The 2012 Election was a demonstrably party line affair. In that, it was a canvas with a deeper meaning in US history than the results for individual candidates and parties: this is the first time in American history that all of the rural vote was committed to a single party. That seems a non-earthshaking statement, but is non-trivial looking at the socio-political landscape in the USA previously, and has implications for the future.
2012, the Outcome Matrix
First, some more peripheral remarks. Nothing earthshaking here, and others may have their angular perspectives to add, but some handicapping for those who desire such. This election cycle in result wasn’t about ‘Barack Obama.’ Or ‘the economy.’ Despite all the media yammering. The media considers the ephemera of the hour and personalities which draw eyeball share, not substantive facts or social structures.
This was, in the end, a remarkably party line vote. Women, blacks, Hispanics, Asians, those of most and least education, and union workers overwhelmingly voted Democrat (citing the New York Times here, but they simply capsulized the results well the day after). Those rather diverse constituencies are offered NOTHING by the Republican Party in this generation, and by default voted the party which might offer them something; now, in the recent past, and for the foreseeable future. Men (What? Why??), whites, those older, rural residents, Southerners, evangelical Christians but also the rich voted Republican in the main. It’s worth noting that several of those designations are overlapping, such as rural, older, and white, or rural, white, and evangelical. That constituency on the whole wants nothing to do with those who are voting for the Democrats, and consequently have collected in a different party, the Republican Party by default since only two are allowed to participate meaningfully in this country. That constituency fits uncomfortably with the rich, both at first glance and historically, although the rich are both conservative, anti-labor, and anti-immigrant so in those respects naturally of the same party.
There is a third strata in the electorate, the smallest of the four, with the fourth being a near trivial sliver of mutually exclusive lefties and libertarians who numerically cancel out. The third consists of ‘independents,’ that is, those without a fixed party affiliation. This typically includes the young, tidily middle class suburbanites and the archetypal independents, meaning non-leftists too educated to self-respectably vote Republican. With the exception of the young, who typically vote Democrat but often don’t vote, these independents are quite fickle in their voting patterns, going with whoever they think will give them a fatter payout in a given cycle. If all the ‘independents’ go one way, that can be decisive in many locales, hence the inordinate amount of money and pitch-time spent to woo them.
Yes, Barack Obama was re-elected, but don’t fool yourself into thinking most folks were voting ‘for him’: they punched a party’s chad because of what that party might deliver to them, he just happened to be the name printed over it. Democratic turnout was defensive, in different words. Similarly, Romney has little love from his party, but the vote turned out to punch up Republican. Obama simply had to convince his side of the electorate that ‘he cares about people like us,’ while Romney had to convince his that he was a nativist bigot. Both succeeded in misrepresenting themselves successfully as such (since in my view neither has the qualities expected). Those who lean Democrat significantly outnumber those who lean Republican.
The major reason this vote ‘seemed close’ was that Obama’s side had little faith in him or his record, and did not turn out in close to their actual numbers. The principal asset of the Republicans through a generation has been that they DO turn out their base and hanger’s-on in high, reliable numbers. I’m sure that happened again in an effort to thrust Barack Obama aside, likely accounting for the ‘record turnout’ the media is buzzing over (although it seems clear that fewer folks voted than in the 2008 election). Independents didn’t have a horse in this race, and either sat it out or fell to either side of the bar, a further factor in making for a ‘close vote.’
Nor was ‘the economy’ a deciding factor in this cycle in my view. For one thing, the Financial Crisis and the injury to the larger economy attendant upon it are still chalked up to Dubya Bush (Obama getting an undeserved free pass from the bulk of the electorate and most of his constituency for his own sellout to the agenda of great wealth which has exacerbated the injury to the larger economy). And while some are hurting greatly economically, the pain is concentrated in a few areas. Much of the electorate hasn’t taken the big hit, pressure notwithstanding, and are looking more to hold steady than lay blame.
