The Rural Mandate

The sixties ended two years early, in 1968, with the election of Richard Nixon. Jack Kennedy had been assassinated early on, and then, in 1968, it was Martin Luther King, and then Bobby Kennedy – and all the antiwar protests hadn’t done a damned thing. Two years later Nixon was bombing Cambodia. The kids at Kent State protested that. Four of them died. Lyndon Johnson had strong-armed Congress into passing the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and created Medicare and Medicaid and Head Start and whatnot – the liberal agenda was alive and well – but Johnson had turned our minor involvement in Vietnam into a major war. By 1968 we had over half a million troops fighting that war we couldn’t win – and Johnson knew we couldn’t win. He decided not to run for reelection. The war had won. He had lost. He gave up. He retired to his spread in Texas, grew his hair long, smoked far too much, and drank himself to death. Then the Beatles broke up.

Those of us in college at the time knew that the campus Young Republicans – the guys with short hair, in their khaki pants and madras shirts, and their sweethearts in their prim shirtwaist dresses, with the little circle pins – had won. The law-and-order crowd had won. The “silent majority” had won – who hadn’t been that silent. They’d been shouting “America, Love It or Leave It!”

The antiwar left, and assorted bleeding-heart liberals with a wider array of other social and economic issues, got the message. No one gave a damn what they thought – but there was a third alternative to that love it or leave it choice. Slink away, or blend in and be quietly subversive, for all the good that would do. Jerry Rubin retired from politics entirely and became an entrepreneur and businessman, and an early investor in Apple Computer. By the end of the seventies he was a multimillionaire. The sixties really were over.

They would not come back either. Four years of Jimmy Carter didn’t help. No one remembers any progressive agenda from him. No one remembers much of anything from him, except talk of malaise. Eight years of Bill Clinton didn’t help either. His neoliberal “triangulation” was all about deregulation of the financial industry and “ending welfare as we know it” and other Republican stuff – to undercut those guys for a greater good that never really arrived – and Hillary Clinton seemed to offer a return to that. Barack Obama might have been the exception to all this, a man who would bring back the raucous spirit of the sixties, but Andrew Sullivan had once convincingly argued that Obama was the ideal conservative – careful and thoughtful, kind of like the Rockefeller Republicans of the Eisenhower years. Obama was not a radical. He was a pragmatist, for sensible progressive ideas, ideas that real conservatives would embrace, if they had any sense. After all, Obamacare was really Romneycare, the Massachusetts model at a national level.

Obama frustrated many progressives. The last hope of the raucous left was Bernie Sanders, who had marched with Jerry Rubin in 1968 in Chicago. The Clinton machine buried him before the general electorate could. It was over. Donald Trump was the final nail in the coffin.

Eugene Robinson isn’t so sure of that:

Humility is a virtue, but fake humility is a sin, or ought to be. So let me begin the new year with full-throated praise of some people and institutions that supposedly got their comeuppance in November: the mainstream media, “coastal elites,” share-the-wealth liberals, pointy-headed intellectuals and others said to be hopelessly out of touch with the “real America.”

In what too quickly became the consensus view, all of the above were put in their place by Donald Trump’s narrow electoral victory. We unreal Americans were demonstrated to be clueless, the conventional wisdom has ruled, and now are obliged to slink away and repent.

All of this is pure rubbish.

Robinson seems to think “that things such as knowledge, experience, qualifications and respect for objective facts still matter” even if one acknowledges “the grievances of white, working-class Trump voters” – which he says the press actually did. That was noted, but no one noticed. They were too angry at the current residue of the sixties sneering at them, which is now an urban thing:

Do urban, coast-dwelling “elites” really have such haughty disdain for the heartland? That’s an odd way to look at a country in which, according to the Census Bureau, more than 70 percent of the population lives in “urbanized areas” and more than half lives in “coastal watershed” counties, generally within 50 miles of one of the oceans or the Great Lakes.

Americans have been moving from rural areas and small towns into cities for decades because that’s where they find economic opportunity – and because, well, big cities are interesting places to live, full of diversity and cultural attractions and good restaurants. Yes, this is still a nation of purple mountain majesties and fruited plains. But that’s not where most Americans live.

