When the first election returns started coming in from Texas’ Zapata County — a hot, dusty corner of the Rio Grande Valley with oil rigs and a large Latine population — some online voting-fraud sleuths thought there’d been a voting machine glitch, or worse. How could a county that had voted nearly 2-1 for Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton show President Donald Trump narrowly ahead?
The reality is that baffled, faraway Twitter posters and their assumptions about Texas’ Hispanic vote hadn’t encountered actual voters like 72-year-old retired social worker and teacher Maria Elia Ramos of Rio Grande City, who shrugged off Trump’s xenophobic and sometimes racist rhetoric as well as hectoring family members on Facebook to vote for the GOP. “We have a right to decide,” she told the Los Angeles Times. “Our family values are more in line with Republicans.”
Zapata County’s centrist Democratic longtime congressman, Henry Cuellar, told the Texas Tribune that the heavily Latine region is “homogenous, deeply religious, pensively patriotic, socially conservative, and it’s hurting economically.” Indeed, for these mostly working-class voters, it was arguably “the economy, stupid.” They feared some of the national Democratic rhetoric on the oil industry and the U.S. Border Patrol — two big sources of jobs — while many took special notice of Trump’s name on this summer’s $1,200 federal stimulus check.
Yes, Democrat Joe Biden is America’s president-elect, and for that, we can thank his surging support in the suburbs, where disgust over Trump’s nonstop lying, his overt racism and misogyny, and his threats to democracy drove higher turnout and flipped some college-educated men who’d voted for the faux billionaire in 2016. But now that it’s nearly two weeks since Election Day, and a blurry, complicated mosaic is slowly coming into focus, it’s clear that the bigger, long-term picture ought to alarm Democrats.
It’s not only that Republicans gained House seats and have a good chance of clinging to Senate control, or that Trump’s outrageously unfit presidency — which climaxed with his lethal, botched handling of COVID-19 — somehow netted him at least 10 million more votes than his shock election four years earlier. It’s a question of where — and more importantly, who — those additional Trump votes actually came from.
The Democratic Party’s long-term hopes for a 21st century majority has long hung on the notion that Republicans had become largely the party of white working-class men, and that this group’s slow demographic decline, as America became more and more diverse, would spell doom for the GOP. But what if Republicans became the nation’s blue-collar party, period — and broadened its appeal to millions of middle-class Hispanics and Blacks? The 2020 results not only showed the conservative party making inroads toward exactly that, but raised a giant question mark: Would a Trump-y candidate who’d actually delivered tangible things to the working class, and who wasn’t so racially offensive, have won the White House?
Exit polls (which are imperfect, but what we have to work with) show Biden outperforming Clinton only with white men (which speaks somewhat to the role misogyny played in 2016, which I wrote about here.) Meanwhile, Trump retained his narrow advantage with white women and — significantly — not only gained support with Black, Hispanic, and Asian American voters but performed better with these groups than any Republican has in years.
Nationwide, the gains were not enormous, and Biden — as expected — won a majority of all three groups (and did well in states like Arizona and Georgia that had seen over-the-top, GOP-led anti-immigrant or voter-suppression policies). But it’s significant that Trump’s national increase in nonwhite support came even as the president’s often racist rhetoric of resentment sparked long voting lines in the rural counties and small towns of the predominantly white Rust Belt and elsewhere, as his blatant demagoguery reactivated millions of once-discouraged voters who’d turned away from politics after the brutal end of the Industrial Revolution.
The long-term importance of the 2020 election was that it slammed an exclamation point on the surprising trend that defines today’s American politics: A nation that is divided somewhat along the lines that the pundits and political scientists are trained to look for — income and race — but is mainly split into these two hostile tribes: Those who earned a college degree, and those who did not. Thus, our presidential elections swing less on who’s got the best health-care plan (I mean, Trump doesn’t even have one, right?), but on our cultural allegiance to our increasingly siloed communities — and our growing distrust, even hatred, of the other side.
The current zeitgeist was nailed in a cover piece for Politico Magazine by Tim Alberta that looked at how the preelection polls failed to capture a deeper working-class resentment toward the Democratic Party, as experienced by a centrist Democrat who barely survived her race, Michigan Rep. Elissa Slotkin. He wrote: “At the root of our polarization, Slotkin argued, is one half of the country believing it is enlightened and the other half resenting it.” Alberta asked if the Democrats could “embrace a ‘different era,’ one that demands rapid and unremitting evolution on all things cultural, without condescending to those who are slow to come around?”
Understanding the 2020 election in those stark, simple terms — the enlightened vs. the resentful — explains a lot of things that experts have been fumbling to understand. That includes not just Trump’s strength in places like the Rio Grande Valley, but also his win in Florida, even as voters there also overwhelmingly approved a $15 minimum wage, a policy endorsed by Biden — albeit not loudly enough —and scorned by Trump’s GOP.
Currently, I’m writing a book (slated for 2022 publication by William Morrow, with the working title of Resent U.) about how college/noncollege became the San Andreas Fault of American politics, even though most of us still don’t see it. For example, many commentators were shocked by this spring’s George Floyd protests, not only in their size but diversity, with whites often making up the majority at marches. That’s because the racial reckoning protests were, first and foremost, a revolution of the highly educated. The academic researchers Dana Fisher and Michael Heaney found that a staggering 82% of white protesters but also — and this may be even more significant — 67% of the Black marchers held college degrees.
