Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton
Credit: Marc Nozell/Flickr

After I looked at the results from the recent November 7th elections around the country, I wrote a piece called A Realignment That’s a Year Late. Of particular note and interest to me was the historic outcomes in the Philadelphia suburbs where the Democrats took control of local county row seats that they had never won and gained majorities in county government that they had never held. It was a seismic event, and it can be explained primarily on a cultural level as opposed to an economic one.

Republican dominance of the Philadelphia suburbs has been a given since they were first established, and it’s based on several factors. The people came from the city, where racial minorities and Catholic immigrants had come to dominate every aspect of government. The local Democratic machines were anything but good government organizations, as they were basically built on patronage and graft. Crime was obviously higher in the city, and schools weren’t exactly optimal learning environments. People fled the city when they were economically capable of leaving, and they wanted racial peace, safe neighborhoods, good schools, sound government that they controlled, and low taxes. Once out of the city, they also weren’t much interested in subsidizing the city, so their state politics developed in opposition to the power brokers in Philadelphia. Meanwhile, their televisions broadcast them a nightly litany of horrors from the city as a constant reminder of the reasons they had chosen not to live there anymore. In short, for a very long time it was pretty much unthinkable that the city and the suburbs would vote the same way, as they had developed in opposition to each other. Racism played a huge part in this, but so did a basic competition for resources. For the suburbs, this was reflected in a strong aversion to taxes.

The Republican representatives from the Philly suburbs who are presently serving in Congress weren’t on the ballot in November, which is probably the only reason that they’re still employed. They all voted for the Trump tax bill yesterday, which is probably a result of the party’s historic tax aversion. Basically, they did not know what else to do, since their whole ideology has been built around this issue from the start. But this particular tax bill is designed to hurt states like Pennsylvania that pay relatively high state and local taxes. The people it will hurt the most are property owners in the suburbs. The same suburbanites in New Jersey and New York will be negatively affected, which is why most of the twelve Republican votes against the bill came from congresspeople from those two states. In the Philly ‘burbs, however, the weight of history and habit was apparently too much, and these representatives will now have to not only weather the cultural storm that wiped out their county-level brethren in November, but they’ll also have to explain why their tax cut is actually a tax bill for so many of their tax-averse constituents.

The Democrats will of course exploit this with everything they have, which will transform them into the party of the tax averse. And that will put them in a tense position, because they’re still the party of the city’s multiethnic underclasses. Does the party have a clear position on this tax bill? Is the problem with the bill that it increases income inequality or that it taxes suburbanites too much? Is the bill going to starve the government of revenue and lead to less investment in schools and infrastructure and an inevitable slashing in the social safety net, including earned entitlements? Or is the problem that it didn’t go far enough in cutting rates?

Meanwhile, the Republicans will seek to make up for their losses in the suburbs by increasing their growing advantage with small town and rural whites, meaning that the worst kind of populism, based in racial and religious insecurities and bigotry, will continue to be the main component of their media messaging and appeal. At the same time, they’ll begin to change how they see themselves. Their makeup will change, too, as more people who come from working class backgrounds get elected as Republicans.

In light of this background, it’s not too hard to picture why socialists are feeling so feisty. As I discussed yesterday, the dream of uniting the lower and working classes and the dispossessed in a multiracial coalition is quickly fading. The Democrats’ focus on cultural issues that help them in the suburbs but which kill them in small towns and rural areas is one major driver of the dissolving hope for a coming socialist revolution. The Republicans’ aggressive efforts to exploit and exacerbate these fault lines are going to get worse, not better.

This is why I continue to emphasize that the Democrats cannot abandon their efforts to win support in small towns and rural areas. I don’t share the socialist ideology, even if I share most of their goals, but I do agree that the suburban strategy threatens to weaken the Democrats as a party of the poor and needy. I do not want fascism to fill the void, as it clearly is doing right now.

But my strategy isn’t based on pie-in-the-sky theories of racial harmony between white coal miners and Pakistani merchants. It’s based on tackling economic consolidation with a whole box of tools, including revived antitrust enforcement. The goal is to economically revitalize small town and rural America in a way that will also benefit the people of our cities. It’s not about taxing the wealthy. It’s about giving people a chance to compete again. It’s aimed at entrepreneurs as much as at wage employees, and it’s about creating more regional balance in where our wealth is created and distributed more than it’s about going after the money people have already made.

It doesn’t sound like Bernie Sanders railing on about billionaires, but it shares a lot of the same political goals and ideas. The main difference is that it doesn’t pit one Democratic faction against another, nor does it accept that representing the underclass in one region necessitates selling out the underclass in our cities. It’s my hope that it is also consistent with the points Sarah Jones raises about how pro-choice Democrats can make inroads in anti-choice districts and communities.

It is a way around the path we’re on, which is not one that will enable the left to even come close to reaching its potential in the upcoming elections. The path we’re on is one of increasing polarization and divisiveness, where we have far less power that we should have based on our numbers. And it’s one in which the left will increasingly look like the suburban Republican Party of the 20th Century, while a growing fascist reaction metastasizes on the right.


Considering the alternative, this has to be worth trying.

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Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly. See all his writing at