In short, the new silent majority is actually a minority, and a minority that wants those long-promised sixties goodies:

Should liberals be hanging their heads in shame? No way, as the conservative majorities in the House and Senate will soon find out. Trump promised during the campaign to improve and even expand the social safety net, not rip it to shreds. He also pledged to spend $1 trillion on infrastructure projects and cut everyone’s taxes…

To read Trump’s win as some kind of sweeping victory for conservatism would be absurd. Progressive voices, loud ones, will be needed to hold him accountable. One thing we learned during the campaign is that Trump’s voters – unlike many congressional Republicans – do not necessarily see big government as oppressive. They rely on its help.

And there’s more:

Despite Trump’s general lack of knowledge about how the government works, and despite the lack of relevant experience of some of his Cabinet picks, knowledge and expertise really do matter. Scientists who have spent their entire careers studying the Earth’s atmosphere and oceans know more about climate change than politicians who base policy positions on the fact that it gets cold in the winter.

Remember that Hillary Clinton won the popular vote. I point that out not to delegitimize Trump’s election but to refute the notion that Trump’s America is somehow more “real” than mine or yours or anyone else’s. The America that supports progressive policies, rejects racism and sexism in all their forms, and believes that what critics call “political correctness” is actually just common courtesy – that America is real, too, and needs to make itself heard.

Ah, the sixties are alive and well, but just after the election, Henry Grabar pointed to the real split in America now:

For nearly half a century, Democrats have worked to position themselves as America’s metropolitan party. After the Dems fractured over civil rights and Vietnam, leaders came away touting the New Politics, a platform for college-educated idealists worried more about quality of life than class warfare. The 1980s brought the Atari Democrats, a faction of market-friendly liberals interested in tech. Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton, as chairman of the Democratic Leadership Council in the early 1990s, sought to build the platform for suburban moderates. Jesse Jackson disparagingly referred to the DLC as “Democrats for the Leisure Class,” and he wasn’t wrong. The party seduced and depended on wealthy suburbanites, and on yuppies streaming back to the inner city. It worked, for a while. It didn’t work in 2016.

It seems that the sixties left had become their worried parents in the leafy suburbs who had sent them off to college in the sixties in the first place, along with those irritating young urban hipsters, but there are a lot of those:

Four years ago, Mitt Romney won just one county with a population density greater than 1,000 people per square mile, California’s Orange County. On Nov. 8, Orange County flipped to Hillary Clinton. While she lost some Rust Belt suburbs that Barack Obama had won in 2012, like Detroit’s Macomb County, Clinton made big percentage gains over Obama in and around Boston, Washington, Indianapolis, Atlanta, Houston, San Antonio, Dallas, Denver, Seattle, Los Angeles, and Salt Lake City. For the Democratic nominee, running up the score in America’s densest locales was good enough for a popular vote victory – and a distant second-place finish in the Electoral College.

That’s the split:

In winning the presidency, Donald Trump proved a national candidate could demonstrate not only a disregard for big-city concerns, but a gleeful, manic ignorance of how cities function and thrive. (His claim that the murder rate had reached a 45-year high, for example, was at once a race-baiting lie and a display of how little he cared to find out the truth.) The flip side to cosmopolitanism – the “rural consciousness,” in the phrasing of University of Wisconsin–Madison political scientist Katherine J. Cramer – is now both an identity and an electoral force. Trump won dominant support in rural America. He outran Romney by more than 40 percent in large swaths of the Midwest. His rural success was not confined to the Rust Belt.

Is this the world, envisioned by MSNBC’s Chris Hayes after Brexit, where politics is “a battle between cosmopolitan finance capitalism and ethno-nationalist backlash”? Not quite yet. But we’re approaching that binary. Trump’s core message was small-town nostalgia. Michelle Obama’s counter, that America is already great, is a line that only makes sense in America’s cities.

In short, the metropolis has economic power but little political power. The American countryside has limited economic power but vast political power. It’s always been true, but this year’s electoral map shows the gap is wider than ever. There are many explanations for what happened on Election Day, but the simplest one is this: We now have a rural party and an urban party.

