During a CNN panel on Saturday after the election, amid the flurry of election results and street celebrations, media hot takes and outdoor dance parties, former presidential candidate Andrew Yang shared his reading of Democrats’ underwhelming congressional election performance and the American electorate’s continued polarization. We’ve heard it before, in various forms — that the Democratic party is out of touch with the working class, and has transformed into a party of “coastal urban elites who are more concerned about policing various cultural issues than improving [the working class] way of life that has been declining for years.”
Twitter users were quick to jump on Yang’s comments. And rightly so.
His argument, which has received renewed attention in recent weeks, is the same one that was thrown about back in 2016 after Trump’s election win. Political pundits and commentators from all over the political spectrum claimed that Clinton and other Democrats lost because they failed to appeal to the working class, conveniently ignoring the millions of Black and brown working class Americans who repeatedly, reliably lend their support to Democrats and progressives. The concern isn’t really about losing the working class — it’s about losing the white vote.
After all, Biden’s success this year was driven and secured by voters in cities like Detroit, Philadelphia, Atlanta, Milwaukee — all of which have large working-class Black populations. Arizona turning blue is thanks to Latinx and Native voters, who disproportionately went for Biden and Mark Kelly over their Republican opponents. Yet, political pundits complain about “coastal elites,” with no regard for these geographic or racial realities.
And when it comes to the white working class, as Stanford professor Hakeem Jefferson pointed out in a post-election webinar last week, it’s a mistake to divorce racism from white economic anxiety. “White people who come to think of themselves as left behind perceive that they have been left behind as others, especially undeserving racial minorities, have made significant gains that they believe have come at their expense,” Jefferson said. In other words, “economic concerns” is racially coded language.
Moreover, education level (another proxy for socioeconomic status) similarly only serves as a predictor of voting preference when we further break things down by race. For instance, according to exit poll data, 49% of white college graduates and 64% of white non-college graduates voted for Trump. Meanwhile, a meager 27% of nonwhite college graduates and 26% of nonwhite non-college graduates did the same. Validated 2016 voter data showed similar patterns: 38% of white college graduates and 64% of white non-college graduates voted for Trump, while only 26% of nonwhite college graduates and an even smaller 18% of nonwhite non-college graduates joined them.
So what we have is not solely a class problem, not an educational elitism problem. Having realized this, some writers and scholars are now pointing to the urban-rural divide as the main culprit for America’s deep polarization. After watching John King zoom in and out of the blocky red and blue county, state, and national election maps, it seems like that could be a reasonable conclusion. All over the country we see the same pattern — larger urban centers, and to some extent suburbs, tend to lean blue, while rural areas lean red.
But, once again, that assertion conveniently ignores a key detail: that rural areas are overwhelmingly white compared to urban areas. (White folks ran away from cities to the suburbs to get away from Black and brown folks, remember?) According to data from the Pew Research Center, between 2012 and 2016 the percentage of the population that was white was 44% in urban areas, 68% in the suburbs and 79% in rural areas. Rural areas also have the smallest share of immigrants.
It’s also true that cities have slightly younger populations (perhaps urban youth are steering cities and suburbs to the left!). But even among young voters, it’s the voters of color who voted for Biden by large margins. A Tufts University graph that has been circulating shows 42% of white youth voters supported Trump, compared to less than 21% of young voters of color.
Income is another potential differentiating factor; however, the difference in median household income between rural and urban areas is actually less than $2,000 per year, and poverty rates are higher in cities and suburbs than in rural America. If Democratic support among low-income Americans was really slipping, you wouldn’t expect such resounding blue victories in urban centers across the country.
The bottom line is that Trump wouldn’t have been a competitive candidate this year if it wasn’t for the white vote. While he did make some gains with voters of color according to polls so far, the fact remains that a minority of BIPOC voted for Trump, compared to a majority of white voters. Even more concerning, 84% of Trump voters believe racism in the U.S. is a minor problem or not a problem at all (compared to only 14% of Biden voters). And yet, perhaps unsurprisingly, we’re willing to grasp at any possible explanation for Trump’s continued support except the most glaringly obvious, most American one: It’s racism, stupid.
Democrats, on some level, already knew this. They ran Biden as their candidate to try and regain ground with the college-educated white voters who went for Trump in 2016. That is, the Democrats spent this election cycle pandering to a demographic that voted for a racist last time. Biden avoided addressing the demands of Black Lives Matter organizers and abolitionists (and instead focused on denouncing “violence,” “looting” and “bad apples”) for the same reasons that Trump ironically attempted to paint himself as the “law and order candidate” — to appease perceived white grievances. White supremacy is in play any way you cut it, and a blue president won’t solve that.
So the calls from Democrats for centrism, for continued prioritization of the white electorate above all else, completely overlook the communities that actually ensured their win this year. The calls for reaching across the aisle, for finding common ground, for unity and compromise, are unwelcome. White supremacy is not something to compromise about. Fascism is not something to compromise about. And it is absolutely not the job of Black and brown people to empathize with the Trump supporters who are upset right now. But, as Republican lawmakers try to undermine the democratic process and Trump clings to his last vestiges of power, it is time for white America to take a hard look in the mirror.
Contact Vrinda Suresh at vrindams ‘at’ stanford.edu.