By Steven Conn
Photography by Maddie McGarvey

In the 2017 off-year elections, electoral gains in purple states like Virginia and deep red ones like Georgia and Alabama gave the Democratic Party reasons for hope. As President Trump gets ready to give his first State of the Union address tonight and we look forward to congressional midterms, it’s a good time to take a deeper look at how the Democratic Party responded to the 2016 Election, and to analyze whether the “course correction” was the right one.

Despite the party’s successes in 2017, my own sense is that it’s gone down the wrong path — one that focuses on specific kinds of voters when it ought to be focused on the places in which those voters live. The distinction is important so let me explain.

Much of the fretting has revolved around how the Democratic Party must win back the white working class, especially in the Rust Belt states it lost and should have won: Pennsylvania, Ohio, Wisconsin, and Michigan. Winning those voters, so the analysis goes, means capturing some of the populist energy behind Trump’s Electoral College victory. And so Democrats have started talking critically about trade policy — an appeal to the white working class who view trade as the primary reason for lost jobs and industries. My own U.S. senator, Ohio’s Sherrod Brown, has even been making vaguely Trumpian noises about NAFTA.

Of course the what-might-have-been ghost of Bernie Sanders haunts these appeals. According to the Sandernista version of events, the Democratic Party crashed and burned in 2016 because of its squishy centrism, its cozy relationship with Wall Street, and its refusal to lead the charge of the 99-percent against the 1-percent. That’s the gist, anyway, according to the Autopsy on 2016 offered recently by several left-of-center party activists, who accuse the party of bringing “a wonk knife to a populist gunfight.” As the authors state: “The Democratic Party is failing, on a systemic level, to inspire, bring out, and get a sufficient majority of the votes of the working class.”

All politics is local, said Tip O’Neill, to which we might add a corollary: All politics is locality.

But this particular election post-mortem is a tired one for the Democrats. Dating back to 1968, the party has blamed its presidential election losses on a betrayal of the working class, from the Nixon Hard Hats to the Reagan Democrats to Trump’s rehash of the Nixon Hard Hats.

There is a fundamental oversight at the heart of the “it’s the white working class stupid” critiques. White voters began to leave the Democratic Party in almost exact parallel with the party’s commitment to civil rights and feminist issues. And it wasn’t just white Southerners who chose racial animosity over economic interests. For those wringing their hands over Hillary’s failure to appeal to out-of-work autoworkers, recall that George Wallace won the Michigan Democratic primary in 1972.

Drill deeper and you’ll find that the 80,000 votes across Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania that swung the election were as likely to come from Grosse Pointe’s wealthy residents as from Flint’s unemployed autoworkers. That tiny figure, 80,000, is as easily explained by suburban misogyny as it is by working-class alienation.

I have no doubt the Clinton campaign made any number of bad choices and stupid decisions, including the failure to craft an effective economic message for those hard hats in the Rust Belt. But I’ve drawn a different conclusion from those who insist that the Democratic Party needs to put its blue collar back on. In short, if the Democratic Party wants to succeed in places like Michigan and Ohio, it needs to think more in terms of places and less in terms of people. All politics is local, said Tip O’Neill, to which we might add a corollary: All politics is locality. Democrats have to start speaking to and about localities and not just to (self-)interest groups.

Our political system is structured around a tension between population and geography, and that tension stretches all the way back to 1789. Most obviously, we have a House of Representatives (which represents population) and a Senate (which privileges geography). It’s the result of what I have elsewhere called the anti-urban bias in American politics and American culture. The Founders were deeply suspicious of popular rule, which for them meant “the mobs of great cities” in Thomas Jefferson’s memorable phrase, and so they created a system in which those cities and their inhabitants would be held in check by land and by land-owners.

At the state level, individual states replicated what the Founders created at the federal level. By the time the Supreme Court ruled in the landmark Baker v. Carr case in 1962, which helped establish the one person, one vote standard for legislative redistricting, many states had not re-drawn legislative boundaries since 1900. Urban areas, however, had grown enormously in the intervening years. Thus, urban voters were woefully shortchanged in the U.S. House and in state capitols across the country. They remain so today. In House races in Pennsylvania in 2012, for example, Democratic candidates (read: candidates with urban appeal) received 52 percent of the total vote but won only 5 out of 18 seats.

The Democratic Party needs to start thinking about winning geography. The way to do that is not to turn the white working class into another identity-based interest group in the Democratic coalition.

Nowhere is the anti-urban bias more apparent today than in the Electoral College. Over the last five election cycles, a Republican (read: the rural voters’ candidate) has twice won the presidency without winning the popular vote. Before 2000, the last time a candidate won the presidency without capturing the popular vote was 1888.

The fact that Democrats have won the popular vote and lost the Electoral College twice in 16 years points to this conclusion: Democrats can’t rely on winning demographics alone. For example, the inexorable growth of millennial and Latino constituencies (which Democratic operatives are so fond of tallying) is happening unevenly across the map. The party needs to start thinking about winning geography, too.