And that rural party finally won and it has its own agenda – stop immigration and close the door on refugees. Grabar goes on to argue, at length, that this both threatens metropolitan success and undermines “rural America’s best hope for an economic renaissance” – because they need this odd people to start local businesses and work hard and pay taxes and all the rest.

They just don’t see that, which doomed the Democrats:

Katherine Cramer, the University of Wisconsin political scientist, calls this the politics of resentment. It is intimately entwined with the development of a rural consciousness, she posits, an anti-urban swell whose defining characteristic is not racism but a more generalized frustration about citizens’ inability to fight off the rise of high-density America, those cities where power, money, and even their own children concentrate. When politicians inveigh against “urban America,” they’re often stoking their constituents’ race-based fears. But “urban” is now also code for class, power, money, and the Democratic Party.

This ideological clustering is partly the culmination of Bill Bishop’s big sort, the theory that likeminded people increasingly live together in social and political echo chambers. But the movement of educated Americans to the metropolis is a larger issue. Globalization has, ironically, concentrated economic opportunity in a handful of places. Corporate consolidation has decimated regional centers, and even big cities like St. Louis. One Walmart manager can take the place of a dozen small-town entrepreneurs. Living beyond the metropolis is considered a sacrifice for young people with college degrees. You can get a fellowship to live on the depopulated coast of Maine, which cast its first electoral vote for a Republican candidate since 1988. You can get a free MBA from Stanford if you agree to live in the Midwest.

Basically, the status quo is working in cities, and a vote for Hillary Clinton was a vote for the status quo.

That is what Democrats need to fix:

The fact that Democrats have a possible path to electoral victory four years from now shouldn’t obscure the structural limits of the party’s appeal. “The Democratic Party has to be focused on grassroots America and not wealthy people attending cocktail parties,” Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders tweeted last week. Sanders is right that a metropolitan party cannot compete in a pastoral political system. But the ideology that most distinguishes the Democratic Party from Trump-brand Republicanism – support for immigrants and racial minorities – is one that would improve the fortunes of those who handed it such a rousing defeat.

This is the central irony of the 2016 election: Trump country has elected a president who will harass, deport, and bar the very people desperate to live there, the people who would help rebuild its small towns and cities.

That, by the way, is to say that the peace and love inclusiveness of the sixties – racial and sexual and all the rest – wasn’t just dope-induced hippie-dippy nonsense. Some of it was of course, but that sort of thing is good for the country on a quite practical level, once you get past the love-beads and long hair. Now it’s getting past people who speak Spanish and Vietnamese and Arabic and Farsi and Pashtu and whatnot. That’s not impossible. It can be done.

Trump, however, now has his rural mandate, which is a bit of a joke, as it seems to be an Ayn Rand corporate mandate, because Congress is calling the shots:

For six years, since they took back the House of Representatives, Republicans have added to a pile of legislation that moldered outside the White House. In their thwarted agenda, financial regulations were to be unspooled. Business taxes were to be slashed. Planned Parenthood would be stripped of federal funds. The Affordable Care Act was teed up for repeal – dozens of times.

When the 115th Congress begins this week, with Republicans firmly in charge of the House and Senate, much of that legislation will form the basis of the most ambitious conservative policy agenda since the 1920s. And rather than a Democratic president standing in the way, a soon-to-be-inaugurated Donald Trump seems ready to sign much of it into law.

The dynamic reflects just how ready Congress is to push through a conservative makeover of government, and how little Trump’s unpredictable, attention-grabbing style matters to the Republican game plan.

Actually, Trump is just fine:

In 2012, Americans for Tax Reform’s Grover Norquist described the ideal president as “a Republican with enough working digits to handle a pen” and “sign the legislation that has already been prepared.” In 2015, when Senate Republicans used procedural maneuvers to undermine a potential Democratic filibuster and vote to repeal the health-care law, it did not matter that President Obama’s White House stopped them: As the conservative advocacy group Heritage Action put it, the process was “a trial run for 2017, when we will hopefully have a President willing to sign a full repeal bill.”

Hell, Trump will sign anything. Rural America will be an afterthought, or not a thought at all, but he has a mandate, but Paul Waldman wonders about that:

Every time there’s a change of control in Washington, the party taking power wants to believe it has an emphatic mandate from the American people to do everything on its agenda. After all, we just won, didn’t we? Of course the public is behind us!

