In election post mortems, I have been a little suspicious of commentary that gives too large a role to globalization in accounting for what happened on election day. It has a role for sure, but it can be easily exaggerated. And to the degree that it obscures or hides the role of political and cultural factors, it’s more hindrance than help.
Take the overperformance of Trump in rural and small town America. Globalization, if we understand it to mean corporate disinvestment from domestic locations in favor of investment in far flung regions and countries of the world, sheds little light on why Trump did so well in these communities. In fact, if pursued, it ends up in an analytical dead end.
For it wasn’t the flight of capital from huge swathes of rural and small town America across the Midwest and Plains states that set the stage for Trump’s showing among voters in these communities. It was, actually, the opposite – the inward and massive flow of giant agricultural and commercial capital into every nook and cranny of rural America over the past four decades that did.
As General Motors, Ford, and Chrysler were fleeing Detroit, Flint, and other auto centers in the last decades of the 20th century and relocating south of the border and elsewhere, corporate giants like Cargill, Monsanto, Du Pont, Archer Daniels Midland, International Harvester, Tyson Foods, WalMart, McDonald’s, Target, and CitiBank were descending on rural communities with the destructiveness of swarms of locusts. In this descent, small producers on the land and in the towns were ousted, long-standing social networks were dissolved, new technologies replaced living labor, familiar landmarks disappeared, and people were atomized.
Furthermore, the family farms and small businesses left standing after this convulsive whirlwind found themselves operating in the shadows and under the thumb of the new corporate gunslingers who quickly came to dominate every phase of the production and distribution process and much more. If, to paraphrase the famous lines of the Communist Manifesto, all that was solid didn’t melt into air, it is also fair to say that no more than a thread remained of a way of life that earlier seemed timeless and eternal.
What followed was predictable: Family farm income dropped. The tax base and traditional job market shrank. Public services cratered. Poverty spread. Crystal meth and heroin made their entrance and found desperate customers. Soil depletion and water pollution spiked upward. Life spans shortened. Young people headed for “greener pastures” in urban centers. And empty, ghostly looking grange halls and Main Streets became bitter reminders of yesteryear’s “glory days.”
But as transformative and disruptive as this inward movement of capital was, it doesn’t fully explain Trump’s showing in rural and small town America. It also required an activating and organizing agent to turn rural voters into supporters of a candidate who is a uniquely unapologetic apostle of hate, division, and vicious oppression that can easily turn deadly. And that agent appeared, but not this fall and not this year, but decades ago in the form of right-wing extremism.
Indeed the ascendancy and sustained intervention of the far-right in rural communities (and elsewhere) coincided with the underlying economic and social transformations I have described. And since then this organizing agent has continued to assiduously till the soil of rural and small town politics. Had it not, the outcome of this election up and down the ticket would have been very different.
In other words, the transformation of rural and small town America into consistent and reliable Republican strongholds in the past forty years, and enthusiastic supporters of Trump this year, is inseparable from the presence of right-wing talk radio and Fox News, the spread of the evangelical church, the politicization of the National Rifle Association, and the growth of similar organizations in these communities. It was this motley crew that provided the political narrative and talking points to millions of rural dwellers who believed that the world was spinning out of control, the country was leaving them behind, and the government in Washington was intruding into their lives, rewarding the undeserving, and led by a too smart, too articulate, and too cool African American president who was orchestrating a forced march to a multi-racial, multi-cultural egalitarian society.
It is correctly said that people possess conflicting ideas – contradictory consciousness – but what sometimes goes unmentioned is that they seldom exist in a static equilibrium. In most instances, one side is dominant as a result of larger events and the interventions of organized political movements. That happened forty years ago when the right wing stepped to the plate and began its long march to reshape rural America.
Moreover, it was made easier by the near disappearance of political and social organizations of a progressive character in these same communities. The Democratic Party was barely visible. Labor too. In a real sense, the field of action – perhaps with the exception of Minnesota with the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party (DFL) – was largely the exclusive terrain of the right wing.
And as a result, it has been reaping the harvest at the state and national level for many years. And last month it turned out rural voters across the Midwest and Plains states to overwhelmingly support Trump.
Theda Skocpol, the Harvard sociologist who has studied the Tea Party extensively, made this point following the elections:
“… the problem was Trump ran up huge margins in non-metro rural, small town and some outer-suburban areas. Factory workers, even former ones, are few and far between there. Previous work shows that Trump voters are NOT disproportionately affected by trade disruptions, factory closings, etc. What is more likely is that these non-metro areas had organized networks – NRA, Christian Right, some RNC and Koch network/AFP [right-wing front group Americans for Prosperity] presence – that amplified the right media attacks on HRC nonstop and persuaded many non-college women and some college women in those areas to go for Trump because of the Supreme Court.”
“We on the center left,” she goes on to write, “seem to treat these presidential machines as organization, and they are, but they are not as effective as longstanding natural organized networks [my italics] … But off the coasts, Democrats no longer have such reach beyond what a presidential campaign does on its own. Public sector and private sector unions have been decimated. And most of the rest of the Democratic-aligned infrastructure is metro based and focused.”
“HRC’s narrow loss,” she concludes, “was grounded in this absent non-metro infrastructure – and Dem Party losses in elections overall even more so. Obama overcame that deficit. But he is a once in half century figure. How can anyone blame the HRC campaign for failing to equal Obama’s margins among minorities? No Democrat would have done so. For sure, Bernie would not have done so … The key for Democrats is to build outward and look for issues that touch the lives of both urban and non-metro families.”
Skopcol is onto something here. I would only add that for such an approach to be successful two things are necessary.
First, the “building of non-metro infrastructure” has to become the property of the labor movement and the rest of the far flung democratic coalition in addition to the Democratic Party.
Second, any approach to the everyday problems of rural life should be of a piece with the struggle against racism, sexism and misogyny, nativisim, Islamophobia, and homophobia. Issues of identity or democratic rights or forms of oppression other than class – call them what you will – are organic, not exterior, not add-ons, and certainly not impediments to class formation, consciousness, and unity as well as strategic cornerstones of the defense of democracy and the country’s democratic character at this moment. Indeed, they have to be addressed with every bit as much vigor as Trump and the Republican right relentlessly peddle their toxins of hate in rural communities and everywhere else.
None of this will be easily accomplished. But with an authoritarian strongman about to enter the White House, Republicans dominant in the Congress, and the broad democratic coalition on the defensive for the foreseeable future, it is imperative to get this fundamental interconnection right if we have any expectation of breaking out of this awful and dire predicament that we are now in.