Taking Back the Map

2016 Presidential Election Results by County

Since the 2016 election the Left has argued with itself about whether the obstinate ignorance of Trump voters is rooted in racism or in economic anxiety. I’ve been saying all along that it’s both, and that while there’s not much one can do about the racism, the party needs to address the economic anxiety. I’ve found some new ammunition for my position.

Thomas B. Edsall writes in the New York Times that there is a very strong correlation between districts flipping from Democratic to Republican and districts experiencing economic erosion, and vice versa. Parts of the country doing well economically are safe for Democrats. Parts of the country where incomes are stagnant and jobs are scarcer than they used to be get redder and redder.

Candidates on the right do best during hard times and in recent elections, they have gained the most politically in regions experiencing the sharpest downturn. Electorally speaking, in other words, Republicans profit from economic stagnation and decline.

Let’s return to John Austin of the Michigan Economic Center. In an email he describes this unusual situation succinctly: “A rising economic tide tends to sink the Trump tugboat,” adding

“Certainly more people and communities that are feeling abandoned, not part of a vibrant economy means more fertile ground for the resentment politics and ‘blaming others’ for people’s woes (like immigrants and people of color) that fuel Trump’s supporters.”

In June 2017, Austin demonstrated the importance of struggling white communities to the Republican Party. His study of the 2016 presidential results in the Midwest showed how strong turnout among voters in regions facing economic deterioration can help Republicans.

In other countries there are similar correlations between people who have suffered under austerity policies and a resurgence of right-wing populism. In other words, if you want people to not become klansmen and nazis, think about how the economy is working for working-class folks.

The arguments denying that economic anxiety have anything to do with the reddening of America usually are based on the fact that in 2016 Trump voters had a higher median income than Clinton voters. But Clinton got 91 percent of the African American vote and 66 percent of the Latino vote. She also got a higher percentage of women, including 98 percent of black women. White men enjoy a  higher median income even if they live in poor precincts. It’s also the case that the people who voted in those poor districts represented the upper incomes in their districts. This is why places that backed Trump skewed poor; voters who backed Trump skewed wealthier.

See Robert Reich, Democrats once represented the working class. Not any more. That’s why there’s so much red on the map.

The current issue of Washington Monthly is dedicated to taking back the map. This is something Democrats must do, whether they like it or not, if they are ever to dominate national politics and policy once again. (Although you would be surprised at how many Dems I’ve run into who think it’s perfectly fine that the party has been shut out of large sections of the country.) I especially want to recommend Paul Glastris, Check Your Coastal Urban Privilege.

I’d like to extend McIntosh’s concept to another form of unearned advantage: the economic opportunities enjoyed by residents of a handful of the nation’s largest and wealthiest coastal metropolitan areas. Cities like San Francisco, New York, and Washington, D.C., and their suburbs, have raced ahead of most of the rest of the country in recent decades. But the well-educated liberals who most benefit from all this economic growth—the same people who are most likely to be woke to privilege in other contexts—don’t seem to recognize that a substantial portion of the gains are unearned, ill-gotten, and coming at someone else’s expense. 

Put simply, these big liberal metro areas aren’t thriving simply because they’re liberal, or educated, or “innovative”; they’re doing so in large part thanks to federal policies that allow them to suck up more than their fair share of the nation’s wealth. Since 1980, the gap between the per capita income in the wealthiest 10 percent of metro areas and the poorest 10 percent has grown by 21 percent. The contrast with rural America is even starker. As recently as twenty years ago, sparsely populated counties were doing fine; in fact, during the first four years of the 1990s boom, their rates of business start-ups and employment growth exceeded those of the big cities. But their economies collapsed during the 2008 recession and have not recovered, even as the largest metro areas have flourished. 

…This magazine has long made the argument–advanced in this issue in twin cover stories by Daniel Block and Claire Kelloway–that the migration of wealth and opportunity to a handful of coastal metro areas is not primarily the consequence of inevitable market forces, but of policy choices made in Washington. Beginning in the 1970s, and with accelerating force in the 1980s, elected officials dismantled a set of rules that for decades had allowed all parts of the country to compete on a level playing field. These included safeguards for local banks and retailers, regulations that kept the costs of air travel relatively uniform throughout the country, and strict enforcement of federal antitrust laws. 

