On Rural Whites
This election has, not unreasonably, spawned a cottage industry of folks psychoanalyzing and explaining the white, working-class, rural vote for those of us in the cities who can’t fathom why anyone would pin their hopes on a fraudulent, misogynistic, racist, xenophobic, bullying narcissist. It’s anti-elitism, it’s rural culture, it’s resentment, it’s religious fundamentalism, it’s status-protection, and those are just the tabs I had open from the past few days.
There are many interesting aspects to this phenomenon (I am particularly tickled by turning the question around and asking, “Why are we trying to analyze these people as though we are 19th-century explorers encountering a remote tribe for the first time?”), and it does seem like the decay of rural America has been a missed story. From the heroin and opiate epidemics to the recovery passing them by, rural America has serious issues and essentially no one in power was paying enough attention to them. But I think these analyses, when tied to the election, try to do a bit too much.
First, the election was pretty close, and the polls weren’t actually off by an unreasonable amount. As Nate Silver was taking pains to point out both before and after the election, the 2–3 points the polls were off by is a pretty typical miss. The comparison to Brexit is particularly egregious here, since those polls there were even closer, but people ignored them because the outcome was seen as unthinkable. Second, most of Trump’s vote was just the Republican base. “Why did habitual Republican voters vote Republican?” isn’t an interesting question, especially given the increasing trend toward negative partisanship, but it’s the vast majority of the reason why Trump won.
Third, when any election is this close, there are so many different things that could have gone differently to change the outcome. I think of it like a close football game, you can come with dozens of plays over the course of the game that would swap the outcome. What if the quarterback hadn’t thrown that interception? What if the running back had zigged instead of zagged? What if the defense had recovered that fumble? Likewise, what if Comey hadn’t released that letter? What if Trump hadn’t had his twitter account taken away for the last two weeks? What if Clinton had spent any time at all in Wisconsin? There are so many different things that could sway the vote that focusing on high rural turnout is a bit myopic.
Finally, many of these hypotheses have serious flaws. How can this be an anti-elite backlash when 97% of incumbents were reelected and most Republican senators ran a bit ahead of Trump? How can it be about religious fundamentalism when religiosity is at an all-time low? People aren’t dumb, so if it’s about economic issues why are they voting for a party whose platform (tax cuts for the wealthy, dismantling the welfare state, etc) is actively harmful to them? Cultural explanations are all that’s left, but again, the culture in the Florida panhandle is quite different from coal country, which is quite different from rural Wisconsin. How is this specific cultural issue manifest in so many different locations?
That’s not to say this is all useless, just that I’m skeptical of theories of everything. There is clearly some reason that each voter showed up and pulled the lever for Trump despite his manifest flaws. There will be many treatises written trying to solve the puzzle, and hopefully the next generation of Democratic leaders pays attention to them. I know I will.