I’ve spent most of my life in middle America, with early years in Texas and my adult life in Minnesota (mixed in there were short stints in Oregon, Florida, Colorado and California). So perhaps I’m not the best person to take on Michael Tomasky’s criticism of what he calls the “coastal elite.” But there is a glaring error in his argument that happens a lot when white pundits pontificate on these issues. And I think it’s important to note.
In talking about middle America vs coastal elites, here is how Tomasky suggests that they are divided in their conclusions about the 2016 presidential election.
Each side is supported by a set of assumptions that brings it a measure of emotional reassurance. Those inclined to blame racism [coastal elites] take a dark view of middle America; they’re often accused, by those on the other side of the partisan divide, of being too sheltered, too politically correct, too obsessed with identity politics. Those who argue it was mostly economics [Middle America] are implicitly saying that, the horrors of a Trump presidency notwithstanding, the electoral situation isn’t really all that bad, that those people aren’t really all that bad; they’re typically accused by the other side of being soft on racism, or even racist themselves.
Later in the article Tomasky describes middle Americans (liberal, moderate and conservative) as people who go to church, aren’t consumed by politics, aren’t into free trade coffee, perhaps served in the military, might own guns and are patriotic. As an aside, I’ll simply note that, even though I’d qualify as a liberal middle American, none of those things apply to me except the one about being patriotic. You can take that for what it’s worth. Perhaps I’m exceptional—but then so are an awful lot of my friends.
Taking all of that into account, I think it’s safe to say that when Tomasky refers to both middle Americans and the coastal elites, he is talking about white people. For example, I know plenty of people of color in middle America who blame Trump’s victory in the electoral college on racism. As a matter of fact, the strongest voices in that argument come from people of color—no matter where they live.
Tomasky’s reference to liberals who are coastal elites also ignores the fact that an awful lot of people who tend to vote Democratic in those areas are people of color. Exit polls from California show that while Clinton won that state by a whopping 30 percent, the margin among white people was only 5 percent. Conversely, Clinton won with African Americans in California by 79 percent, Hispanics by 47 percent and Asians by 53 percent. I doubt that the people who brought Clinton those overwhelming margins consider themselves “elite.” I also suspect that you’d have a hard time drawing the kinds of distinctions related to church, politics and patriotism that Tomasky referred to when it comes to Hispanics in Texas versus California.
This assumption that when we talk about various groupings of voters we’re really talking about white people is something that is starting to reveal itself as a serious flaw in analysis. And yet it happens all the time. For example, while I agree with almost everything Martin just wrote about the need for Democrats to appeal to poorly educated voters, the fact is that poorly educated people of color already vote predominantly for Democrats. In other words, the voters he’s referring to are white. Acknowledging that opens up whole new avenues of inquiry that would otherwise be missed or ignored.
For over 200 years the assumption has been that we could accurately describe politics by understanding different groupings of white people (i.e., coastal elites, middle Americans, undereducated, working class, etc). Noting the way that people of color in those groups voted and/or behaved differently than their white counterparts was not deemed necessary. If not over already, those days will soon be gone. It’s time for all of us to keep that in mind.