And, of course, under Trump this trend has continued, and the economies of rural and former rust belt areas that voted for Trump have gotten worse. Although I am loathe to attribute any effect of Trump to any sort of intention, one does wonder (as Edsall speculates) if Republicans are trying to kill the economy deliberately to maintain their own power.

See Nancy LeTourneau, Coal Country Is Dying. All Trump Has Are Lies. and What Happens When a Metropolitan Area Shares the Wealth.

This is a complex issue that Democrats cannot ignore.

17 thoughts on “Taking Back the Map

  1. A few months after my flight I was back in DC for a hearing and wound up at the Mandarin Hotel. It's only a five-star hotel because there are no six-star hotels. The Democrats had a shindig going on and we were going to work the crowd in the bar after the meetings broke up. My friend knew some of the folks and introduced me to a gent in an expensive suit. When he realized who I was he looked like he urgently wanted to wash his hand least any popularism rub off and stain his aristocratic hide.

    For many of the movers and shakers in the party, social issues are a huge swindle. Promise equal rights to whoever (they don't really care) gays, Dreamers, left-handed redheads from outer Mongolia, and let the fat cat Dem donors have access to the public treasury. They have the lobbyist thing to a tee. As long as Dems are in power, it's party time for them.

    My platform advocates a wall of separation between big money and our government, a formula that would leave him with no leverage. And he knew it – and didn't like it. 

    Maha describes a situation where Democrats in government are perfectly happy to shift the spoils to the pockets of their donor class (invariably in the cities) frequently at the expense of the rural class. It strikes me as an accurate picture of what's happening.

    What Democrats in the House need to do is craft legislation that would benefit the rural working class – even in (especially in) red districts. The GOP would be stuck either way – voting it down is toxic and passing good legislation from Democrats that benefits citizens (even republican citizens) will get noticed. (Look up the background of Samaritans and their relationship with the Jews to understand that parable.)

  2. "Beginning in the 70's…"

     Further proof that the unraveling of America's form of representative democracy started with Nixon, and then went into overdrive during Reagan and "Papa Doc" Bush.

    And tRUMP is putting these dismantling policies into hyperdrive – mosly because neither he, nor anyone in his (mis)administration, has a fucking clue how the act of governing and the actual government itself, work!

    My recommendation to Dem's running in less dense areas – actually, in ALL AREAS – is simple:  Blow the dust off FDR's "Second Bill of Rights (AKA:  "The Economic Bill of Rights"), update it to include ALL people, and watch how far it takes you!

  3. The same issue of Wash Monthly also has an article on how the Dems could take back parts of farm country. The big reveal for me was that it is not so much Trump's tariffs that have the farmers unhappy, but the way that Big Ag has them by the neck on both ends of their business. They raise the prices of their inputs and cut the prices they get paid for what they grow. It is this that is a long term burden on them, while the tariffs are a transient phenomenon by comparison. Giant corporations are squeezing them badly and a Democrat who could address this in a clear and bold manner with some actual policy proposals could peel off a bunch of votes. Obama's Sec Ag Tom Vilsack had put forth a fairly weak set of proposed rules to deal with these problems, and Monsanto etc pushed back hard and fast, so that the rules were not put through. But Trump's Sec Ag Sonny Perdue has sided with the big corporations completely. 



    J.D. Scholten came close to defeating Steve King in Iowa with this message in 2018. The Dems need to listen to what he has to say about all of this. 

  4. "…Big Ag has them by the neck on both ends of their business."

    cf, the "Smile Curve":

    The concept of the smile curve was first proposed around 1992 by Stan Shih, the founder of Acer, a technology company headquartered in Taiwan. Shih (1996) observed that in the personal computer industry, both ends of the value chain command higher values added to the product than the middle part of the value chain. If this phenomenon is presented in a graph with a Y-axis for value-added and an X-axis for value chain, the resulting curve appears in the shape of a smile

  5. With respect to "regulations that kept the costs of air travel relatively uniform throughout the country".  I note that all of the counties that are served by airline hubs went for Hilary excluding Maricopa County (Phoenix) but including the respective counties for the freight carriers DHL, Fedex and UPS.  Better than 90% of EAS airports–these are subsidized by the federal governmet went for Trump.  Often those small EAS airports that went for Hilary could be said to be in some sense elite, e.g., Hancock County, ME–The Bar Harbor Airport; Clinton County, NY–Plattsburgh Airport which refers to itself as Montreal's US airport, etc.

