In the aftermath of the 2016 election, I spent a lot of time thinking about how Trump won by running up huge margins in rural areas–what it meant, what the Democrats could or should do about it, what it said about the people in those communities. Much of the Democratic base was so incensed that anyone could vote for Trump after all the credible accusations of sexual assault and his overtly racist campaign that they were convinced for both moral and political reasons that the party should write off the sticks entirely and pursue a suburban strategy to compensate.
On a visceral level, that’s how I felt, too. I was wounded by the election results and I was angry and in an unforgiving mood. But I also felt deep down that it would be wrong to take an approach of separation and disengagement. On the moral level, I don’t think a party that seeks to represent the less fortunate and more vulnerable can ever write off any community, let alone communities struggling with poverty, job loss, and a drug epidemic. On a political level, I doubted that we’d get an even trade even if the suburban strategy worked because it would give the Republicans a built-in advantage in the U.S. House of Representatives and especially in state legislatures. And on the level of pure alarm, I felt that populist rural rage that is channeled exclusively through right-wing channels leads to fascism and human rights abuses. I did not think it moral, savvy or wise to concede rural areas to Trumpism.
Only days after the election, on November 10, 2016, these ideas of mine started to spawn and I wrote a piece called Avoiding the Southification of the North. Later on, I wrote a cover story for the Washington Monthly on How to Win Rural Voters Without Losing Liberal Values. In our upcoming issue of the magazine, we have a great piece that touches on the same themes: The Democrats of Trump Country, written by Daniel Block.
The idea behind Block’s article is something I had recommended in much of my writing on this topic, both as a sensible strategy and as a moral argument. The media are always writing about the people who live in Trump Country as a kind endlessly fascinating anthropological study. But even in the reddest counties in the country, there are still a lot of people who voted for Hillary Clinton. What about them? What do they think has gone wrong for the Democrats? What do they think the national party and its spokespeople are doing that makes their jobs more difficult, or easier? Mr. Block set out for rural Virginia to find out.
One thing that surprised him was something that would not have surprised me, because I wrote about it in that post-election Southification blog-post. He didn’t realize how important intimidation and social coercion are in the Republicans’ success in these areas. In some communities, being a Democrat is so socially and morally suspect that it can damage your career or business, cost you friends and opportunities, or even the condemnation of your preacher and congregation. To be honest, the same can be said for Republicans living in places like Philadelphia or Manhattan. What worried me when I saw the 2016 election results was that I saw evidence of this phenomenon, which has been a way of life in the South since the Civil War, spreading to the northern Midwest. I saw it as outright dangerous to allow this to happen, and as moral cowardice to consent to it by choice.
When a community slips beyond a certain point there is no longer a political conversation going on, but just a war of them against someone else from somewhere else. A county where Obama carried 40 percent of the vote was still having a debate, but the same county giving Clinton 20 percent was a different kind of thing altogether. And if anyone was going to roll back the tide, it would have to be the people in those communities who remained active Democrats despite all the pressures to leave or go underground.
What Block discovered in rural Virginia is encouraging and you should read the whole piece. The area he focuses on is a little different than the ones I was worried about because it’s more conservatively Christian and more loyal to Trump than the areas of Pennsylvania and the upper Midwest that moved sharply to the right in the Obama years. Nonetheless, the Democrats, though as badly outnumbered as ever, are getting organized and coming out of the darkness with increasing frequency.
Just as Trump won statewide elections by running up the score in places he was always destined to win, the Democrats can win statewide elections by holding his numbers down in those places. That’s what Obama did twice, and the Democrats need to find a way to do it again. To find out how they’re going about it, don’t ask Chuck Schumer or Nancy Pelosi. To find out, check out our cover story.