The way to do that is not to turn the white working class into another identity-based interest group in the Democratic coalition. Language and policy designed to help that elusive group have proven over and over again not to appeal. Michael Tomasky, in “The Resistance So Far,” his essay in The New York Review of Books, is right when he says, “When a white working-class voter hears a Democrat talk about the minimum wage, he probably hears ‘handout.’”

Instead, Democrats need to think about the places where Trump voters live. Not everyone in the Rust Belt is struggling. Many are retired, which makes the issues of job loss and stagnating wages red herrings. But those who themselves are not hurting economically see their communities, their towns, and their very sense of place eroding. Many Trump voters live in a landscape of loss — of people, of schools and other institutions, of local businesses and more — and that loss surrounds them every day. They care about these places, they identify with these places, and they want them to survive.

So what would it entail for Democrats to start speaking about localities rather than identity groups? How can the Democratic Party broaden its geographic appeal to win the places they lost in 2016? Let me offer this suggestion. Democrats should start thinking, talking, and otherwise advocating for what I’ll call the other, smaller urban America.

Many Trump voters who themselves are not hurting economically live in a landscape of loss — of people, of schools and other institutions, of local businesses and more — and that loss surrounds them every day. They care about these places, they identify with these places, and they want them to survive.

The urban renaissance of the last 25 years has been an extraordinary and unanticipated phenomenon. Cities that had been seen as hopeless in the 1970s and ’80s are now thriving again. Politically, this urban renaissance has translated into Democratic victories. States with dominant, vibrant metropolitan areas trend blue: New York, Illinois, Washington, and California. These have been joined more recently by states like Colorado, Nevada, and Virginia, which used to vote Republican in national elections but whose dynamic metropolitan areas increasingly drive their politics. States without a muscular metropolitan center, however, tend to vote Republican — Wyoming, Nebraska, the Dakotas, and the like.

Then there are the Rust Belt states and a different kind of urban America, one that has largely been overlooked. Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, and even Pennsylvania are made up of smaller urban centers surrounded, often quite proximately, by rural areas. We might call them second-tier cities like Dayton, Scranton, and Flint, and places even smaller. Once they functioned as small industrial hubs, and as the commercial and social centers for surrounding rural areas. Now many of them are in decline. Dayton and Scranton, for example, have lost nearly half of their population in the last 50 years. As an urban historian, I have spent a great deal of time walking through distressed post-industrial neighborhoods in North Philadelphia, the Southside of Chicago, Detroit, and St. Louis. But I have never seen any place quite so heartbreakingly bleak as the much smaller Springfield, Ohio, home to 59,000 people, almost 25,000 fewer than once lived there.

People in and around these smaller places continue to believe in notions of individual responsibility and self-sufficiency. Put aside for a moment all the ways many of them benefit from government programs — they don’t want to hear about that. Regardless of what they may believe about their own lives, they can’t escape the loss they feel and see every day in the places they live. The local high school is gone, consolidated with others into a megaschool out in the middle of nowhere; the local grain elevator or metal fabricator has closed and sits empty; Main Street shops are abandoned. Life in these places really was once better than it is today.

Finding a message that taps into that sense of place, or a policy that aims to help that geography, is the best way for Democrats to win outside the major cities.

There is a historical model for thinking geographically. We remember Franklin Roosevelt as the great champion of the (mostly white) working class, the man who railed against the “economic royalists” just like Bernie Sanders does, and whose New Deal made life better for ordinary (again, mostly white) Americans. All true as far as it goes, but it’s also worth remembering that FDR was just as hostile to big American cities as Jefferson. We shouldn’t forget how much of that New Deal was targeted toward rural America. From soil erosion projects to farm price parities to the Tennessee Valley Authority, Roosevelt wanted to use the New Deal as a revival for rural America. There was no New Deal corollary for the big cities and, in fact, FDR hoped that urbanites would pack up and leave for the country in a great back-to-the-land exodus. Roosevelt, needless to say, won the population and the geography.

Consider this: When Roosevelt took office, 10 percent of rural Americans had access to electricity. In 1935, Roosevelt created the Rural Electrification Administration, which provided loans to rural electric co-ops. Within 20 years, 90 percent of rural America had been electrified. Fast forward and a recent study calculated that 40 percent of rural residents don’t have access to high-speed internet (compared to under 5 percent of those in large metropolitan regions). These folks are thus being left behind in the dial-up age. Democrats should champion something like an REA for the internet because it will allow those places to access the 21st century economy in ways they can’t now.

What Democrats need to understand is that people in the Rust Belt identify more strongly with place than they do with economic class — white-working, white-collar, or otherwise. Finding a message that taps into that sense of place, or a policy that aims to help that geography, is the best way for Democrats to win outside the major cities.


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 Banner photo: A Trump supporter in Youngstown, Ohio.

Steven Conn is the W. E. Smith Professor of History at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. He is the author of 5 books, including most recently, Americans Against the City: Anti-Urbanism in the 20th Century (Oxford University Press, 2014), which is available in a handsome paperback edition.