The 2020 elections consistently revealed a split between young, often better-educated Black voters — who were the front line of Black Lives Matter marches and often backed the populist movement of Sen. Bernie Sanders in early primaries — and older African American voters from a more blue-collar generation who were largely responsible for the elevation and then the election of Biden, who criticized protesters’ call to “defund the police.”
So, what if the Democrats were fundamentally wrong in thinking they could plate-spin a coalition of white college grads and almost all Black, brown, and Asian American voters? What if a growing number of the working-class Latine and African American voters begin to feel the way that so many whites in Slotkin’s Michigan district felt, that a Democratic Party based on college diplomas and a dogma of political correctness is looking down on them? Should we be surprised, for example, that so many midlife, highly entrepreneurial and capitalistic straight-outta-Compton-style Black hip-hop stars — from Ice Cube to Lil’ Wayne to most famously and bizarrely Kanye West — openly flirted with Trump and his movement?
Is the political conundrum of the moment summed up in one word — Latinx, which was popularized in academic circles and also the LGBTQ community in recent years as a solution to a seeming problem of how to describe the hundreds of millions of people with roots in Central or South America with a word that’s gender-neutral and not colonial-sounding? Today, Latinx is widely used by white progressives, even though it’s an utter bafflement to culturally conservative brown folks in places like Texas or South Florida the term is supposed to describe. Writer Hector Luis Alamo dismissively told Mother Jones that Latinx is “an academic word, and that group always thinks it knows what’s best for the rest of us."
“That group” — academics — is the vanguard of the college-educated culture club that also includes Hollywood and “the knowledge economy” of media figures and Silicon Valley, which is, of course, the focus of the resentment that has driven a populist revolution in this country. When Trump was elected 45th president on Nov. 8, 2016, the natural inclination was to see the rise of a dangerous demagogue as a fluke, and that idea earned fresh currency when Biden defeated him this fall. But embracing this idea would be a false and dangerous complacency.
Thanks to our arcane and arguably insane Electoral College, Trump and his 72 million-plus supporters would be celebrating his second term if just 67,000 or so votes in Georgia, Arizona, Wisconsin, and Omaha, Neb.’s congressional district had flipped. And, even with the pandemic, I believe he could have won those votes and the 2020 election if his narcissism and incompetence hadn’t blocked him from a) stirring up resentment of “egghead” elites in ways that were less openly racist, and b) governed as a true populist instead of a garden-variety pro-billionaire Republican.
Remember the Latine voters of South Texas who credited Trump for their $1,200 check? What if the president had been smart enough to engineer a second stimulus, just ahead of the election, or embraced other populist items like a living wage or a massive infrastructure program? And how much better would Trump had done with the Hispanic voters who were receptive to the GOP’s social conservatism and free-market economics if he hadn’t, for example, dismissively tossed paper towels at Puerto Ricans instead of offering real relief from Hurricane Maria?
Of course, you can also argue that any signs of real empathy for the Black and brown electorate might have dampened enthusiasm for Trump among white working-class voters for whom, as Adam Serwer famously wrote, the cruelty toward other racial groups was the point of Trumpism. But you can also imagine a future GOP presidential candidate — maybe one with Hispanic roots who’s less politically inept than Sens. Marco Rubio or Ted Cruz — walking this tightrope all the way to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., maybe as early as 2024.
If so, history may look back on 2016 not as a fluke, but as a realignment election, in line with the long-term impact of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal coalition in 1932, or the rise of Richard Nixon’s Southern Strategy in 1968. Remember, roughly 36% or so of American adults have a college degree, so a political party that narrows its base to only the highly educated is doomed to minority status, especially in an era when the expansion of higher education has, regrettably, slowed.
But this history of 2020 and beyond is not yet written. While Republicans are getting much better at connecting culturally with noncollege voters, and reaping the political benefits, the truth is that neither party has truly succeeded in permanently winning today’s working class, because neither party has provided policies that would materially improve their lives. And the Democrats are much better positioned to do this, if the party can actually walk the walk on some of the ideas it’s been mostly talking about for the last decade.
If Biden’s first actions as president were to raise the minimum wage and lower the cost of insulin, that could go a long way toward stopping defections among the Black and brown middle class and even win back some rural whites — not a majority of them, at first, but enough to matter in our current 51-49 election mode. That won’t be easy — and if Republicans win those two contested Senate runoffs in Georgia, it may be impossible — but it’s also arguably the lowest hanging fruit.
How many of the college-educated whites who marched this year for racial justice in the name of George Floyd would be willing to support measures that offer economic justice — like higher-density affordable housing, true equity in school policies now dominated by “nice white parents,” and the end of locked-in white privilege in college admissions that they voraciously defend so their own kids can get ahead? How many progressives who (rightfully, in my opinion) want free public universities and student-debt elimination are also willing to back broader reforms to bring both knowledge and career pathways to the 64% now locked out, and who are increasingly either resentful or despondent about it?
How long before someone shows up with Donald Trump’s basic DNA, but more politically savvy and less of a buffoon, who’s more clever about using educational resentments to unite the entire working class — regardless of color — and misuse the power of populism to not only deny the science of climate and pandemics, as Trump has done, but also go farther down the road toward dictatorship? And are we capable of the hard choices that would prevent this?