In the first of three articles by long-time PBer Corporeal
This piece is going to have a lot more questions than answers in it.
The defining factor of any political era is not who is winning elections but how are they fought and what they are fought over. What are the battlegrounds. It’s a question you can look at in many ways. Demographic battles over a cast of proverbial characters are fought out in bellwether constituencies on touchstone issues.
In this latest election some of these are familiar, Ohio and Florida have been key bellwethers once more, while other traditional perspectives don’t fit as well as they used to. The narrative of the ‘left-behind’ is already in force, we await more detailed analysis (and no doubt there will be a race for the first blog post, the first academic paper, the first book to explain everything,) but Eric Kaufmann lays out the case against economic explanations of Trump support.
Traditional voting justifications they hardly do better. Little time was spent with the candidates or their proxies fighting it out over ideology. Hilary Clinton tried to make it about competency wih some success, the popular vote looks like a dead heat after all. But if you listened to the voters you heard Clinton voters talk about Trump’s incompetence, while Trump voters talked about Clinton’s status as a member of the elite establishment. Aloof, untouchable, arrogantly insulated from criminal prosecution, economic pain or cultural shifts that mattered to them.
In a culture increasingly obsessed with authenticity from its music to its coffee, Hilary Clinton’s campaign was dogged by secret speeches, public/private views, personal email servers, and could never escape the attacks that she had things to hide. On SNL we saw her satirised as a scripted, and robotic. The Donald was often off-message, frequently erratic, and sometimes outright offensive but never inauthentic (compare Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage, and consider if other types of candidates could get away with similar things). He was mocked as a cartoon character but in the end was more like a drunk uncle and as such was familiar, recognisable, real in a warts and all manner. Perhaps there’s a desire for more humanity and less artificial sheen in politicans (a word that’s become an insult).
There are always a range of reasons for a candidate’s support, they’re rightly called coalitions (and from recent experience we know those don’t always contain comfortable bedfellows). Some of Donald Trump’s supporters are openly sexist, some of them are blatantly racist, some have a more general sense of discomfort that the country they thought they knew looks and sounds a lot different than it did when they were growing up. Some will have been voting on traditional anti-abortion and pro-life issues. We should not be so lazy as to conflate these groups (elections are never just about the Mondeo Man). The insurgents and elites feels like the dominant narrative because it rings so very loudly in the places and people that swung against Clinton either by staying home or voting Trump.
Clinton lost because she couldn’t get a lot of Obama voters to turnout for her, and many of those that did only did so because of Trump. The main focus will be on dissecting the Trump voter when the more important point is the search for the missing Democrats.
Through the twentieth century we’ve been used to the young and the (small l) liberal pushing against the boundaries set and policed by more conservative elements of society (and in the USA this is often the divide between coastal and landlocked states). They were the ones doing and saying ‘outrageous’ things and were marked as extreme for it. It’s a set-up that placed the apparent centre of cultural power in that (small c) conservative culture of America’s heartland. It’s a set-up that seems to have flipped in recent years, it’s become the children policing their parents. Telling them they can’t think this, shouldn’t say that, and certainly mustn’t support them because that is culturally unacceptable. It’s hard to attract the support of people who feel like you’re demonising, mocking, and condescending to people like them.
The electorate hasn’t changed much in the four years since Barack Obama won re-election, we’re just seeing a different view of it. If white non-college educated voters are acting like a minority it’s because they feel like a minority. America’s heartland feels marginalised and they’re lashing out.