Can we stop blaming Democrats for not appealing to red-state voters?
Lies, Damned Lies, and Statistics
Statistics are damning little factoids that ruin arguments based on convenience or deception. Columns have been written in the national media and mirrored here in diaries and comments asking what can be done to improve the Democratic Party’s standing in mostly rural red states — to improve our rapport with a segment of the population whose votes Democrats had contended for with success since FDR. Scouring the data, some suggest that this is a trendline extended from the party’s alienation from its base.
The Democratic Party. they argue, has become the bi-coastal party of elites and amalgamated minorities who are overeducated and overbearing as they demand rights and services from a government weaned on our legendary self-reliance and rugged individualism. After all, government bailouts and government handouts are signs of creeping socialism introduced on behalf of the weak. Really?
In today’s politics, they allege that Democrats have become desensitized to the needs of rural populations of white and in many cases undereducated voters who flock to the other side because Republicans “speak to them.” While Democrats since FDR have championed the underserved and needy by supporting labor, farmers, women, and minorities, somehow Republicans have become the party of the “little guy” fighting against the excesses of the insensitive pols in Washington, DC whose votes ignore their cries for relief from the culture wars that Dems have waged on them.
In part, some Democrats actually believe this fiction and have tried mightily to figure out what could be done to sway these voters back into the fold. For many, it is the basis for the argument against progressivism now reawakened in the party by elites such as AOC, whose entry in Wikipedia hardly asserts her elitist status,
After the death of Ocasio-Cortez’s father in 2008, her mother and grandmother moved to Florida due to financial hardship. She still has family in Puerto Rico, where her grandfather was living in a nursing home before he died in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria.
How can she relate to Joe Manchin’s poor white constituency in West Virginia given her undeserved privileged beginnings? The populism of Donald Trump, and what is now his Party, in comparison, knows well their pain and its root causes. The fantasy plays on and Democrats have spent several election cycles trying to accommodate the anger of voters who hate all that they stand for. Policies be damned, standing up for programs that help the needy and the underserved while saving the economy from multiple disasters caused by Republicans, while managing a pandemic that Republicans at first denied, and then mismanaged, would never be enough. The reasons why Democrats lose local elections and a whole swath of our nation pays homage to Republican incompetents like Margerie Taylon Green and Laureen Boebert are darker and far more apparent than what passes for conventional wisdom.
Voters’ Cognitive Dissonance
First a few observations.
- Republicans have not won the popular vote in 7 of the last 8 presidential elects.
- Government welfare in the form of farm subsidies which were first introduced in 1933 by FDR are now at an all-time high in the farm-belt red states.
- GDP has grown on average 1.6 times faster under Democratic administrations
- Democrats have supported Voting Rights legislation, the ERA, Labor Unions, and Roe v. Wade, each of which has been opposed by Republicans at all levels of government.
Given the above one would reasonably expect that Democratic candidates would be at the least competitive in states that are populated with rural voters whose post-pandemic economies have had a pronounced uptick compared to their blue competitors owing in part to the policies unleashed by the Democratic administration to combat the pandemic which the previous administration horrifically mismanaged. When did Democrats lose their credibility among red state voters and what did Democrats do to cause that?
The answer may lie in statistics that pinpoint a turn in white voter affection for the Democratic Party and the corresponding chart listing pertinent voter demographics by state and race:
The so-called red states share an unfortunate set of conditions that place them at a disadvantage when compared with their blue neighbors. Red states, almost without exception, contribute the least in federal tax dollars and receive the most in return. Their citizens are among the poorest educated, least diverse, and most isolated in the nation. Far from being the force that could sustain a second Civil War, they are victims — cheated by flim-flam pols who have taken advantage of their real needs and have introduced them to the false prophets of grievance and resentment. They have denied them access to the benefits of our gift of diversity. In states in which Republican candidates for years have politicked on the dangers of creeping socialism brought on by Democratic policies, the truth is much different:
Red states, almost without exception, contribute the least in federal tax dollars and receive the most in return. The reality, in other words, is that the blue states have been subsidizing the red states for a very long time. A study by the Tax Foundationin 2007 showed that eight of the top 10 beneficiaries of federal tax dollars were largely red states (all of them voted for John McCain for president). Alternatively, the 15 states who contributed the most to the federal coffers and received the least in return were all blue states (all 15 voted for Obama in 2008). Politifact also commented on the reality of red state socialism in 2012, noting that “Of the 32 states which received more than they contributed [from 1981–2005], 27 states (84%) are Republican. Of the 18 states which contributed more than they received, 14 states (78%) are Democratic.”
