That’s my biggest US election takeaway so far. While race remains a huge issue in American politics, as I discuss in my column this week, class — and in particular the geography of it — is even more important. The counties that voted for Joe Biden represented 70 per cent of the country’s economic activity. As the Brookings Institution’s Mark Muro noted in a fascinating blog on this topic, Biden flipped seven of the nation’s 100 highest output counties, surpassing even what Hillary Clinton achieved on that score in 2016, and he also took half of the 10 most economically significant counties that Donald Trump won in 2016. Basically, if you live in an urban area and have a college degree, you voted Biden.
Of course, there were a few interesting exceptions to that. Wealthy Cuban-Americans in Florida’s Miami-Dade County, worried about creeping socialism in the Democratic party, voted for Trump. Personally I am always amazed when Americans, who live in a country with almost no social safety net and one of the highest income and wealth inequalities in the developed world, worry about socialism. Bernie Sanders is about as socialist as your basic Christian Democrat in Germany.
But the bigger point is that race doesn’t tell us everything about identity in America. Latinos don’t vote as a pack — why should a rich Cuban émigré in Miami have the same political views as a Puerto Rican American in New York City? Or a Mexican-American in Texas? It was interesting to see that in some places, non-college educated Latino and Black Americans voted a bit more like non-college educated whites in this election, which tells us that identity politics may be more complicated than we think. And that perhaps, the biggest identity divide in America is between urban and rural voters.
In his book Head, Hand, Heart, the British writer David Goodhart talks about the fundamental divide between the urban and rural communities as being about who can flourish in a “professionalised head-based economy” and who can’t. And perhaps even more importantly, who wants to. As Goodhart puts it, “while for many professional people work is a central source of meaning and identity, for around half the population in both the UK and the US a job is just a way of earning a living, with people finding meaning in other aspects of their lives”, like family, hobbies or religion.
I think that one of the key reasons that Biden was able to restore the “blue wall” in Rust Belt states in the Midwest was that he understood this, and frankly doesn’t come across as much as a meritocrat as someone you’d meet at the local Kiwanis club. He gets that these voters aren’t so much looking to join the urban elite as they are to be more successful on their own terms, in their own communities, albeit with more money.
It’s a phenomenon that the writer Michael Lind has dubbed “hubs versus heartlands”, and it’s something that Democrats in particular will have to continue to pay close attention to, given the winner-takes-all nature of the electoral college system. It will also be a policy challenge, given the divergent needs of urban areas (cheaper housing, Covid-related business bailouts) versus rural (better education, broadband).
Ed, do you agree that class will be more important than race in politics going forward? And if so, how might it reshape both parties?
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Edward Luce responds
Rana, I would like to believe that class, not race, will play a larger role in the future of US politics. But it is very hard to be confident about that. If you look at the breakdown of the 2020 results, Biden won the most votes of lower-income Americans (57 per cent of those earning under $50,000) and Trump won a majority of those earning above $100,000 (54 per cent). On a colour-blind reading of the results, the richer you are, the likelier you were to vote for Trump.
But once you bring race into it, the picture looks very different. Two-thirds of Hispanic voters and 87 per cent of African-Americans voted for Biden, while 57 per cent of whites voted for Trump. His share of the latter, once again, included a huge majority of whites without college degrees (though a smaller share than against Hillary Clinton in 2016, which is partly why Biden won). So working class whites are voting for Trump and working class non-whites are voting for Biden. I would call this race-based class politics, which is radically different to undifferentiated class politics. It is the difference between social democracy and neo-fascism.
Another way of looking at it is on the basis of education. White college graduates were split almost exactly 50:50 between Biden and Trump. Whereas non-white college graduates split almost three to one in favour of Biden. The massive outlier here is the white working class. Unless and until the left can win them over, there will always be another Trump waiting just around the corner.
And now a word from our Swampians . . .
In response to ‘Wanted: a Brzezinski for the post-Trump world’:
“The greatest difficulty of convening a democracy summit in addition to picking and choosing between true and fake democracies is that we ourselves no longer exemplify the values that we would seek to showcase. It’s not just our current failure to manage a peaceful transition of power (normally the greatest advantage of constitutional democracies over other systems). The United States now displays political gridlock between such transitions, a growing contempt for the rule of law (often described as a turn to authoritarianism but in fact something larger than that), intolerance of “politically incorrect” views, a high level of civic illiteracy, baseless self-celebration, cruelty to the unprivileged, and both ignorance and indifference to foreign realities. It is hard to argue that Americans now exemplify the values of the Enlightenment on which our country was conceived. To my mind, a pseudo-event aimed at reasserting advocacy of democratic values abroad while doing nothing to renew and reinforce them at home risks many kinds of embarrassment.” — US ambassador Chas Freeman
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