Sometimes it’s true, and when it comes to presidents, there’s always a “honeymoon” period in which even many people who didn’t vote for the incoming president give him the benefit of the doubt and express optimism about his ability to succeed. Except not this year. Not only are Donald Trump’s approval ratings still in the low forties (a little better than during the campaign, but not by much), the approaching bloom of change doesn’t seem to smell too sweet to most Americans.

Waldman cites a new poll from Gallup on that:

As Donald Trump prepares to take the presidential oath on Jan. 20, less than half of Americans are confident in his ability to handle an international crisis (46%), to use military force wisely (47%) or to prevent major scandals in his administration (44%). At least seven in 10 Americans were confident in Barack Obama, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton in these areas before they took office.

Americans express somewhat more confidence in Trump to work effectively with Congress (60%), to handle the economy effectively (59%), to defend U.S. interests abroad as president (55%), and to manage the executive branch effectively (53%). But even in these areas, Americans are far less confident in Trump than they were in his predecessors, when comparisons are available.

These are the worst numbers anyone has ever seen, and Waldman adds this:

Republicans believe they have a mandate for wholesale, dramatic change – which is why it’s important to keep in mind that despite what everyone seems to think, 2016 was not really a “change” election, and that’s not just because the outgoing president is extremely popular and his chosen successor got almost 3 million more votes than the person who’ll be in the Oval Office.

If 2016 was really a “change” election, you would have seen incumbents at all levels defeated as voters opted for something new. Or if it were a “change” election specifically aimed at ousting Democrats and bringing about a new era of Republican rule, you would have seen many Democrats defeated. But neither of those things happened. In the House, only one incumbent Democrat was beaten by a Republican, while six incumbent Republicans lost to Democrats. Ninety-six percent of the seats stayed with the same party that held them before the election. In the Senate, all of the incumbent Democrats won, while two incumbent Republicans lost. Only one incumbent governor was defeated, Republican Pat McCrory of North Carolina. There wasn’t much change in state legislatures around the country either: Republicans took control of three chambers, while Democrats also took control of three chambers.

That doesn’t look like an electorate seeking change, even if lots of Trump voters told pollsters that’s what they were after…

So given that the American people didn’t exactly cry out as one for the enactment of every item on the GOP agenda, you might expect Republicans to tread carefully, if for no reason other than their own political self-interest. But you’d be wrong. They’re preparing to implement “the most ambitious conservative policy agenda since the 1920s.”

That may be a mistake:

There’s no doubt that Republicans sincerely believe those policies are good for the country. If they didn’t, they wouldn’t be advocating them, because they don’t offer a lot of political benefit. When Republicans eliminate health coverage for over 20 million people, cut taxes on the wealthy, slash regulations on Wall Street, defund Planned Parenthood, and maybe even privatize Medicare, they’ll get cheers from some quarters, but those moves are going to be highly unpopular with the public as a whole.

Those moves are also going to be highly unpopular with rural America, which finally won its first national election, sticking it to those city folks with their fancy-pants big majority, but in either case, there’s trouble ahead:

The public won’t be happy with many of the things Republicans are getting done, but that will only matter once the displeasure becomes intense enough that Trump and Congress begin to grow afraid of it, and restrain themselves in response. Everything we know about them suggests that moment could be a long, long way off.

That means the sixties really are over. The most ambitious conservative policy agenda since about 1928, just before Black Monday and the decade-long Great Depression that followed, takes America back forty years before that 1968 election that got rid of the hippies. That may not be what Trump’s amazingly successful minority rural coalition had in mind. They just wanted some respect. That was the mandate.

Oh well. Now they can join those of us who had all that hope in the sixties. You can’t always get what you want. Expect a country and western version of that old Rolling Stones song soon.

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About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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One Response to The Rural Mandate

  1. David W says:

    Re: the end of the 60’s

    “…And that, I think, was the handle—that sense of inevitable victory over the forces of Old and Evil. Not in any mean or military sense; we didn’t need that. Our energy would simply prevail. There was no point in fighting—on our side or theirs. We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave. . . .

    So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark—that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.”

    Hunter Thompson, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

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