The American public was deeply divided going into the recent midterm elections. The unprecedented levels of voter turnout also attest to a public that is energized by antipathy or adoration for the Donald Trump presidency. The election results further confirmed and even reinforced these schisms in the U.S. electorate, with some political pundits arguing that because one part of the divide—the more rural parts of the country—was an obvious winner in the election that today America is in a period of contracting democracy.
Five people and two bison
The day after the election, I was watching Beyond 100 Days, a program on BBC World News, with Katty Kay and Christian Fraser, who were interviewing David Frum, Senior Editor of the magazine The Atlantic. Frum argued that the American political system has become unfair because the center of the country counts more than the coasts, because the countryside counts more than the cities and because white counts more than black or brown. Today, Frum said, the system of power is so disproportionate in the U.S. that its liberal democracy is in a struggle for survival. Ms. Kay agreed that the power distribution in America was absurd, because despite North Dakota having “five people and two bison”, it had the same amount of Senators as New York State.
No blue tsunami
The disproportionate result that Ms. Kay refers to relates to the fact that Republicans expanded their majority in the Senate based on the support of white, rural voters in the heartland of America. While control over the House of Representatives, the proportional body of the American federal electorate, played out in the suburbs. It is in suburbia where the metropolitan voting precincts bump up against the countryside ones. In the cities, where voters sent a message of repudiation to Trump, Democratic candidates won at all levels of government. In fact, Democrats won by large margins in the popular vote. Meaning, if the whole of American power rested on proportional representation, the Democrats might have realized their much-publicized Blue Wave.
The fact that the wave did not materialize, according to Ms. Kay’s and Mr. Frum’s analysis, is that the system is rigged in the Republican Party’s favor because their base lies in the over-represented sparsely populated, conservative parts of American. President Trump bolsters this analysis with his 7 November early morning tweets on his “Big Victory”, and in his press conference later that day in which he spun the results of the election in his favor. Trump argued that since Democrats did not do as well as predicted, the results were a win for him. Trump waved off the existence of any Blue Wave.
The value of diversity
What both parties do not appear to understand or want to alter in their electoral strategies, is that diversity is what makes America strong. The existence of deep social divisions is not a new fact that has suddenly evolved in the American electorate. The United States adopted a federal system because it had a heterogeneous society from the start.
Today, it feels as if both Democrats and Republicans forgot that the American electoral model is built on the supposition that political messages must appeal to the whole of society. Members of both parties fail to recall that presidential candidates must bridge diverse cultural values and form a union. Hillary Clinton did not heed this fact when she neglected to campaign in rural parts of the United States. Barack Obama showed his lack of empathy for rural America when he said they “cling to guns or religion”. Neither Clinton nor Obama thought rural voter interests pressing enough to listen to them after the Iowa primaries.
If they had been listening, Clinton and Obama would have realized that rural America is suffering. Communicating this fact to the federal level eluded rural voters until Trump came along arguing that he felt their pain. Ironically, those areas that voted for Trump are the same ones that receive the most federal aid dollars. Just as those parts of the United Kingdom that received the most EU benefits were the most likely to vote for Brexit, voters in depressed rural areas do not want handouts, they want dignity in honest work and honest jobs.
Riding a purple wave
Happily, some members of both political parties realize that investing in voters is the key to authentic and long-term electoral success, such as moderate Republican governors in Maryland and Massachusetts who secured reelection in the 2018 midterms. Similarly, Democratic candidates who invested in their voters were elected to governorships in red states like Wisconsin, Michigan and Kansas. Although not all of the candidates who attempted to reach out to as many voters as possible won their contests, they did make inroads. For example, Stacey Abrams in Georgia, Beto O’Rourke in Texas and Andrew Gillum in Florida all made advancements that put them in striking distance of winning in their deep red states. They gained electoral success by registering new voters, by energizing complacent party members, by building new party infrastructure and by reaching out to their constituents. For instance, O'Rourke visited every county in Texas in his bid to win a Senate seat.
Even in my home state of South Dakota (where the population is slightly over 850,000 and, yes, there are quite a few buffalo roaming the prairie), Billy Sutton nearly became the first Democrat elected to the governorship in 40 years, receiving 48 percent of votes.
South Dakota used to be a purple state, in other words, citizens regularly split their vote between the two parties, preferring to focus on the personalities of candidates and not their party affiliation. Strategies such as Sutton’s ‘Listening Tour’, which brought him in contact with a large segment of the population, might make it a purple state again soon.
A purple America – one that is united in its diversity – is a much better place than one separated and alienated into blue metropolitan blocks and red rural enclaves.