Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Voting for change: Why rural America found hope in Trump

The morning after Donald Trump was named President-elect, many Americans, myself included, found themselves asking the same question: Who voted for Donald Trump? Following the election, BBC published statistics aptly named "Reality Check: Who voted for Donald Trump?"Donald Trump won the rural vote by significant numbers (62% to Secretary Clinton's 34%). Regardless of what the statistics tell us about who (else) voted for Donald Trump, rural America has been getting a lot of attention (and blame) for the surprising election results.

Recent headlines describe Trump's victory as revenge of the rural voter and call Americans to shame "dumb" Trump supporters. Such an overgeneralization of the election results paints rural America in a petty, spiteful, and uneducated light. At the same time, people across the nation have responded to Trump's success with genuine interest in understanding the rural vote. Productive dialogue is seen through the many, many, many on-line forums exploring the reasons why rural America voted for Trump.

An op-ed recently published in the New York Times gained traction by addressing the question, "Who are these rural, red-county people who brought Mr. Trump into power?" This is an important question. The op-ed's author, Robert Leonard, concluded that Republicans and Democrats fail to agree on issues such as gun control, regulations, and social justice because they live in "different philosophical worlds, with different foundational principles." Ending his piece, Leonard concluded that:
Rural conservatives feel that their world is under siege, and that Democrats are an enemy to be feared and loathed. Given the philosophical premises . . .  presented as the difference between Democrats and Republicans, reconciliation seems a long way off.
Nothing is accomplished by villainizing the other side, regardless of which side one stands on. Rather than focusing on philosophical issues that Republicans and Democrats are unlikely to agree upon whether they live in rural or urban areas, it is more productive to approach the question of why rural Americans voted for Trump by addressing the legitimacy of their concerns and the problems they face in their communities. 

Commenting on the widening urban-rural divide in the 2016 election, Katherine Cramer, Professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin described "rural resentment" in an interview with NPR
[Rural Americans] feel like their communities are dying, and they perceive that all that stuff — the young people, the money, the livelihood — is going somewhere, and it's going to the cities.
Now, there is a sentiment most can empathize with. Rural Americans watch lawmakers spend billions of dollars on improving urban infrastructure while rural towns die. As my friend, Willie Stein, pointed out in his previous blog post, Trump's campaign capitalized on painting a "portrait of a hobbled and deeply troubled America." There is no surprise as to why such a campaign strategy resonated with rural Americans given the decaying nature of many rural communities.

With his nod to President Reagan's campaign, Donald Trump used his presidential campaign to call Americans to action. Commentators maintain that "Make America Great Again" proved to be a successful slogan as it evoked an emotional response to better times for hard-working Americans in the United States. 

But does nostalgia for the Reagan Administration make sense in the context of rural America? Many remember President Reagan's era as "Mourning In America." During Reagan's presidency, homelessness became a fact of life in many cities and towns across the country, even reaching rural areas. Moreover, while the rich continued to get richer, the wages of average workers fell nationally, increasing the wage divide.

A recent piece on The Washington Post, featuring the small town Wilmington, Ohio, addressed why Trump's campaign sparked hope in rural America. Eight years ago, Wilmington suffered a devastating blow when DHL shipping left, taking more than seven thousand jobs with it. 

Michael O'Machearly, a former DHL bus driver, described the impact the loss of jobs had on his community: 
There are people in this town that went through divorces because of it. That lost their homes because of it. . . . Our downtown used to be this precious place--it died . . . . My bank account usually has five bucks in it . . . I'm making my house payments--maybe just barely, but I'm making my house payments. . . I'm doing okay, but I do understand not everyone had that opportunity. 
While politicians have praised America's economic comeback, Wilmington didn't feel it--they continued to struggle. When Donald Trump visited the town, twice during his campaign, promising to bring jobs back to the people of Wilmington, that mattered. 

Josh Sams, a Veteran and resident of Wilmington, returned home from combat to a different town. He said, "You come back and it's kinda run down. There isn't the cash flow to maintain the everyday things you take for granted." Noting the success of Trump's campaign in his community, Sams stated: "That make American slogan kinda sticks out here, you know, to try to get the town back back to where it was." 

