The Democrats Have to Fight for (Some) Rural Votes
I’ll be writing long pieces on this later, but for right now I’ll be relatively brief. I enjoyed E.J. Dionne’s column today and I appreciate his level headedness and basic decency.
One thing Democrats need to do is to understand the scope and nature of their problem. They just ran a presidential election in which they got more votes. They ran house elections in which they got more votes. I’m not sure about the overall Senate tally (it’s distorted because only a third of the Senate was up for reelection, and that third was tilted red), but they gained a couple of seats. The Democrats have a lot of support. Their problem is the shape of their support.
The challenge is not just to sustain and hopefully grow their plurality base of voters, but to change the demographic nature of their supporters. This is why you’ll hear people like me say that the Democrats absolutely cannot ignore that they lost 75%-80% of the white vote in county after county in Pennsylvania and the Upper Midwest. This is the kind of racial voting we’ve seen in the South for years, and if it becomes the norm in the North it will make it impossible for the Democrats to win control of state legislatures in that region, make it nearly impossible to win back the U.S. House of Representatives, and give the Republicans a narrow opening to win the Electoral College with a minority of the popular vote, again.
A lot of people do not like the sound of that. But I don’t care how it sounds. It isn’t a value statement or an assessment of worth. It’s just a diagnosis of a problem. How you solve it, if it can be solved, is what ought to be controversial. The fact that it needs to be solved should not.
To be clear, this isn’t a matter of changing the party so that it abandons its preexisting base on civil, women’s or gay rights. The goal does not need to be to win white rural counties that have socially conservative values and a strong skepticism about the federal government. Obama didn’t win most of those counties. In fact, he struggled to get 30% of the vote in most of them. But he won two presidential elections with relative ease, and he carried the House with him in the first one. So, this is about reestablishing some support in areas where it totally collapsed in 2016, not about selling anyone out.
My concern is that things like this have a momentum of their own, and voting behaviors can easily become entrenched. There’s something fundamentally different about a community that will give 30%-35% of its votes to the Democrats and one which will only give them 15%-20%. In the latter case, voting Democrat is almost antisocial. If you live in a major city or a college town, you know how culturally suspect it is to be an outspoken Republican. The same type of thing (in reverse) in our northern exurbs and rural areas is what developed this year, and it basically describes what caught most everyone by surprise, including the pollsters and both campaigns.
This should be treated as a major threat to the left. It’s a full blown crisis.
On the one hand, we’re talking about winning back only 10%-15% of the white working class/rural vote, which doesn’t sound all that daunting. On the other hand, it could prove as impossible to do as winning 25% of the white vote in Alabama or Mississippi.
But, unless the left is content to be a permanent minority in state legislatures and in Congress, and to lose presidential elections it should win, it has to solve this problem.
And part of solving it is in understanding how certain decisions and behaviors from the Democratic base made it easier for Trump to convince the white people in these counties that the Democrats were hostile and not on their side. I mean, this is a big challenge in any case, but the least we can do is not make it more difficult through our own myopic reaction.
Whenever anyone tries to discuss these uncomfortable truths, it invites a defensive response that is understandable but typically unhelpful. It’s natural to pile contempt on people who thought Donald Trump is competent to serve as the president of the United States. It’s normal to be outraged when folks vote for a guy who disrespected every vulnerable community in the country and who promised to oppress and harass them. But a huge number of those folks voted for Obama once (or even twice) before voting for Trump. Those are the folks we need back. The rest we never had, can’t get, and probably don’t want.
The left will need imaginative political leaders and strategists, but the rest of us can get started by simply refusing to do Trump’s work for him. And that’s not easy, because we can be easily provoked and react with thoughtless and self-destructive behaviors.
As much as possible, we need to avoid that.