As we continue to pick up and figure out what happened and what to do in the wake of this disastrous election, much attention has focused on the rural white population that overwhelmingly voted for Donald Trump. This includes a large amount of the non-college degree white population in America, a demographic of men who voted 72% for Trump, and women who gave 62% of their votes to Trump.
This also resonated locally, as Trump won numerous rural areas of Wisconsin, including many counties in western Wisconsin that had voted twice for Barack Obama, and it helped explain how Trump snuck out a 1% win in the presidential race, and how Republicans expanded their majorities in the State Legislature.
Take a look at this Tweet from the New York Times' Nate Cohn to get an idea just how much the vote shifted in rural parts of the Upper Midwest
Along those lines, western Wisconsin State Senator Kathleen Vinehout went on Mike Gousha’s show over the weekend,
and tried to figure out why so many areas of rural Wisconsin that previously went blue ended up so red on Election Night.
After the election results, Vinehout called clerks and election judges in western Wisconsin to try and determine what happened. She found estimated increases in first-time voters making up as much as 10 percent of the vote, with the majority of these first time voters being what she considered “typical Trump voters,” describing them as “white men with work boots and fuzzy beards in their early 30s to mid 40s.”
Listen to the rare elected Dem from rural Wis
She said that part of the working-class enthusiasm for Trump could be traced to media coverage that painted Clinton supporters as college-educated elites.
“Sort of the class solidarity brought some folks to Trump that maybe should be Dem voters or would be Dem voters,” she said.
She also placed blame on Democrat’s reliance on campaign strategies that don’t work in rural contexts.
“And I’m kind of frustrated with some of the Madison insiders who constantly run cookie cutter campaigns, and they don’t realize a campaign in a rural area is very different,” Vinehout said. “If you’ve got a candidate who’s really in that area, who does the parades and the chicken dinners … It’s much better than talking with wealthy people and putting a lot of money into TV ads or direct mailers.”
I agree with the main idea here from Sen. Vinehout- Democratic Party officials and decision-makers are mostly made up of individuals who fit into the Obama Coalition of educated whites, minorities, and other socially-progressive minded people. While these demographic groups (of which I am a part of) are generally people that will help move the country ahead and believe in the right things, too many in the party have lost how to talk to and influence blue-collar whites, despite generally having policies that work better for that group of people.
I’d add one point to Vinehout’s analysis. The average GOP doesn’t gives much of a fuck about the average rural Wisconsinite (like the average big-city Dem doesn’t), but the Republican candidates have the advantage of GOPper-ganda radio and TV to plant their daily message, along with personalized items for rural people like guns or religion or property taxes. Dems continue to think that intrusive door-knocking and traditional media are the only way to reach people, because that’s what works better in densely-populated big cities. Instead, there needs to be constant messaging and awareness of the Dem message in local areas, and that includes billboards, LOCAL radio and TV ads, and open events encouraging people to see Dems on an everyday basis. Dems also need to give more appeals to the gut over trying to win intellectual arguments- most people living their day-to-day don’t have time for digesting these philosophies, and that’s doubly true in the noise leading up to a November election.
These variables seem to have created a false consciousness in rural Wisconsin that UW Professor Katherine Cramer described in her recent book “The Politics of Resentment.” Cramer wrote this in USA Today in April on the eve of the Wisconsin presidential primary
about common themes that came up in her interviews with small-town Wisconsin residents over the past few years.
There were three parts to rural resentment. Many folks perceived that the state government in Madison sucked in all of their money, and spent it on itself or on Milwaukee. They perceived that city folks did not understand their difficult economic situation — poverty and unemployment are higher in rural counties and median income is lower.
And they felt very few people were listening to their concerns. They were amazed when I came back to their groups for second and third visits.
They also resented how their own resentment of people in cities gets labeled as racism, and subsequently ignored. And they had a point. The resentment fueling our politics is more complex and thus more powerful (which is why it’s a mistake to write off Trump supporters as racists). Racism is part of this mix, but it is bound up with resentment toward a variety of entities, including government.
