The underappreciated diversity of ‘left behind’ America

Does the Republican Party now represent “left behind” America? The New York Times asserted as much on Monday, in an article by economics reporter Eduardo Porter. In the last 30 years, “the Republican share of the vote has increased across the nation’s most economically disadvantaged counties, while the most successful counties have moved toward the Democrats,” Porter writes.

This basic point is real enough: Since 1992, counties that account for bigger slices of overall national income have increasingly voted Democratic, and the shift has been dramatic. Porter attributes this shift to a combination of factors: Bill Clinton’s embrace of free trade policies that decimated industrial towns, the growing salience of the culture war divide, the decline of unions in American life, and the Democratic Party’s embrace of the well-educated upper class as their core constituency. All of which are accurate, as far as they go.

But Porter’s aggregate assessment — that we’ve entered a topsy-turvy world where the pro-business, pro-oligarch Republicans now represent the down-and-out working class, while the Democrats have come to represent the winners of the modern tech-savvy economy — is an overreach. County-level data is just too crude to justify this sweeping framing, and his narrative winds up passing over the tens of millions of low-income, urban, mostly nonwhite voters.

First, the data. In the 2016 election, Democratic presidential contender Hillary Clinton won less than 500 counties across the country, while Republican Donald Trump won over 2,600. But the meager share of counties Clinton did take accounted for a whopping 64 percent of all economic output just the year before. The point that Porter adds is that this is a relatively new phenomenon: In 1992, Democrats did slightly better in richer counties than Republicans, but only by a hair.

Now, that’s obviously the kind of statistic a Republican political operative would love. And it’s one a lot of conservative writers have jumped on post-Trump. But weirdly, it’s also a framing a lot of the Democratic establishment is happy to embrace. “I won the places that are optimistic, diverse, dynamic, moving forward,” as Clinton herself put it.

But county-level data is a broadsword of a metric, when a scalpel is needed to answer the kind of questions Porter is asking.

One easy way to see this is to look at 2016’s exit polling. Democrats decisively won people making under $30,000 by 53 percent to 41 percent. The divide for those making $30,000 to $50,000 was roughly the same. Above that, the parties split the vote much more evenly, but the GOP took the $250,000-and-over crowd by two percentage points. If anything, the poorest Americans have become more Democratic over the last 30 years.

What is true is that the well-to-do upper class moved Democratic as well, leading to a more even voting split among the elites in recent years. But if you control for education and race — say, look at voting purely among white people without a college degree — then the link between higher incomes and Republican voting becomes much stronger. Generally speaking, if only the bottom third of earners voted, it would lead to blue wave blowouts every time.

This differentiation between the voting behavior of a place versus the voting behavior of individuals has led some analysts to insist we should focus purely on the latter. It’s a particular popular stance among people who insist the white working class shift to Trump was not about economics at all, but purely due to racial anxiety and cultural reaction. But that goes too far. Place is important: Human beings are social creatures, and how individuals behave cannot be disentangled from the changes and upheavals that confront the geographic communities in which they live their lives. The problem is that counties are not always the best unit of measure for capturing those communities.

One thing we know is that the blue-red divide is, to a large degree, an urban-rural divide. Democratic voters congregate in cities, and American cities these days pack pretty extreme inequality into very small geographic spaces. “The notoriously poor and left-behind city of Baltimore has a higher median income than all but three counties in West Virginia,” noted Will Stancil, a researcher who works on metropolitan issues like housing, schools, and segregation. “That doesn’t mean many Baltimoreans aren’t living in dire poverty, it means their incomes are being averaged with wealthy urbanites.” Similarly, Los Angeles county’s overall income is pretty high, but the neighborhood of Florence within L.A. county, one of the city’s many down-and-out communities, is poorer than just about every other county in the country.

Simply put, county-level data is pretty good at capturing the evolution of how working- and lower-class white rural communities vote. But it’s much worse at sussing out how working- and lower-class nonwhite urban communities vote. At the county level, the latter tend to get lumped in with the Democrats’ upper class big city enclaves. Which means this sort of analysis leaves out how a lot of Democratic voters are also “left behind,” by any reasonable definition.

This doesn’t mean Democrats should rest assured they’re still the party of the common man and the downtrodden. Turnout in U.S. elections correlates strongly with income, with upper-class voters hitting the polls much more reliably than poorer voters. But the Americans who don’t vote also tend to be more liberal than those who do, meaning a lot of downtrodden voters who should be easy gets for the Democrats have basically given up on voting for either party as worth their time. A big part of Clinton’s loss in 2016 can be chalked up to a lot of lower-income minority communities simply sitting the election out. “Milwaukee is tired,” as one African-American voter bluntly put it. “Both of them were terrible. They never do anything for us anyway.”

In fairness to Porter, the latter half of his Times article does get into these nuances. But this just isn’t a picture in which one party represents the “winners” and the other represents the “left behind.” It is a picture in which neither party genuinely centers the communities that have been ground under by modern American capitalism, and both primarily cater to the economic interests of the elites (granted, Republicans do so with a good deal more gusto). Meanwhile both parties try to shave off as many “left behind” voters as they can with non-economic appeals: Democrats, by promising to protect minority rights, Republicans by feeding white Americans’ racism and cultural panic.

Of course, this also means that, if someone’s willing to play fast and loose with the data — not to mention effectively erase non-white and urban voters from view — they can get away with painting the GOP as the party of the little guy. That’s the trap the modern Democratic Party has consistently fallen into ever since the 1970s, and it is the opening that Donald Trump and the Republican Party have ruthlessly exploited.

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