  6. I don't want to argue too much with Glastris, as I think that he makes good points. But I wonder if he has been too influenced by who he reads or listens to. Yes, there are plenty of coastal arrogant assholes. But in our time of great and increasing inequality, averages do not reflect the situation of average people. Take the SF Bay Area, which is where I live. Affluent people are driving regular people out of town, to the suburbs and exurbs, simply by raising the cost of living. Remember that pissant who complained about having to see homeless people on the streets of San Francisco a couple of years ago. Like he couldn't be bothered. 

    One theme I would like to touch on is segregation. Despite any gains that may have been made in the past generation with regard to race in the US, the country is now more segregated than it has been for a long time. Segregation feeds ignorance about people you don't live with. You have to make some effort to understand "all those others", as Nixon called them, and even then, without concrete experience it is hard to put yourself in their shoes. And the city/country divide is a natural form of segregation. Blaming the one for not understanding the other is facile, and does little or nothing to alleviate the problem. Although I would like to abolish the electoral college, I am glad for the institution of the Senate, if not its current composition. As William Jennings Bryan pointed out in his Cross of Gold speech, without the countryside, our cities would be wastelands. The Senate is one place that brings together people from the city and the country on a more or less equal footing.

    Another theme is monopolies and monopsonies. Seeing their evil, we passed anti-trust legislation over a century ago. While still on the books, that legislation has been defanged, and the resultant lack of economic competition is one driver of growing inequality. Gigantic corporations suck up money from everybody else, even regular people who live in coastal cities. Isn't Apple still sitting on a large hoard of cash, rather than investing it in the US? (If not, my apologies.) And where are Amazon, Apple, Microsoft, Starbucks, and Walmart,  et al., located? In cities, OC. Their presence drives up the average income, while doing little for the income of the average person. Where is Teddy Roosevelt when you need him?

    • Billikin — as a native midwesterner who lived in the New York City area for about 35 years and am back in the Midwest — in fact, even liberal and open-minded coastal progressives are, at the very least, utterly oblivious to the very real and not imaginary economic hollowing-out of the Midwest. And many do not see the bigger pattern and think that if the Midwest is hurting it’s their own fault. I appreciate the cost of living problem in big cities; I’d rather be in New York City now but can’t afford it, so I’m not. But that’s really a separate issue.

      A few pockets of exception do not change the reality that vast numbers of communities have lost their industrial base and are struggling to survive. My old home town today, for example, is coasting on retiree union pensions. Seriously; retirees have all the money, so people can still make a living providing goods and services to them. When the union retirees are gone I don’t see what’s going to take their place. And that’s pretty common.

      There was a time that throughout the Midwest a young man could graduate high school and by the following week have a secure union job in the local factory or mine or whatever, and he’d get union wages and benefits, and all that money circulated in the community and kept shops and car dealers and hardware stores in business. The one salary usually was enough to buy a house and a new car every few years and provided a secure retirement. Now the union jobs have dried up, families need two incomes to survive, and they get no retirement benefits. Enterprising people are still able to patch together a decent living, but not a secure one. The erosion coninues, and I don’t see it turning around. And in most of the Midwest this is the rule rather than the exception.

      Combined with the way family farms have been hammered, it’s just plain sad. A big part of the problem is that between Big Agribusiness and the chain stores like Walmart that put locally owned shops out of business, what profits a community does generate don’t stay in the community. The profits go to shareholders far, far away. This creates a kind of economic death spiral for a community that locals can’t fix by themselves; they need help.

  7. …allowed all parts of the country to compete on a level playing field. These included safeguards for local banks and retailers, regulations that kept the costs of air travel relatively uniform throughout the country, and strict enforcement of federal antitrust laws. 

    And these places overwhelmingly voted for the Republican politicians who did these things (or worse than the Dems, who weren’t great on these issues either), and who favor Big Ag and Mall-Wart domination.

    I don't blame them for the economic conditions that are devastating their areas, but when their response is to vote for more devastation because Messicans or Gunz or Jeebus are more important to them, they need to take responsibility for that.

    • Mike G — Part of the problem is that the withdrawal of Democrats from big chunks of the country is so total that people never hear any political messaging other than Republican messaging. Democrats are like aliens from Mars. I think that if people could hear the Democratic sides of arguments a lot of them could be persuaded. But first Democrats have to show up and start communicating. And that’s a big reason why the strategy of running Republican Lite Democrats who don’t present progressive arguments in those states has been stupid.

