As an American living in Europe, the questions I receive the most center around America’s choice for the 45th president of the United States. Most seem shocked that after Barack Obama’s legacy the US would willingly swing as conservative as it did.
Some Europeans are incredulous at this choice, while others seem to take pleasure in America’s current political and societal division. The most derisive analogy I have heard yet is that, “Americans watched ‘Tiger King,’ like the rest of the world watched America.”
For those out there who are asking “How?” “Why?” and “What comes next?” I will try and break it down as simply and concisely as possible.
Where the conservatives are
First, in Europe, you have probably been exposed to more liberal Americans than conservative ones. This is due to a variety of factors. On average, more liberals have passports and the means to travel. Young people, the majority of backpackers likely to mix with local crowds, are also more likely to be more liberal politically and socially.
There will be a higher mix of conservatives in places like military bases and embassies, but they also tend to stick more within their own social circles and are less likely to interact with the local population as much as young travelers and expatriate workers do. So, if you are wondering why Americans voted for President Donald Trump, it is probably because you have really only been exposed to one side of the political spectrum.
This is a problem for many rural and suburban people who believe that one metropolitan area is making decisions for the entire state.
In America, liberal leaning folks make up the majority of people that live in urban areas, and are more likely to have a college, or postgraduate degree and take part in the creative class; while conservative-leaning people make up a majority of suburban and rural areas, and are represented in higher numbers in the working class.
There is another class, the services class, that work in retail shops, office work and food services. States that have a larger proportion of this class lean slightly democratic. This is because more service-class jobs are clustered within cities alongside the creative class. These are the service workers in large metropolitan areas like Seattle, New York, and Chicago.
If cities are large enough, like in the case of Chicago, they can actually end up swinging the election of high officials like the governor, and other state representatives. Now, this is because these areas hold a higher proportion of the population, and therefore the vote is fair and equal.
However, in states like Illinois, Wisconsin, and Michigan, where most of the state is conservative minus the largest city in that state, conservative people think that their voices are not being heard. This is then stoked by right-wing TV personalities like Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh, who blame metropolitan areas for the ills of the state as a whole.
This is a problem for many rural and suburban people who believe that one metropolitan area is making decisions for the entire state, while the city also consumes a large portion of federal and state aid. These assumptions are complicated at best, and erroneous at worst, but lead to a greater divide within the nation. This split is not only true for states like Illinois, but also Oregon, Washington, California, and New York, to name a few.
Economy or the environment?
Take Washington, for example. In the 1990s environmentalists stopped mass logging in the Olympic National Rainforest in Washington State. The liberal government began reserving more land for species like the Spotted Owl, and slowly the logging industry was either halted or died out on its own. This was considered a massive win for environmentalists, who left the area and continued working. What few considered, however, was the tax money generated from the logging industry on the Olympic Peninsula. Towns like Aberdeen, Hoquiam, and Grays Harbor that were once thriving towns slowly died.
Many people in both parties consider the other’s members morally and intellectually inferior and say so loudly, proudly on a regular basis.
Schools closed, roads went into disrepair, and people’s livelihoods dried up. People from this area were understandably furious, as a liberal government and urban environmentalists made the decision, and then got to go on with their lives, while local people’s lives stopped completely.
I am not saying logging is the answer, a lot of environmental damage was done. But shutting down an entire industry and the people that live in that region is not right either. Instead of helping the area transition to a more sustainable source of tax revenue, the state government left it to regional governments to rectify this situation. Some local governments turned to tourism, but it left them with jobs that paid them much less than the timber industry and had fewer job positions available. As a result many families had to leave the area.
Today the Peninsula is seeing a resurgence of the forests that were once lost, which is a major win. Tourism has taken the place of logging in many towns, and some areas are seeing their livelihoods come back. However, many places that were once thriving still have an uphill battle to climb, and will most likely not see the same economic opportunities they once did.
The conservative narrative believes that there is a pattern in America of liberal city folk making big decisions for an entire region instead of talking to local stakeholders, activists, and institutions to come up with an equitable solution. Many people in both parties consider the other’s members morally and intellectually inferior and say so loudly, proudly on a regular basis.
Stories, like the one from Washington, have played out in various ways across the US, including in my home state of Wisconsin. In this way, many people from where I grew up believe that Democrats have failed them.
Who is inferior?
If you are a working-class American, who has suffered financially, who is told that you are intellectually and morally inferior, and who is sick of metropolitan areas controlling your region, Trump’s rhetoric becomes enticing. He emboldens the working class by saying he will bring manufacturing jobs back, “drain the swamp” of career politicians in Congress, get small towns thriving again, and give them back the respect they are owed.
I am not here to argue whether or not he has held up his promises, or about his inflammatory rhetoric, or his overall morals, or lack thereof. As someone who grew up in a once-thriving conservative area, with parents who owned small businesses, I am trying to convey why some Americans would see Trump as a solution. There are a lot smarter people, who have written volumes on this subject, but this is my brief overview from my lived experience.
Whatever happens we can be sure of one thing, democracy is eroding in America and vitriol is at an all-time high.
I will also say that a lot of these conservative areas in America are predominantly white. Much of their focus is mostly economic and on conserving community values; taking care of the places where they grew up. Addressing complicated social crises like sexism, racism, and xenophobia do not fall high on their list of concerns, as many of these areas are entirely homogeneous. They also tend to be socially conservative with patriarchal leanings.
So what happens next? What is each side worried about if the other wins?
For conservatives their main worries seem to be that Former Vice President Joe Biden is going to shut down America again, as we are seeing with many countries in Europe. There are a lot of small businesses, farms, bars, and restaurants that are holding on by a thread. They will not be able to weather another economic shut down. If that happens, many people will lose their livelihood. Some conservatives believe that this, in the long run, will kill a lot more people than the pandemic potentially will.
There has also been a lot of talk around scientists supporting recommendations from the Centers for Disease Prevention and Control (CDC) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH). It is a conservative belief that if these doctors had their jobs on the line like so many in America do, they would not be making the judgment calls they are currently making.
For Democrats their number one concern in the immediate aftermath of the election is that the pandemic will continue to be grossly mishandled and many more lives will be lost unnecessarily. They believe this will be worse for the economy because people will not visit businesses out of fear of contracting the virus. It will also put a massive strain on an already burdened health care system. Plus, they believe Trump will try to privatize all health care, meaning that many Americans will no longer have access to this universal right. During a pandemic, this would be catastrophic.
Optimistic but worried
Whatever happens we can be sure of one thing, democracy is eroding in America and vitriol is at an all-time high. People are terrified and they have a right to be; mainstream and social media have been sewing political division since the early 2010s. However, this divide is not new, it has been slowly growing in America since the 80s, and Trump is the result of decades of built up anger.
I am worried, but optimistic. For people to change, and become politically and socially active, they need to be thrown into a crucible. I have seen more young people in the past four years become politically engaged than I thought possible. America is seeing a surge of people in their 20’s and 30s, from all walks of life, running for local offices, joining campaigns, and generally “showing up” for the democracy they believe in. The next generation is socially conscious and active and no longer takes the democratic process for granted. Things are going to get worse, no matter who wins, but I believe that the future of America is not as grim as is painted in the media, or in European minds.
Feature image: Atdhe Mulla / K2.0.