Democrats are right to be celebrating a Biden presidency, but the details of his win should worry them. In particular, President Donald Trump increased his vote share in once solidly Democratic counties, like Starr County, Texas, and Robeson County, North Carolina, and from traditional Democratic groups like Mexican Americans.
What connects all these different communities? All have fewer college graduates, indicating that while the racial gap is decreasing, the education gap is solidifying and becoming multiracial.
This means the Democrats, in numbers and attitude, continued its evolution into the party of highly educated college graduates, while Republicans, despite having a very long way to go, shifted towards a more racially diverse coalition of non-graduates.
Why bother voting?
That doesn’t surprise me, because I spent eight years driving 300,000 miles all over America listening to people, and what I found was the biggest divide in our country was education. We have become two very different countries, with communities like Austin, Texas, and Madison, Wisconsin, filled with college graduates, and communities like Portsmouth, Ohio, and Bakersfield, California, filled with non-college graduates.
My book “Dignity” focused on those communities without college graduates, both rural and urban, both majority white like Portsmouth, Ohio, and highly Black or Latino like rural Mississippi or Texas. Places ignored by the media, except for when something bad happens.
What I found was decent, hardworking people dealing with the loss of good jobs and filling with drugs. I also found an overwhelming sense of frustration, especially towards Washington, D.C.
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In these communities, there is a belief that the politicians have left them behind, and only bother to listen to them, or talk to them, when they need their votes every few years.
The result is, most people I met didn’t vote, or vote only now and then. That is backed up by the numbers. Almost 100 million people who could vote didn’t, a far larger number than either Donald Trump or Joe Biden got.
Why do so many people not vote? Because they don’t feel much good ever comes out of voting. As a Black man in Lumberton, North Carolina, who voted for President Obama told me in 2016, people like him are fed up with the whole thing. When Obama left office, it seemed like nothing changed for him or his neighborhood. It doesn’t matter who is on the ballot.
Donald Trump’s appeal
I heard the attitude all over the country, in big towns and small towns. In red state and blue states. From Blacks, Mexican Americans, whites, Asian Americans. Everyone.
This election, some of those people who usually don’t vote, did vote, and many surprisingly chose Trump. How can it be that hard working people, who are scrambling to pay their bills, many of them new immigrants, chose to vote for an ivy league billionaire who wants to limit immigration? Because how we think about politics and voting is all wrong.
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The details of politics and policy that political pundits on TV fight over are lost on most Americans. Not because they are too stupid to understand them, but because they are too busy to focus on something that rarely affects them.
That doesn’t mean they don’t have views on politics, but it means politics to them is a sport. While they will never be players, they can be fans.
So who they support is more about which social group to join. It is more about whose supporters would they rather hang out with at a bar, not what policies they want. In the last few decades, Democrats have shifted towards being the party of the highly educated. They resemble college professors in how they talk to voters and how they present themselves and, consequently, how they are viewed by many Americans. While Trump has shifted the GOP towards being a party that maybe, just maybe, might get who they are.
While Democrats can sound too much like wonks, Trump talks their language, in simple, often blunt terms, that avoids details about policy, but gets a few big things right — like understanding that frustration with D.C.
Trump also gets smaller things right that college professors and journalists in D.C. find unimportant and embarrassing, but really matters in how people view politics, like celebrating a big win with a big spread from McDonald’s, or hugging the United States flag. Based on my experience and reporting, this is especially true of newer immigrants, including those from Mexico, who are proud to be here and love America in an unflinching and emotional way.
They believe in faith, family, the flag, and the American dream, and are not embarrassed about that.
I titled my book “Dignity” because that is what I found every American wants, now matter how much education they have, or how poor they are. Yet giving people dignity means not only listening to them, but also not talking down to them. It means understanding and respecting who they really are, rather than assuming you know what is best for them because you read about them in a study somewhere.
If Democrats want to be the working class party, that is the team they need to remember to be.
Chris Arnade is a writer and photographer covering addiction and poverty in America. He is also the author of “Dignity: Seeking Respect in Back Row America.” Follow him on Twitter: @Chris_arnade
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Election 2020 polls: With Donald Trump, Republicans narrow race gap