Tuesday’s election returns delivered good news for Democrats (they take back the House), good news for Republicans (they expanded their majority in the Senate) and bad news for Americans.
The first two observations are self-evident; the third is based on this: Across the country, the election showed a widening and potentially dangerous chasm between urban/suburban America and rural America.
Pundits are debating whether there was a blue wave or a blue trickle, based on the split decision in Congress. That is a fundamental misunderstanding of what happened.
There was a blue wave — but it was confined almost exclusively to suburban districts, many of which flipped from Republican to Democrat. We saw this in Virginia, where Jennifer Wexton won handily in the 10th District in Northern Virginia (a district that has been Republican for 60 of its 66 years) and Elaine Luria and Abigail Spanberger won narrower victories in the 2nd District in Hampton Roads and the 7th District, anchored in the Richmond suburbs. The last time the 7th District elected a Democrat was 1968, and he was a conservative Democrat. That district had never elected a modern, left-of-center Democrat, but it has now. This election is simply a continuation — and acceleration — of trends that last year saw Democrats pick up an unexpected 15 seats in the House of Delegates, almost exclusively in suburban districts.
On the other hand, there was a red wave in rural areas. Republicans have dominated in rural areas for some time now. From a sheer numerical perspective, it seems hard to believe they could expand on their commanding margins there, yet they did. That’s how Republicans were able to oust Democratic senators in Indiana, Missouri and North Dakota (and also Florida, which is something of a special case). Those first three states have lots of rural voters and the Republican candidates there ran stronger than they have in the past. In Missouri, Democrat Claire McCaskill won 53 counties in her last race; this time, she won just five, all around urban centers.
We saw some of this in Virginia, too. In taking slightly less than 60 percent of the vote to win the 6th District seat, Republican Ben Cline exactly tracked Donald Trump’s percentage there in 2016. However, there were a few localities where Cline squeezed even more votes. Trump carried Buena Vista with 59 percent; Cline expanded that to 67.7 percent. Keep in mind that Buena Vista used to be a Democratic stronghold. As recently as 2005 Tim Kaine carried it in his race for governor. This year, even with a weak Republican opponent in Corey Stewart, Kaine couldn’t even manage 38 percent of the vote in Buena Vista. In the 5th District, there were 11 counties that Trump won in 2016 where Riggleman ran even better this year. Not by much, mind you, but still a percentage point or so. Every vote counts and in rural America, Republicans found more of them than before.
There have always been political divides in America, and the political differences between metro areas and rural areas are nothing new. However, the distance between the two is increasing. This cannot be good for the nation’s civic health. We are reaching a point — if we haven’t already — where the two parties don’t just disagree, they can’t even understand one another.
Here’s the danger, and it comes from both sides:
Republicans, rooted in overwhelmingly white rural communities, seem increasingly uncomfortable with the growing racial diversity of the country. In the campaign’s closing days, Trump fired up (riled up?) his base by warning of an “invasion” by a “migrant caravan” and called out the military to the southern border. This is preposterous. There is no “invasion.” The people from Latin America walking northward are hardly trying to sneak into the country. If they were, they wouldn’t be so public about it. Instead, they are coming to apply for asylum — a perfectly legal procedure. There are reasonable debates we can have about immigration. However, a president who fans hysteria over it might help elect Republicans in rural areas, but that doesn’t help bring us closer to a consensus.
This election effectively saw Republicans repudiate their heritage as the party of Ronald Reagan and instead transform themselves into the party of Donald Trump. Reagan once quipped that “Latinos are Republicans. They just don’t know it yet.” His rationale: Latinos are overwhelming Catholic, who have been trending Republican. Republicans also are the most vocal in celebrating the virtues of hard work and family. People willing to walk thousands to miles to save their children from countries racked by violence seem self-evidently to display both of those values. Why aren’t these potential Republican voters?
A thought experiment: What if Trump, instead of warning of an “invasion,” had instead celebrated these refugees as a validation of America’s greatness (and his economic policies)? After all, we don’t see people walking thousands of miles trying to get into Russia or China. Instead of sending in the military, what if he sent in judges to hear their asylum cases? How can a rural-based Republican Party that is now more Trumpian than before ever reconcile itself to a diverse, urban America that looks so different?
By the same token, how can Democrats, who now rely almost entirely on votes from metro areas, ever hope to understand the vast swaths of the country that look so different from them? Voters in rural communities are right to be wary of a Democratic House — not because it’s run by Democrats but because it’s run by a party that has so little connection to them. Likewise, voters in urban areas are right to be wary of a Republican Senate for the same reason. In the past, there were politicians on both sides who might have helped bridge those divides, but those politicians are now mostly gone, and this election accelerated that trend. Republicans lost suburban members and Democrats lost rural ones.
Beneath the surface, there are some ugly, disturbing things happening in this country. The increasing nativism of the Republican Party seems propelled by fear of demographic change — the Know-Nothingism of the 1850s injected into the conservative bloodstream. Meanwhile, when liberals have proposed that Democrats might want to pay more attention to the economic plight of rural areas, they have been savaged online by others who make it clear they think rural voters are a bunch of racist hicks who deserve to suffer. None of that’s good for America — either America.