That potent mix of attitudes fuels our politics. When Scott Walker ran for governor of Wisconsin in 2010, he made use of these urban vs. rural divides (even though he was at the time the county executive of Milwaukee County) by warning that “our” roads wouldn’t get funding if we accepted an $810 million dollar federal grant for high speed rail between Madison and Milwaukee. He also talked about the overpaid public employees in “places like” Madison.
Some of this rings true. Because our media is based out of bigger cities and our national media is absorbed with the Acela corridor in the Northeast and Hollywood, small-town middle America is badly ignored. Combine that with the fact that almost all of the gains in the US economy in the last 16 years have been concentrated in cities, while smaller towns have flailed under outsourcing, de-industrialization, and a general loss of human capital to the larger amounts of opportunities and progressive way of life in bigger cities.
These places are dying and many people in both parties don’t seem to care about it. This is especially true when you look at alleged Democrats like Hillary Clinton and the corporatist DNC, where they talk is about “retraining” or “new economic opportunities” and worrying about student loan debt. All of these things are good ideas, but it’s not followed up by a lot of talk about how corporate America has screwed over the average non-college-educated worker by casting them aside like a rotten piece of meat, and how wages have been held down by union-busting and unrestricted trade with Third World countries.
Trump acknowledged that these left-behind people exist, said that the system was corrupt and slanted toward “elites”, and spoke to their economic concerns and the lack of hope. That apparently was all these people needed to hear, even if his tax plan is still failed, trickle-down garbage and will allow Wall Street and banksters to screw over everyday citizens more than ever. Team DNC/Clinton’s lame response was a theme of “Trump is dangerous, Trump is racist/sexist.”
If they really wanted the votes of small-town white America, they should have been saying “Trump is a buffoon who thinks you are stupid enough to fall for his bullcrap.”
But that doesn’t let these small-towners off the hook. Their whole “you hurt my feelings by saying I was racist/sexist” act is pathetic. These people go out of their way to say how tough and self-reliant they are (as if me and my wife aren’t, despite us paying a $2,000/month mortgage and thousands in property taxes every year), and how overly sensitive us eju-kated urban types are. But when someone criticizes the actions and motivations of the candidate they support (and his white-supremacist supporting cast),
they start screeching like little babies and claiming we don’t understand and that’s not what they’re about.
Sorry, but if you back someone that wants to treat large swaths of Americans as second-class citizens, voting for that candidate makes you compliant and accepting of that mentality and the policies that result. If being called out for doing so hurts you feelings, THAT IS A YOU PROBLEM,
and you should look inward and decide if you should be supporting someone like that. Or if supporting a racist doesn’t bother you, then stop bitching about people calling you on it, because why do you care what they say anyway?
Yes, the Democratic Party has real work to do to gain back the votes in white rural America, and it needs to stop playing footsie with corporates and insiders, and stop ignoring the real suffering that continues in small-town America. I do think being out of power will help this, because during the election campaign, saying that people were being left behind indirectly would be criticizing the otherwise-strong economic record of President Obama, and criticizing oligarchy and big-money control of politics implicitly indicted Hillary Clinton. Now Dems can and should speak freely about the true corruption and crippling economic inequality that is happening, both in America and especially in Wisconsin.
But small-town America also needs to get their ass off of auto-pilot, stop defaulting to flipping the middle finger of resentment and anger, and get on their feet in demanding more from business and government in having themselves be rewarded for their hard work. Also, those people need to get some moral backbone where they realize that demanding equal rights for everyone is something that helps everyone, and that they will not be immune to the moral and financial damage that results to this country if we injure people in the name of “Making America Great Again.”
I’m still flying back and forth between despair, rage, disgust, and wanting to chuck it all and stop caring. I have tremendous fears about how the GOP will abuse the levers of power and try to raise even more barriers from having democracy work for the everyday person (including voter suppression and crackdowns on free speech). But at the same time, I think silence and acceptance allows the evil to get worse, and I can’t let this go away, and we can’t let the Republicans destroy this thing. Getting the Democratic Party out of the big-city cocktail lounges and taking it into the small-town bars is one of the few options left to try to reverse a tide that is threatening to sweep aside democracy in this state and this country for good.
But it’s now going to take a lot more than it would have had both the Dems and small-town, less-educated white people stopped being insular and self-absorbed, and not messed up this November election in their own ways.