In the foothills of southern Appalachia, my county is second nationally in median income decline, the cause of features on MSNBC, PBS Newshour and the cover of The New York Times. And for the better part of a decade, America’s leaders in both political parties ignored the real issues facing those of us in the country: underemployment, stagnant wages, declining health and life expectancy and a drug epidemic bringing down a generation of working-class whites.
My county lost over 4,000 manufacturing jobs in the transition to a service economy, and the pains experienced in that shift were always going to produce a politics of anger and frustration.
The Democratic Party used to be the outlet for economic populism and grievance against the elites, and had they taken a stronger stand against the banks and the pharmaceutical and large corporations overpowering the little guy, then the election of 2016 would have turned out different.
Democrats were happy to see Jim Webb leave the presidential primary, saying the Democratic Party was no longer the party he knew, and happy to cut ties with working-class whites in rural America to avoid the ideological strains of keeping a large coalition together.
If the Democrats were going to run on identity politics, then those left out would find their own identity, and when the party nominated Hillary instead of Bernie, the hopeless kids left behind by the brain-drain would look to the only candidate who pretended to care.
As the election went on, Trump’s outrageous statements and obscene behaviors drew laughter and mockery from plenty of his own voters who were nonetheless undeterred. And I should have seen it coming.
The signs were everywhere, on vehicles, in windows, in yards in even the nicer neighborhoods, and still I thought Hillary would win, because America was better.
America is better. But ideals don’t vote, and when liberals spoke in terms of abstract values instead of victories and bread-and-butter issues, their own working-class voters turned off and the heartland of America turned to Trump.
On Election Day, Trump won a local precinct by a margin of 418 to 20, winning the votes of doctors and truck drivers and millennials. He won millions of votes from the Deep South through the Rust Belt because Republicans came home and Democrats who supported Obama voted for Trump.
Many of the folks who supported Trump did so out of racism and misogyny but not most, and even for some who did, it wasn’t intentional. When I came home from law school, I would often see a Confederate sticker on a truck flying a Trump flag, and the story of the teenager driving was more complex than simply prejudice.
He was powerless in a world where success was dependent upon a degree and where he had no influence over the future of his town. His views on trade and immigrants were warped and they were always going to be, until he was given a new vision for his life.
It wasn’t America’s job to judge him or to call him deplorable, it was America’s job to lead, and the Democrats never tried. They never reached out to the demographics that were slipping away because they stopped caring about those voters culturally and because winning Georgia, Arizona or Texas had more appeal.
Noticeably absent from the Democratic National Convention were speakers from rural America, only Sherrod Brown spoke for the Rust Belt, and there was no John Fetterman whose steel country became Trump’s America Tuesday night.
In the end, this election was decided by the folks where J.D. Vance grew up (the Rust Belt city of Middletown, Ohio and the Appalachian town of Jackson, Kentucky) and those living in the forgotten neighborhoods of Charlotte and Detroit. They used to be the Democratic Party’s base, and they ended up staying home if they were black or voting for Trump if they were white. Not because of Hillary’s emails but because of a lack of communication about their lives.
Democrats avoided talking about poverty and the opioid crisis on the campaign trail and they prioritized winning Republican women over blue-collar whites, and in the end they lost both.
The last Democrat to build a coalition out of minorities and working-class whites was Robert F. Kennedy, and it’s because he went to coal country, to Indian reservations and the Mississippi Delta not to ask for votes, but to see how they lived. But on the campaign trail Democrats just stuck to college campuses and auditoriums far away from housing units, trailer parks and the small-towns where they lost.
The road ahead will not be easy, and the cultural problems the Democratic Party faces will take years to fix. But half the battle is showing up. And the lesson from Trump’s America is that if you don’t talk directly to voters who are hurting, they will listen to someone else.
Source: Usnews.com by Michael Cooper Jr.