Whether or not President Trump will follow through on his promises to the people of Wilmington (or the nation), it's easy to see why people in rural communities latched onto his campaign promises with optimism. While Secretary Clinton campaigned to build on the Obama Administration, Donald Trump proposed change and action. When you live day to day with five dollars in your bank account watching the home you knew and loved disappear, it's understandable why you might take a chance on change. 


ofilbrandt said...

A number of rallies and demonstrations have been taking place in the wake of POTUS Trump's election in ways that they did not seem to erupt in the wake of Obama's election. Your research suggests that Obama was elected by urban people. My point of discussion is then what sort of venue do rural people have to express their common frustration?

These recent rallies have gained international attention for being massive numbers of people marching in very famous metro areas. Key characteristics are that they flood public transportation to meet up, march through iconic places, shut down busy highways to be heard, and are very well organized. Even celebrities are getting in on the action.

Does being part of the disconnected rural populations really make you disconnected?

Mollie M said...

I appreciate your thoughtfulness here. As someone who voted for Hillary, and a person who is fairly obviously a liberall, I have been struggling to understand Trump voters. The thought that "villianizing the other side" doesn't accomplish anything has been a sentiment that I have heard a lot lately. My problem is that much of Trump's rhetoric feels extremely hurtful and abusive, making it difficult to come into the aftermath with an openhearted curiosity.

I do not want to take up space that isn't mine to take, but I do think that people of color, immigrants, and certainly women have felt villainized by Trump since the very beginning of his campaign. The intense fear and unrest that comes from being called a "rapist" because of your race or the discomfort of hearing the President of the United States' voice talking about touching women's bodies without consent feels seriously threatening for me. To many others, these statements may even trigger even a fight-or-flight reaction of trauma. While I can understand the need for change from a desperate situation, it is hard for me personally to understand the choice for a "change" that comes at the expense of many communities feeling safe at all. I do not want to villainize voters who exercised their right in our democracy, but I do crave accountability.

Unknown said...

I really like how much you tried to empathize with a position you don't necessarily hold in this post. I think its extremely helpful to stretch our minds past our comfort zones and extend empathy to people who think differently. As you likely know, Arlie Russell Hochschild tried to empathize with rural conservatives in her book "Strangers in Their Own Land" (not everyone felt like she was empathetic: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/book-party/wp/2016/09/01/a-berkeley-sociologist-made-some-tea-party-friends-and-wrote-a-condescending-book-about-them/?utm_term=.79d5a4e46210, of course), and spent a lot of time trying to discover their "deep story." I really liked this attempt to understand as opposed to judging or demeaning, and I like how you've done that in this blog post.

Descriptions of towns like Wilmington bring home the way that many people seem to be situated in our nation these days: people in many places (rural and urban and everywhere in between) are really struggling. It seems to me that there was a saturation point of that dissatisfaction and struggle that resulted not only in the election of the POTUS, but also in the most heated debates and tensions in our nation today.

EAG said...

I like how you make a point not to villainize Trump voters, but to understand why they voted the way they did. You correctly point out that Trump ran on a campaign of change and hope, albeit for a very particular segment of society. Even though I do not agree with the change Trump peddled in his campagin, the theme of change and hope is a tried and true campaign tactic. Barack Obama also capitalized on the public's desire for change in the midst of the Great Recession in his 2008 campaign. The two slogans that defined his 2008 campaign were "Hope" and "Change We Can Believe In." (https://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/the-fix/post/president-obama-a-man-of-many-slogans/2012/07/10/gJQAf8UlaW_blog.html?utm_term=.c87de869cc7e.) These slogans are very similar to "Make America Great Again." Both campaigns inspired hope in people who felt ignored by the previous administration. I think you are right to look at why Americans voted for Trump, so hopefully in the future, we as a country can address the problems they face in order to avoid such a catastrophic election result in 2020.

Lisa R. Pruitt said...

Here's another great resource regarding why rural voters found Trump's message appealing--particuarly to farmers: