I really like the piece Nancy LeTourneau wrote this morning. She titled it Dear Trump Voters: The 1950’s Aren’t Coming Back, but it’s actually about more than that. Obviously, we can’t return to the past. In most cases, we wouldn’t want to anyway. We are creatures of our own time and wouldn’t feel at home in another.
Her piece is really about dispositions and the difference between those who have an appetite for change and those who want to protect the social order that exists or that has existed for most of their living memory. She calls the latter attitude a “confederate” disposition, and I think she provides a keen insight when she highlights the lack of legitimacy unwelcome democratic outcomes have for Trump supporters and Tea Party types.
A democratic process that could result in the election of Abraham Lincoln wasn’t respected because it signaled that political efforts to change the social order preferred in the South had some kind of sanction from the people. In a similar manner, a process that could result in a black president or a woman president was not respected. That process could be attacked by taking measures to suppress the vote. Maybe it could be attacked by colluding with a foreign country.
For my purposes, though, I’d like to take a little heat out of this explanation. What I want to take away from it isn’t so much that there are people who feel threatened by democracy when it creates change they don’t want. If there are people who’d prefer to live in a country where women don’t compete with men for jobs, where Jim Crow is widespread, where homosexuality is a crime, where we have no environmental or consumer protection whatsoever, where Medicare and Medicaid don’t exist, well…those people don’t interest me much except insofar as they’re winning politically. I don’t want or believe that we can get their votes. I only want to figure out how to beat them.
We can call these people “confederates” if we want. I think it’s a useful way of making a point about human psychology. We can call them “deplorables,” too, considering that they have attitudes about women and race and human sexuality that can’t or shouldn’t be translated into policy in a modern society. We should certainly be mindful of their contempt for representative government and the legitimacy it brings.
But we tend to exaggerate how many of these people there really are, and we also are perhaps too unwilling to admit how many of them have spent most of their lives voting for Democrats or how reliant we have been and still are on winning political support from at least some of them. The truth is that people are more complicated than these caricatures. It’s a simple fact that many people voted for Trump because they were attracted to some of his racist themes but also voted for a black candidate four or eight years earlier because they made a different calculation. This often seems too difficult for people to grasp. But you can see it here in black and white:
Many Democrats have a shorthand explanation for Clinton’s defeat: Her base didn’t turn out, Donald Trump’s did and the difference was too much to overcome.
But new information shows that Clinton had a much bigger problem with voters who had supported President Barack Obama in 2012 but backed Trump four years later.
Those Obama-Trump voters, in fact, effectively accounted for more than two-thirds of the reason Clinton lost, according to Matt Canter, a senior vice president of the Democratic political firm Global Strategy Group. In his group’s analysis, about 70 percent of Clinton’s failure to reach Obama’s vote total in 2012 was because she lost these voters.
It might seem impossible for someone to be attracted to Trump because of his racist attitudes and also attracted to Barack Obama, but it wasn’t impossible at all. This is because race was only one factor among many in how people made their decisions. For some, Obama’s race wasn’t a plus but it also wasn’t a deal-breaker. Maybe Hillary Clinton’s gender was the deal-breaker. Maybe they became convinced that Clinton was personally corrupt and were concerned that she was under FBI investigation, which were things they never worried about with Barack Obama. Maybe it feels different when your community is roughly split in who they’re supporting, but it becomes a more courageous act to support the Democrat when eighty percent of your neighbors are supporting the Republican. Maybe some people just vote against the incumbent party every single time.
What I think is important is to not exaggerate what happened and to write off whole sections of the country as beyond reach or hope. We get bogged down in trying to figure out if people voted for Trump because they’re irredeemably retrograde in their social attitudes or because their communities have been left behind, particularly in the post-Great Recession economy. If these communities had voted for Clinton at anything close to the rate they voted for Obama, she would have won a giant victory because she actually took suburban votes away from the Republicans. In the Philly suburbs, for example, she came away with 65,000 more net votes in the bank than Obama had, and she started out with a statewide cushion to begin with. She still lost.
What we need to understand is how to win enough Obama-Trump voters back, and that might not be the exact same thing as understanding why they abandoned us.
Nancy identified one clue when she quoted Robert Jones, CEO of the Public Religion Research Institute, to explore the power of nostalgia:
Trump’s campaign—with its sweeping promise to “make American great again”—triumphed by converting self-described “values voters” into what I’ve called “nostalgia voters.” Trump’s promise to restore a mythical past golden age—where factory jobs paid the bills and white Protestant churches were the dominant cultural hubs—powerfully tapped evangelical anxieties about an uncertain future.
We need to be mindful of two things. The first is the power of these appeals to nostalgia and the second is the fact that not all nostalgia is illegitimate. I believe that the left can do better by developing a competing nostalgia than they can by writing off the entire sentiment as morally unacceptable.
I don’t think I was fully conscious of the nostalgia element while I was writing my piece How to Win Rural Voters Without Losing Liberal Values, but I was grasping for a way to meet this longing for a bygone America in a way that would combine political effectiveness, good policy, and actual benefit to these afflicted communities without at the same time succumbing to or accommodating their worst instincts or characteristics.
Wanting racial segregation back is not a legitimate form of nostalgia. Wanting women out of the boardroom and elected office is not legitimate. Putting gays and lesbians back in the closet is not legitimate. Eliminating the Department of Education and the EPA is not legitimate. What’s legitimate is wanting your small town to have small businesses back. It’s not unreasonable to want it to be possible for your kids to settle nearby to you and have opportunities to prosper. In the simplest formula, people would like their kids to have the same or better opportunities that they had, and to have them in the same place.
This is why I identified anti-monopoly and antitrust enforcement as the direction the Democrats need to go. We can’t rebuild these communities by bringing back heavy industry, but we can restore their ability to compete as small business people.
How would this sound on the campaign trail?
Well, I’ll give you two examples.
The first is from 1912. It’s Woodrow Wilson campaigning in Lincoln, Nebraska:
“Which do you want? Do you want to live in a town patronized by some great combination of capitalists who pick it out as a suitable place to plant their industry and draw you into their employment? Or do you want to see your sons and your brothers and your husbands build up business for themselves under the protection of laws which make it impossible for any giant, however big, to crush them and put them out of business, so that they can match their wits here, in the midst of a free country with any captain of industry or merchant of finance … anywhere in the world?”
The second is from 1952. It’s Hubert Humphrey speaking from the Senate floor:
“We are talking about the kind of America we want.… Do we want an America where the economic marketplace is filled with a few Frankensteins and giants? Or do we want an America where there are thousands upon thousands of small entrepreneurs, independent businessmen, and landholders who can stand on their own feet and talk back to their government or to anyone else?”
I have a longstanding habit of mocking the columns of David Brooks, but he manages to provide a useful supplement to this conversation in his column today. His theory is that a lot of Trump country was once on the frontier, and the legacy from that is that people value self-reliance even when their circumstances actually call for accepting some help. As long as we don’t take that observation too far, we can use it to understand that a lot of the more culturally conservative places in America will respond better to a message (and ultimately policies, too) that are directed at their aspirations to be self-reliant again. We can give them subsidies to get health care. We can make sure their kids get enough nutrition. We can offer them free college. But what they want more than assistance is a chance to compete again. And we can offer that.
We can offer that without making concessions on civil rights or pretending we agree with them on social issues. In fact, the alternatives seem to me to be either giving up on them and their communities altogether (which means empowering their worst elements and our political opponents) or conceding on these things and asking them to vote for the lower calorie version of what they actually prefer.
For further reading on this, see Barry Lynn’s The Democrats Must Become the Party of Freedom and Paul Glastris’s Hillary Clinton Finally Takes On Corporate Monopolists.