Here’s another way to view the recent presidential election: The haves outvoted the have-nots.
That’s not the conventional way the election is viewed. If you’re an unemployed Democrat campaigning for a $15-an-hour minimum wage, and see a Republican Party backed by certain corporate interests, you definitely don’t see yourself as one of the haves.
But like we said, this is another way to view the election.
We already know 2020 saw the split between rural and urban areas widen even further than it already was—with rural areas voting ever more strongly for Donald Trump and metro areas vote more enthusiastically for Joe Biden than they have for previous Democrats.
To say that Biden carried Pennsylvania, Georgia and Arizona is correct but misses what really went on. Biden carried Philadelphia and Pittsburgh by margins big enough to outweigh rural Pennsylvania; he carried Atlanta by enough to outvote the rest of Georgia; he carried Phoenix and Tucson by enough to beat out the rest of Arizona, and so forth.
We know this intuitively from Virginia politics: Democrats have won every statewide election since 2009 because they run up big margins in the urban crescent, especially Northern Virginia, and big Republican margins in rural Virginia can’t make up for that.
This reflects a realignment that has taken place in American politics. There are several ways to express this, all true and all overlapping.
Here’s one: College-educated voters, once a Republican demographic, now vote predominately Democratic, while those with less than a college education, once part of the Democratic base, now trend Republican.
Here’s a second: Suburban voters have realigned from Republicans to Democrats, while white Democratic voters in rural areas have nearly disappeared.
Now a study by the Brookings Institution gives us a third way to describe these trends: Affluent communities tend to elect Democrats; poorer ones—if they are predominantly white—tend to elect Republicans.
More to the point, according to the Brookings study: The counties that Biden carried account for 70% of the nation’s gross domestic product, while the counties that Trump carried account for 29%. (The missing 1% is from counties where there’s not much economic data, which suggests the split is really 70-30).
That’s a wider split than 2016 when Hillary Clinton carried counties representing 64% of the nation’s economic output. Clinton groused about this then: “So I won the places that are optimistic, diverse, dynamic, moving forward. And his whole campaign, ‘Make America Great Again,’ was looking backwards.”
Brookings has a more analytical view of this trend. It’s not just that the two parties are naturally ideologically different or over time have become so culturally different but that that Democrats and Republicans “represent radically different swaths of the economy.”
They have very different priorities partly because they see entirely different problems: “Jobs in blue America . . . disproportionately rely on national R&D investment, technology leadership, and services exports. By contrast, Republicans represent an economic base situated in the nation’s struggling small towns and rural areas. Prosperity there remains out of reach for many, and the party sees no reason to consider the priorities and needs of the nation’s metropolitan centers. That is not a scenario for economic consensus or achievement.”
We’d add another line, based on our experience here in Virginia: Democrats don’t see much reason to consider the priorities and needs of rural areas. They’d dispute that, of course, just as Republicans likely dispute that they have no interest in the nation’s metro areas, but we’ll just let the record speak for itself.
Democrats claim to be the education party but now that they’ve taken control of the General Assembly, they’ve shown scant interest in dealing with the disparities between the state’s rural schools and those in more affluent parts of the state. Instead, it’s been one of the state’s most conservative Republicans—state Sen. Bill Stanley, R-Franklin County—who has championed the most radical fix, amending the state constitution to require “equal educational opportunities.”
Still, this polarization by gross domestic product raises some fascinating—and troubling—questions.
Brookings writes: “The results from last week’s election likely underscore fundamental problems of economic alienation and estrangement. Specifically, Trump’s anti-establishment appeal suggests that a sizable portion of the country continues to feel little connection to the nation’s core economic enterprises, and chose to channel that animosity into a candidate who promised not to build up all parts of the country, but rather to vilify groups who didn’t resemble his base.”
That shouldn’t be surprising. We’ve written before about how the new economy has severed the traditional links between country and city.
In the old economy, if car factories in Detroit prospered, so did the coal mines in Appalachia that fed the furnaces in the steel mills that made the steel going into those cars (and so did the railroad in Roanoke that shipped that coal).
But now, if a software company in Silicon Valley prospers, that means nothing elsewhere except in terms of a consumer product—Silicon Valley isn’t buying algorithms assembled at digit factories in Danville. We are not all in this together.
And yet there are some connections we can’t ignore. The urban crescent effectively subsidizes schools in rural Virginia. In some localities, more than 60% of the school budget comes from the state. Economically speaking, rural Virginia needs Northern Virginia, but they don’t need us.