The Urbanist Musings of Pete Saunders

Decoding The Scapegoat Election

Not everyone realizes how much this scares many people.  Source: theodysseyonline.org

It wasn’t about the economy.  It wasn’t about the loss of manufacturing jobsrural America, or Rust Belt revolt.  It’s as simple as this: a group of people who feel left behind, even threatened, by the transformation of our nation over the last 20-25 years decided “enough was enough.”  The fascinating thing is that the people who live in America’s urban bubble didn’t realize there were enough people who felt like this to matter.

Donald Trump’s election wasn’t rational.  It was emotional.  It was visceral.

There must have been a million articles with more than a billion words written since Donald Trump’s surprising victory over Hillary Clinton just over a month ago.  I even had one of my own immediately following the election.  But the themes I touched on bears repeating for two reasons — 1) it wasn’t exactly well received when I posted it (if pageviews are any indication), and 2) American liberals and progressives, and the punditry establishment, seem no closer to agreeing on why they lost than they did on election night.

Earlier I said this:

“How did we get here? Honestly I think this is something we’ve been moving toward ever since the new global economy started selecting new economic winners and losers in the 1990s. Knowledge was the currency, and those with it became the winners. The cities where they lived won as well, and divides between haves and have-nots became chasms. This accelerated once Barack Obama was elected in 2008, not so much because he moved this transition forward as much as embodied it. The 2010 midterm elections that brought out the Tea Party foreshadowed Trump’s election, as did even more GOP gains in 2014.”

And also said this:

“A reaction to long-term demographic trends. Similar to the above (i.e., long-term economic trends), pundits correctly identified the public’s frustration with immigration policy as a driving factor in Trump’s success, but vastly underestimated the depth of the frustration. Like the long-term economic trends, immigration to the U.S., legal and otherwise, has been going on for some time. And I think much of the working class, white or otherwise, recognized it for what it was: an attempt by businesses big and small to reduce labor costs, pitting Americans against new arrivals. Throw in a little xenophobia, and the prospect of a destabilized Middle East that brings war and political refugees here, and the Donald has a solid position to work from.”

But in retrospect, I’ll concede that I, like many pundits, put more weight on economic factors and less on the socio-demographic factors that really ruled the day.

Even after all the analysis on Trump supporters, it still appears that many simply did not take them and their reasons for supporting Trump seriously.  The media establishment seemed to focus on the anger and resentment, but scarcely touched on the underlying and foundational fear.  You want to build a wall to halt illegal immigration?  Perhaps you fear economic competition and believe your lifestyle is under threat.  And the drumbeat that America is accelerating toward a majority-minority future has been pounding for at least a decade.

New York Magazine’s Jonathan Chait summarized how these fears coalesced under the Obama presidency and culminated in Trump’s election:

When the tea party appeared on the scene in 2009, an intense partisan dispute broke out as to just what this movement represented. Conservatives insisted that what spurred protesters into streets and town halls were the timeless principles of conservative movement thought: advocacy of balanced budgets, adherence to a strict constructionist version of the Constitution, opposition to “crony capitalism,” and skepticism of Keynesian economics. Liberals suggested a different explanation. The tea party was an expression of ethno-nationalist rage centered around a black president and the belief that his coalition stood for redistribution from older, white America to its younger, more diverse supporters. Reports by close students of the phenomenon, like Theda Skocpol and Vanessa Williamson, or Stanley Greenberg, revealed that deep-seated fear of demographic change rather than abstract constitutional or economic principles lay at the heart of the revolt against Obama.

No matter his policies, Obama and his coalition was the very embodiment of a different America that many were prepared to resist.

I took the opportunity to reread Diversity Explosion: How New Racial Demographics Are Remaking America by Brookings Institution and University of Michigan demographer William Frey, published in 2014.  In it, he documents where the nation has been and where it’s headed demographically, leading to the by now well-known assumption that America will be a majority-minority nation sometime in the middle of the 21st century.  That transformation, he says, will be led by fairly rapid population growth in New Sun Belt states like Virginia, Florida, North Carolina, Nevada, New Mexico and Colorado.  The losers will be the Heartland and Rust Belt states: Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Iowa, among others.

As for how it would play out politically, Frey’s take here from two years ago was prescient:

Although the six northern Heartland states voted for Obama in 2012, their future demographics are increasingly likely to consist of voters who are open to Republican messages tailored to older baby boomers and blue-collar workers.  These demographic and voting trends contrast with those in previous Republican-leaning Sun Belt states, in which black, Hispanics, and youth are open to the Democrats’ outreach efforts.  Thus, the cultural generation gap that both parties face nationally divides along a geographic dimension.  Each party has to find ways to compete for both younger and older voting blocs in future presidential elections as the battleground expands into the Sun Belt.

Frey hints, however, that the transition will be far from smooth.  The six Heartland states that are becoming older and whiter, and transitioning from Democratic to Republican, currently contain 80 electoral votes.  The six New Sun Belt states that are become more diverse and shifting from Republican to Democrat, have 77 electoral votes.

Immediately after the election, I was as shocked as anyone, and admittedly a little fearful.  But after rereading Frey’s book, I’m not shocked and less fearful.  Demographically speaking, America’s diversity explosion will continue and its impact on our society will grow.  Politically speaking, we may look back at this period of reactionary ethno-nationalism disguised as populism as an outlier that, over the next decade, shifts in another direction.  What is that direction?  That’s still being defined.

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