If we learn nothing else from America’s protracted election of 2020, it should be this: This is not the country we thought it was.
Liberals had hoped for a thorough repudiation of Donald Trump and all that he represents — a housecleaning of every Republican in sight. They did not get that; the election was too close for that.
Conservatives — at least those of the Trump variety — had hoped for a similar rejection of all the cultural change that some on the left represent. They didn’t get that, either.
Both have reasons to look over the electoral landscape and confess they don’t really understand the country they both wish to govern. That’s because in many ways they don’t. Most people live in bubbles — some geographical, some created by social media — where they need not ever be troubled by an opposing point of view. We saw that in Virginia, where now most voters live in communities that went overwhelmingly for one party or another. Seventeen Virginia localities even saw Soviet-style margins where one party took more than 80% of the vote, with Lee County hitting 84% for Trump and Petersburg nearly 88% for Joe Biden. How can voters there ever hope to understand the other side? That kind of polarization turns routine elections into existential events because it’s not just the “other side” winning the way an opposing football team might, it’s an entirely different culture trying to dictate its norms to another. That can’t be healthy for a country to be so politically at war with itself.
The United States has been divided before, although perhaps not like this. The go-to comparison is the decade before the Civil War. However, that division was largely between states. What we’re seeing now is a polarization within states, as the nation’s metro areas and rural areas moved ever further away from one another. We saw that in Virginia earlier this year when the Democratic General Assembly took up gun control legislation, prompting outrage in much of Republican rural Virginia — inconsequential outrage, as it turns out, given the new makeup of the legislature.
In some ways, it looks as if we’re locked in a cycle of agonizingly close elections, although they’re only agonizingly close because of the Constitution’s election rules. The popular vote — which Joe Biden won comfortably — doesn’t matter; the distribution of that popular vote does, and Democrats continue to have a distribution problem. The Electoral College gives extra weight to small, mostly rural states, but the Democratic vote is concentrated in cities. If Democrats wanted to be more certain of winning presidential elections and controlling the U.S. Senate, they should encourage a lot of their voters in California to relocate to Idaho and Wyoming — or Texas.
Beneath the surface, though, there has been an extraordinary amount of movement. Both 2016 and now 2020 count as realigning elections that have accelerated the transition of rural areas from Democratic to Republican and metro areas from Republican to Democratic. In Virginia, we’ve seen that most clearly with Virginia Beach going Democratic for the first time since 1964, and Chesterfield County and even Lynchburg going Democratic for the first since 1948.
However, it may be too simplistic to view that as simply a rural/urban phenomenon when it’s really more about class and culture — with white-collar workers now largely Democratic and blue-collar workers (at least the white ones) going Republican, a complete inversion of where the parties stood just decades ago.
In 2020, we can see a snapshot of that realignment in motion. We first saw it in a major way four years ago when Trump shocked Democrats by taking their “blue wall” — the industrial states of Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan and Wisconsin that Democrats once relied on (and perhaps took for granted since Hillary Clinton infamously never bothered to campaign in Wisconsin). One of the Democrats’ internal debates since then was about the Rust Belt versus the Sunbelt — should they try to retake those states along the Great Lakes, or whether they should concentrate instead in the South and Southwest where fast-growing cities were reshaping the demographics of some states? In nominating Biden, a “son of Scranton” and an old Democratic hand, the party seemed to settle on the former strategy, at least by default. The question, though, is whether Biden’s strength in those states marks a Democratic comeback there — or the last gasp of the old order. If realignment by class continues, will those states become harder for future Democrats? Meanwhile, the close races in Arizona and Georgia (and, to a lesser extent Texas) suggest that the party’s future might well be in the Southeast and Southwest, not the industrial Midwest.
To some extent, Democrats have pegged their hopes on the nation’s changing demographics. Two little-noticed stories this year were announcements from the U.S. Census Bureau. First, the nation’s white population has declined — not just in percentage terms, but actual raw numbers as an older generation dies off and a younger generation has a much lower fertility rate. Second, non-whites and Hispanics now constitute a majority of those under 16. The Census Bureau has long projected that sometime in the 2040s whites will become only a plurality in the U.S. — and we’ll have no racial majority. Noted demographer William Frey of the Brookings Institute says that’s happening at a faster rate than anyone thought.
That has fueled concern among some Republicans that they’ll never be able to win in such a diverse country. However, realignments tend to follow Newton’s Third Law of Motion: For every action there is an equal but opposite reaction. One surprising trend of 2020 was how well Trump ran among Hispanics and Black men. That suggests the realignment along white-collar/blue-collar lines is already splitting the Democratic coalition — and may split it further. Zapata County, a predominantly Hispanic county in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas, went for Trump — the first time in at least a century that a Republican has carried the county. Now imagine a Republican Party that isn’t led by a candidate who starts his campaign by calling Mexicans “rapists” and “criminals.” There’s a lot more upside for Republicans in the nation’s changing demographics than they realize — and more challenges than Democrats may care to admit. We are a nation in transition, but we always have been.