Everything I just said has been a) reported in its details even in the mass media, b) is unremarkable having significant electoral history behind it, and c) was baked in before this election cycle even began. I could have written this capsule a year ago, but you’ll see it nowhere in the media because big picture summary isn’t of interest to them. The debates? Not impactful. Record spending? Big profits for the trade but inconsequential in the result. So long as the Ds made no major error and turned out their base, they had this one going in. It’s neither coincidence nor surprise that Obama won most of the flippable states because in a base-on-base vote, the Ds will win narrowly even without the independents.
The Countryside, Better Red than Led
Given that the electorate in 2012 broke remarkably cleanly along establish socio-cultural preferences between the parties, we have an excellent snapshot of the American political landscape in the results. And what we see is that the vast majority of the rural vote is now Republican. That was likely the case as early as 2000 but circumstances moved portions of the vote around in a less clear fashion, in my view. Both on present politics and looking at the sociology involved, it seems highly likely that the rural vote will remain Republican so long as that party is extant. That all of the rural (and largely white in that) vote is now in one party is new and has implications for those who want to handicap both campaigns and elections going forward, and that regard have insight into pressure points in public policy.
The socio-cultural background of rural (and exurban) American is remarkably homogenous, but for the vagaries of geography and political history has been fractured prior to this time amongst the major parties. The Eastern seaboard of America in a long, north-south littoral. Settlement was in socially diverse nodes, but subsequent territorial expansion proceeded largely on direct east-west compass marks from those nodes. If your high school American history course was any good, you already know this, but not (quite) what it has meant. The first settlements on the coast were diverse. Very simplistically, political elites in New England and the mid-Atlantic had much in common, while political elites from the Chesapeake on south and around New York had working similarities. While initial political alignments between these larger factions were rather fluid prior to independence, they long since coalesced into enduring political opposition in the main which continue to be reflected in a residual manner in the present two major parties.
However, the secondary settlement in the uplands from ca. 1740-80 was quite homogenous, and the bulk of the rural population in the US was, and is, derived from this secondary wave. Significantly Scots-Irish and secondarily from rural northern England and Wales, with a sprinkling of evangelical rural Germans of quite similar cultural background. European whites of evangelical leanings with antipathetical relations to the larger governments of that time and this. These populations settled inland everywhere from Maine to Florida, and moved largely due west in expansion from wherever they first lodged. However, they necessarily developed clientage relations with the local political elites because land grants and commerce were controlled locally. Thus, the secondary wave which largely settled the countryside if not the cities of the American interior was fragmented from the outset between the prior political factions which had nothing really to do with the cultural preference or even personal political interests of the latter, nativist arrivals.
This circumstantially imposed political schism of the American rural vote has been of tremendous importance in the political history of the US. It’s not the only factor, but has loomed in the background of every major political crux in our history, sometimes lurching to the foreground. Yes, voters in, for example, rural New Hampshire, downstate Indiana, Arkansas, and southern Arizona have from the socio-cultural standpoint far more in common with each other than with the political elites of the country but because of an imposed political geography ended up backing literally warring sides. This white rural constituency has perhaps never been an absolute majority of the American population, but from 1800 to the 1980s at a guess has been a salient plurality of the population and the electorate. If ever they had voted as a block, they would have dominated American politics. We may be fortunate that never happened. ‘Northern’ and ‘Souther’ rural whites have not necessarily been firmly attached to the Republican and Democratic Parties respectively; for instance in the 1850s their party alignments were rather fluid. The imposed impacts of the American Civil War and the Great Depression tended to keep rural whites cemented to the locally preferential political party however, substantially for reasons of patronage.
Party affiliation for rural and exurban whites eroded after the Civil Rights era however. It is an accident of the two-party system that this constituency ended up in the Republican Party. Ross Perot was their darling, for instance, and his run a pure expression of their perspective. As previously in American history, that effort failed to cohere a new party, just as the tenuous grassroots attachment to the so-called tea party failed to differentiate. But rural whites were NOT going to appear in public with the Democratic constituency, so they have lodged themselves firmly in the Republican Party, which they now dominate at the local and organizing level: it is their party. – But too late! Due to declining demographics, this white, nativist, rural constituency may still be a plurality, but it is now too small to decide elections on its own, even with massive turnout. This is what we see in 2012, and the real lesson of this electoral cycle.
