Donald Trump’s victory in the presidential election Tuesday was a stunning upset. Republicans, who have rarely shown any concern over urban issues, now control all three branches of the federal government and the voters that won the election for him were rural, semi-urban and suburban white blue collar workers, according to The Washington Post.
In fact, the urban-rural divide was the biggest in American history this year. People in Boston were stunned and spontaneous marches began in Los Angeles and New York. It’s understandable why urban liberals voted for Hillary Clinton, but what hasn’t been understandable is why rural people would vote for Trump. Trump’s policies have been inconsistent at best, his ideology veered from authoritarian ethno-nationalism to being further left than Clinton. Republican voters who supported (nominally) small government social and fiscal conservatives turned out in droves to support the most pro-big government candidate since Richard Nixon.
Intellectuals, as FA Hayek once said, overvalue intelligence. Perhaps pundits overvalue policy. While this could be true, Trump had terrible favoribility ratings among his own voters and many of them didn’t even think he was qualified to be president. Clearly, it wasn’t his winning personality that attracted them. The explanation one is likely to hear in Boston is that all his supporters are racists, but this is unlikely to be the only factor — especially since many of the counties Trump won in states like Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Florida and Wisconsin voted for Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012. It looks like David Wong was right: Trump is a brick in the window.
But that’s where Kathy Cramer comes in. A professor at the University of Wisconsin Madison has been researching why rural voters choose to vote the way they do. She was recently interviewed by The Post’s Jeff Guo and there are some interesting quotes in it (h/t to Daniel Kay Hertz).
Through her repeated interviews with the people of rural Wisconsin, she shows how politics have increasingly become a matter of personal identity. Just about all of her subjects felt a deep sense of bitterness toward elites and city dwellers; just about all of them felt tread on, disrespected and cheated out of what they felt they deserved.
For instance, she says, most rural Wisconsinites supported the tea party’s quest to shrink government not out of any belief in the virtues of small government but because they did not trust the government to help “people like them.”
“Support for less government among lower-income people is often derided as the opinions of people who have been duped,” she writes. However, she continues: “Listening in on these conversations, it is hard to conclude that the people I studied believe what they do because they have been hoodwinked. Their views are rooted in identities and values, as well as in economic perceptions; and these things are all intertwined.”
And she told Guo,
Cramer: Part of where that comes from is just the overarching story that we tell ourselves in the U.S. One of the key stories in our political culture has been the American Dream — the sense that if you work hard, you will get ahead.
Well, holy cow, the people I encountered seem to me to be working extremely hard. I’m with them when they’re getting their coffee before they start their workday at 5:30 a.m. I can see the fatigue in their eyes. And I think the notion that they are not getting what they deserve, it comes from them feeling like they’re struggling. They feel like they’re doing what they were told they needed to do to get ahead. And somehow it’s not enough.
Oftentimes in some of these smaller communities, people are in the occupations their parents were in, they’re farmers and loggers. They say, it used to be the case that my dad could do this job and retire at a relatively decent age, and make a decent wage. We had a pretty good quality of life, the community was thriving. Now I’m doing what he did, but my life is really much more difficult.
I’m doing what I was told I should do in order to be a good American and get ahead, but I’m not getting what I was told I would get.
That’s a lot of block quotes, but they’re pretty key. They outline the powerlessness, the fearfulness and the struggle people in these rural communities face. Now, it is manifestly not the case that people who live in cities aren’t struggling — a logger or a farmer from East Podunk probably has a lot in common with a janitor or security guard in Boston, making little more than minimum wage and working longer hours for fewer benefits even as the rent goes up year after year, along with the cost of the T, while the service gets worse and worse.
The response from middle and upper class coastal liberals, thought leaders and the “elite” (and even some hot-headed libertarian urbanists) has been to just assume that Trump and Trump voters are racist, sexist bullying Nazis. It’s a staggering lack, not only of charity, but of curiosity. To be that uninterested in the concerns of one’s fellow citizens and to just assume malice, is not merely arrogance but it shows that they are actually correct about us Coastal Elites.
Instead of vengefully heaving the brick back at whomever threw it, perhaps something else can be done with it, instead.
Trump is almost certain to fail to solve these problems, or at least, this election could trigger a swinging pendulum of using the federal government to attack the other side, much as goes on in Pennsylvania. That would not be a solution.
Consider the issue of power and powerlessness. In the 1964 case of Reynolds v. Sims, the Supreme Court ruled 8-1 that state senate districts must be apportioned on the basis of “One man, one vote,” which Chief Justice Earl Warren effectively invented in the ruling.
In his majority opinion, he wrote that “Legislators represent people, not trees or acres. Legislators are elected by voters, not farms or cities or economic interests.” This is another of Warren’s famous “emanations and penumbras” because there is no Constitutional basis for it. In fact, since the United States Senate is not apportioned according to population, then it seems that the Founders did believe that there was more to a legislature than people.
Illinois Senator Everett Dirksen’s warning of states being dominated by their major cities has proved prescient. He proposed a Constitutional amendment to overturn it, but died before it could go anywhere. It could be revived.
As far as the decline in community and family life that has resulted in the huge increases in mortality, drug addiction and suicide in these places, this is where the built environment has to be addressed. As Charles Marohn has spent that last several years pointing out, towns have gone massively into debt on infrastructure spending that does not result in enough economic activity to pay for it. That is compounded by the use of tax abatements and subsidies to try and bring back factory jobs and an educational system that encourages young people to go heavily into debt to get an education (not to mention an indoctrination) and then to pay off the debt they have to move to cities, so the small towns are losing their young people both in terms of location and seeing them being taught to regard their parents as class enemies and their parents’ values as inherently hateful and privileged all the while they have to keep running harder just to stay in place.
Meanwhile, instead of towns where one can walk places and get to know one’s neighbors naturally, oodles of federal money have been sloshing around encouraging people to buy more house than they can afford, to live car-dependent lives and the inevitable isolation and alienation that results from it.
And this has been going on for decades.
But all is not lost. We can still live within our means and rebuild our communities to suit the good life and not some strange federal scheme from the 1950s. We can take that brick and use it to build the future.