Stoking the Racial Divide
There are other, more damning reasons why Democrats are not winning in red states and it has little to do with our candidates and their policies. Pew Research Center has compiled data that cast light on Democratic performance in states with a common set of circumstances as those noted above. The rural states are mostly white, have higher poverty rates, and have lower educational rates- a demographic that Republicans have found useful in maintaining relevance as a national party. The party of Lincoln has jettisoned its past to advocate for the grievances of white Christian nationalists whose anti-democratic leanings had left them without a home in either party until now. Figures compiled from the Pew survey identified voting patterns for roughly the past 25 years. Looking at data from 1996 to the final years of the Trump Administration suggests reasons for the unbreakable hold Republicans have over rural states:
When the timeline is reduced to separate out the years from the first Obama term to the present, the shift in party affiliation is notable. The comparable figures from 2009 to 2019 tell a tale that may answer our question:
As the population of the nation has grown more diverse, the voting patterns in mostly white rural areas of the country have coalesced behind the Republican Party that has learned to not simply pander to race, but by inviting racist groups into its mainstream has actually exacerbated racial tensions. Republicans have found that in national elections the Electoral College favors the minority and that red states can negate the results of the popular vote:
The way the Electoral College rewires American presidential elections in comparison to a simple popular vote is clearly complex. The Electoral College does add extra weight to votes cast in the least populated states. But the way this system treats voters in the remaining states is not well-understood. In states with seven or more electoral votes, it tends to weigh votes based on that state’s voter turnout, rather than its number of electoral votes.
The elections in 2000 and 2016 in which Republicans were elected with less than the popular vote count were consequential in the shaping of today’s political turmoil. Rule by minority emboldened Republicans to offset their waning political relevance by appealing to a small but rabid base of malcontents, white supremacists, and poorly educated. In looking at the charts above, we can determine that many choose to live in rural rather than urban areas. Is it a wonder why the national Republican Party would choose to attack the public education systems? Be opposed to supporting college tuition forgiveness? Ban books and promote a revisionist curriculum? Despite the clamor for Democrats to engage somehow in these areas that are so inhospitable to their own principles, the focus should be on reform and a broader, more inclusive nationally supported educational system. Rural voters already receive more than their share of Federal dollars in subsidies and government services and their fears of loss of privilege is in large part the political scam imposed on them by Republicans who buy their votes with farm subsidies that go mainly to large corporate farms and who purposefully induce fear and hate by inventing “culture wars” to divide them for them to fight. Republicans own the divisions we are now confronting and to ask Democrats to abandon principle to garner votes is akin to asking leopards to change spots. The answer lies elsewhere.
The problem isn’t that red states are bad, that their citizens are racist or ignorant. We face legitimate differences that arise from an evolving culture and changing demographic within our nation. And the answer certainly isn’t for Democrats to cater to “Republican principles”. There are substantive reforms including those concerning voting rights, election funding, and the aforementioned Electoral College that can only occur with consensus. The current Republican Party, late of Donald Trump, Mitch McConnell, and Kevin McCarthy, has disdained consensus in their lust for power. Each has found a way to impose political will without having to govern responsibly. They treat our politics like a game — and a game is always easier to win if one is willing to cheat.