggling poor and working-class whites. Packer also observed this, saying, "That famous line from Obama about clinging to guns and religion, because they're bitter about their economic fortunes: He wasn't wrong, except in a sense guns and religion are not a pretext for resentment for a lot of people. They actually matter. When Democrats can't understand that, or think people are "voting against their interests" when they may have all kinds of different interests, that becomes a form of condescension that drives people in the other direction."
A lot of people point to Clinton's loss as being caused by racist whites, but that's not entirely accurate. Sure, racists voted for Trump, and are delighted he won, but to assume that the majority of white Trump voters are virulent racists is erroneous. Unfortunately, it's easy to turn marginalized and increasingly desperate people against other groups that are being scapegoated, which is an ugly aspect of human nature, and a lesson on how racism can rise in a nation, but to blame Clinton's loss on racist whites is not accurate (Jon Stewart addresses that at around the four-minute mark in the embedded video above). She lost working-class white voters who'd voted for President Obama, so while racism may have been a factor with some Trump voters, it seems obvious that something else was driving away many white working-class people from Clinton. The danger in simplifying her loss by saying it was rooted in racism or sexism is that it ignores many other factors, and makes it more likely that those issues won't be acknowledged or addressed. President Obama commented on this disconnect with white working-class voters in a recent interview with Rolling Stone magazine.
He said, "Part of the challenge, though, that we do have, and this is something that I've been chewing on for a while now, is that there is a cohort of working-class white voters that voted for me in sizable numbers, but that we've had trouble getting to vote for Democrats in midterm elections. In this election, (they) turned out in huge numbers for Trump. And I think that part of it has to do with our inability, our failure, to reach those voters effectively."
One of the biggest challenges to winning back those lost white working-class voters will be to bridge the differences in culture that divide their communities from life in big cities. I've seen plenty of progressives who seem to subscribe to a form of social Darwinism that's of the "those jobs are never coming back, and screw them if they can't adjust" variety. That kind of animosity, which is probably based in a lack of empathy for people they think are backwards, dismisses the challenges to hurting American communities, as if nothing can or should be done to help. It seems immoral to me and ignores the possibility that opportunities and resources may be very limited in some communities, but it's also a bad strategy for progress. As Natalie Jackson wrote in a recent Huffington Post article, "Republicans have a demographics problem, and Democrats have a geography problem compounded by turnout issues." Essentially, a Democratic Party that's betting that a "Coalition of the Ascendant" is enough to win elections, is mistaken. Jackson points out, "To state the obvious, as long as the Electoral College determines the winner, Democrats can't rely on increasing support in already-blue states, and it seems that key red states aren't ready to flip yet."
The trick Democrats will have to master is regaining support from working-class whites living outside of huge cities, without abandoning the marginalized groups that have been more of a focus in recent years. It's a tricky balancing act, but they'll need to do it.
Keep the Houston Press Free... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Houston with no paywalls.