  8. "…dismantled a set of rules that for decades had allowed all parts of the country to compete on a level playing field. These included safeguards for local banks and retailers, regulations that kept the costs of air travel relatively uniform throughout the country, and strict enforcement of federal antitrust laws."

    If the hollowing out of rural communities is the result of this, it can't be laid exclusively at the feet of liberal coastal elites.  This sounds like the result of the Ayn Rand, laissez faire, anti regulation conservative policies that republicans have pushed for decades to benefit the 1%.  Sure cities benefited, because that's where the beneficiaries of these policies are situated.

    That said, knowing this, democrats have a responsibility if they are the party of "working families" to either push back on these policies or fight for ways to mitigate their impact on working people, where ever they are, in urban or rural communities.  The democrats during the Obama era failed to do this, and this accounts, in part, for why some former Obama voters, misguided though are, went for Trump.


  9. maha, thank you for your eloquent response. 🙂 I have been aware of the problems you cite for a long time, but only after the fact. I was not aware when it was happening. But that problem affects the whole country. While the real income of the US as a whole has increased more than 6 times since 1980, the real income of the average person has barely changed. All the prosperity has been sucked up to the top. This is why we have to talk about average people, not about averages. And, as you point out, the midwest has suffered in the process. The US economy has become Dickensian, with penury in the midst of plenty.

    A surprising number of people say that unionism is dead in the US. But we have been in similar straits before, with capitalism gone wild, and the answer then lay in unionism and progressivism. Perhaps today it also lies in socialism, not textbook socialism, where the state owns the means of production, but programs such a social insurance and public education. 


    • Billikin–the problem isn’t being felt the same way in the whole country. Yes, poor people in big cities are struggling, too, but there is a huge amount of wealth in circulation within the big cities that isn’t going away, and the upper income people in those communities are nicely insulated. In small town a rural areas the money in circulation is drying up, so that even the wealthiest people in those communities are not feeling financially secure. You are conflating two different (although related) issues. And this takes us to the premise in the articles I cited, which is that precincts that voted for Hillary Clinton tend to be wealthy and tend to be generators of wealth. The areas that voted for Trump are drying up economically. This has to be address along with economic inequality in general.

  10. Hi, maha,

    I guess I was not clear. I am not equating or conflating the issues. Mainly I had Glastris in mind. I think that he makes good points, but he is missing the mark. The main problem is neoliberalism, which both major political parties in the US have embraced, although the times are changing. Neoliberalism is causing problems worldwide, not just in certain areas, although different areas are affected differently and to different degrees. In the US the rural South is not doing as bad as the rural Midwest, for two reasons. First, the rural South was worse off to begin with; second, industries are moving to the rural South both from abroad and from elsewhere is the US. 

    Yes, declining economies, wherever they are, tend to embrace populism. In the US, unfortunately, they tend to embrace the political party of the rich — as Bush II put in, his base was the haves and the have mores. Part of why that is happening is that the Republicans have embraced them while the Democrats have either let them go or turned their back on them, starting in the 1970s. It will do no ultimate good for different areas of the country compete with each other to try to lure business and industry by providing cheap labor. Cheap labor is not the solution, it is the problem. 

    Internecine strife and finger pointing among the Left is problematic, as well. It seems to be a perennial problem. You can see it in the Russian Revolution, for instance. In the US, you can see it as the left fought amongst themselves even while they were under assault from McCarthyism. I witnessed it in the 1970s as the Movement, which united the Civil Rights movement, the Anti-War movement, and the Feminist movement, began to bicker about who was the most pure. By the 1980s the Movement had broken up. Where is La Raza Unida when you need it?

    • Billikin — of course neoliberalism is the problem — duh — but that’s not what Glastris was talking about. You are still missing the point.

  11. maha

    IMO, Glastris is missing the point. There is no such thing as Coastal Urban Privilege. Sure, cities offer opportunities. That's what brought me here. Call that privilege if you want, but that is not what he is talking about. He is talking about neoliberal, corporatist, monopolistic privilege, which happens to be located in cities, mostly coastal cities in the US. Example: the PG&E bankruptcy. Screw regular Californians, both rural and urban, which the rich bureaucrats skate free. 

    • “There is no such thing as Coastal Urban Privilege.” Yes, there is. I have seen it with my own eyes. Large numbers of educated coastal urbanites, including progressive ones, think that everyone in flyover country are just racist morons who brought on their own problems. Now, drop the argument. You lost.

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