Democrats and rural America

  • (Unsplash.com/Ales Krivec)

Democrats have bemoaned the fact that so many white, working class, ethnic and largely Catholic voters do not vote "their interests" at election time. By "their interests," it is meant economic interests: Republicans help the rich, and Democrats help the non-rich. Repeatedly, those voters demonstrate that they care about things other than their paycheck, that there are divides in values and the perception of values that are completely opaque to the Democratic strategists who wonder why they keep losing elections they should be winning.

A new survey by the Kaiser Foundation and the Washington Post looks at this phenomenon through the lens of geography, specifically, urban vs. rural Americans. Election night, as we would break down the vote totals in different counties, it became increasingly clear that Trump's victory was built almost entirely on his enormous margins in rural areas.

If Democratic strategists usually underestimate the significance of cultural and non-economic divergences between urban and rural voters, the opposite mistake seems to be at work in this Kaiser/Post survey. For example, the Post analysis of the survey states:

Rural Americans express far more concern about jobs in their communities, but the poll finds that those concerns have little connection to support for Trump, a frequent theory to explain his rise in 2016. Economic troubles also show little relation to the feeling that urban residents have different values.

Rural voters who lament their community's job prospects report supporting Trump by 14 percentage points more than Clinton, but Trump's support was about twice that margin — 30 points — among voters who say their community's job opportunities are excellent or good. Trump also earned about the same level of support from those who say they don't worry about paying their bills as those who couldn't pay their bills at some point in the past year.

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This suggests that there is really no connection between economic status and political preference, but there are complex ways that a bit of economic data, e.g. job prospects, affect the worldview of a community, confirming some prior beliefs while questioning others. People can be doing well economically themselves and they may be voting Republican because they buy into the meritocracy myths the GOP places at the center of their narratives about social mobility.

Liberals do the same thing with terrorism, arguing that if people had better economic opportunities, they wouldn't turn to terrorism. Historically, most terrorists are usually middle class and educated, not poor. These unsophisticated attacks being carried out by, or inspired by, ISIS are an exception, relying on ne'er-do-wells with a violent streak, and it remains to be seen if such attacks can continue for long. But none of the 9/11 attackers were culled from the ranks of the destitute.

Still, I hope that all liberal and Democratic Party strategists pay attention to this survey. The Post writes:

The largest fissures between Americans living in large cities and those in less-dense areas are rooted in misgivings about the country's changing demographics and resentment about perceived biases in federal assistance, according to the poll.

Rural residents are nearly three times as likely (42 percent) as people in cities (16 percent) to say that immigrants are a burden on the country.

"They're not paying taxes like Americans are. They're getting stuff handed to them," said Larry E. Redding, a retired canning factory employee in Arendtsville, Pa. "Free rent, and they're driving better vehicles than I'm driving and everything else."

Now, these are distinct data points with an obvious, but erroneous, linkage. The demographics of the country are changing, and Democrats and liberals can and should embrace such change. But, the resentment about biases in federal assistance is, as noted, "perceived." It is like the perception that the U.S. government spends a quarter of its budget on foreign aid. It is not true. Many immigrants are paying taxes, and those without papers are paying payroll taxes the benefits of which they will never see: Remove the contributions of undocumented workers into the Social Security Trust Fund and it would go bankrupt even sooner! No, this perception is rooted in a conscious and very, very evil political strategy undertaken by Republicans, to create exploitable divisions within the electorate and create a justification for cutting back on government programs. This isn't just Trump either: It was Ronald Reagan who used to complain about "welfare queens."

Let's look at another false narrative. The Kaiser/Post survey states:

When asked which is more common — that government help tends to go to irresponsible people who do not deserve it or that it doesn't reach people in need — rural Americans are more likely than others to say they think people are abusing the system. And across all areas, those who believe irresponsible people get undeserved government benefits are more likely than others to think that racial minorities receive unfair privileges.

There most certainly are people who are "abusing the system," but those people are not "racial minorities [who] receive unfair privileges" or, at any rate, very little abuse and none of it consequential comes from poor and "irresponsible people" getting benefits to which they are not entitled. It is the rich folk who pay almost no taxes, or far less than your average worker, who are abusing the system. It is the large corporations that extort tax breaks from states and municipalities by threatening to move to a different location that are abusing the system. It is the hedge fund managers who get their profits taxed as capitals gains instead of wages who are abusing the system. I am all for ending "waste, fraud and abuse," but that trio is invoked to attack poor folk, not the real culprits.

President Barack Obama used to say "good policy is good politics." His observation was correct, but it was not exhaustive. A good, even if false, narrative can overwhelm good policy at election time. Democrats and liberals need to start by actually listening to rural Americans and learning to love them, distinguishing between their bad information and their generally large hearts, recognizing that they know a lot of things city dwellers do not: Can you graft an apple tree? My neighbors in Washington may have been up to speed on the latest developments on Capitol Hill, but my neighbors in rural Connecticut know how to fix a car, rebuild a barn, renovate a bathroom, and make those of us who do not know how to do those things pay through the nose to get it done! Calling a large swath of rural voters "deplorable" is not the way to win their votes. Telling them they are "on the wrong side of history" won't attract them either. Nor does equating conservatism with bigotry help.

Democrats know that the Republicans will play to rural voters' fears: The left must play to their hopes, and you have to get to know people to know what it is they hope for.

Marx once denounced "the idiocy of rural life." He was wrong. And, until liberals recognize how wrong he was, those who enjoy the rural life will make them pay at the polls for their anti-rural prejudice.

[Michael Sean Winters covers the nexus of religion and politics for NCR.]​

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June 16-29, 2017

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