The further lesson from my perspective is that the primary antagonism in American politics is the rural/urban divide, which is amazingly clear in voting returns in the 2012 election. Yes, the secondary antagonism in American politics is ‘wealth against all;’ the meaning of the 1% vs. the 99%. However, the wealthy have to operate within the larger socio-cultural landscape because, vote manipulation notwithstanding, the main weight of numbers decides the results. So we have the seemingly odd result of the plutocrats operating from within and behind the socio-cultural template, objectives and prejudices of white rural America. Going forward then, it will be a landscape of rural whites voting against urban others, with much froth at the margins for the handful of fickle voters actually willing to be bought. (Which is what it comes down to: George W. Bush bought that froth for $400 a head in a shabby bidding war of tax credits with Al Gore. And still, it wasn’t enough because the Repubs just aren’t a majority and the country isn’t reliably conservative in its vote, not that the media can report this accurately.)
Take a look at some of the district returns for November 2012, ‘red vs. blue’ and the results are eyepopping; Ohio, Virginia, and Florida for instance. Dots and clusters of urban blue surrounded by unbroken seas of rural red. Now, in one sense this isn’t remarkable. As is well known, cities in the mainhave been reliably Democratic in vote since the early 1800s, for many reasons (with the issues involved too numerous and detailed for this summary). It is the utter solidity of that rural and exurban Red vote as never before in American history which truly stands out. Yes, there are rural liberals; yes, there are urban libertarians. They are massively outvoted in both areas, and greatly limited where not completely excluded from political office and life.
Patches of blue surrounded by huge, thinly inhabited seas of red; mutually antipathetic, distinct in their political parties. This is the present of American politics and will be the future through the rest of our lives. What does that imply? There are too many unknowables, but several things stand out. Rural Red is demographically in decline, a process which appears irreversible, though it may have leveled off economically. The absolute share of the electorate they represent will only decease from here. That said, they are quite large enough to a) completely operate one of our two permitted political parties, and b) prevent any other faction from governing effectively.
I’m not of a view that that constituency can be bought or brought into a mythical ‘bipartisan’ blah-blah-blah. Why? For one, as nativists, they really want a sizable share of present Americans to leave the country and never come back, and of course that is not on. The rural vote is committed to starving the cities of funds, and that is a declaration of economic war. That rural vote is committed to dysfunctioning and ideally dismantling the Federal government, and that has gone about as far as it can short of violence (which is hardly out of the question). Urban Blue doesn’t ‘get’ Rural Red, and really doesn’t care to. Whatever faults one could list for Urban Blue as well, there simply isn’t much of a basis for compromise because the factions are culturally distinct, it’s not just a matter of political leanings, or a single few issues. It’s everything.
Urban Blue has largely ignored the present antipathy of Rural Red because it’s nothing new and in the past ignoring glares from the sticks worked. The rural vote was split between parties and could be bribed or worked around. But now that all the rural vote is in one party which it controls, that’s no longer the situation. Urban Blue needs to sit down and have a long conversation amongst itself regarding how they are going to govern. That is my view. Notwithstanding the machinations of the ‘wealthy 1% against all’ Urban Blue have a narrow, slow-growing but reliable minority, but share a country with a large population which patently dislikes them and isn’t about to cooperate. I’m not going to advance a pat list of solutions or objectives. First of all, there isn’t a clear course or program that I can see. But secondly, Urban Blue hasn’t decided to fight back but rather has voted and programmatically proceeded in a defensive manner to this point. Red is offensive but short of the votes to rule while Blue is defensive and has diversity rather than purpose.
To me, the message of the 2012 election is that Urban Blue and Rural Red (more or less) are solid, divergent factions. The cultural divides are more relevant than the putative party organizations, any specific policy, the gyrations of ‘the economy,’ or the ephemera of discrete events. Yes, all of the latter are meaningful, but none of them are decisive. Diverse Urban Blue and white Rural Red definitively delimit the landscape we live in going forward.