My friend Mike Cooper told some truth this week. In an article for the U.S. News and World Report, Mike laid out what he calls Trump’s America. He argues that both parties have let down working class white voters in rural America and that those voters are fueling Trump’s candidacy out of anger and despair.
Mike’s right. In areas like Wilkes County where he lives, less-educated white men are dying younger while almost every other demographic is living longer. They’ve seen their futures disappear and have turned to alcohol, drugs, and suicide to fight the pain.
Not surprisingly, several people commented that those people weren’t left behind, they just voted against their own self-interests and elected Republicans who ignored their needs. That’s not true. Most of those people voted Democratic for economic reasons and only turned to the GOP when those economic reasons went away. They’ve always been more culturally conservative than the Democratic Party as a whole and without the economic incentive to vote for Democrats they voted with their biases, not their pocketbooks.
In rural areas throughout North Carolina, Democrats were competitive up until the first part of this century. Eastern North Carolina was represented in Congress by people like Martin Lancaster. Larry Kissell won in the south-central part of the state just six years ago and Mike McIntyre represented the southeast until just two years ago. Democratic legislators called towns like Laurinburg, Albemarle, Rutherfordton, Shelby and Goldsboro home—and they weren’t in gerrymandered districts.
However, trade agreements signed by Bill Clinton and supported in Congress by both Democrats and Republicans sent their jobs overseas. Nobody offered them any support to replace those jobs. As the world became high-tech, the infrastructure in their towns and counties became obsolete. In many areas, the largest employer is the school system and, yet, the schools are falling apart. While Google is laying fiber in the Triangle, nobody’s talking about spending the money fully wire rural North Carolina.
Those people turned to Republicans because, if Democrats weren’t going to offer them the economic support they needed, at least the Republicans would stand up for their conservative cultural values. A decade or so later, that hasn’t worked out so well, either, so now they’re siding with Trump.
Republicans seem content to let the free market crush rural America while trying to exploit the anger of people being left behind by blaming immigrants and poor people. They say we can’t afford to spend money on rural America because of our massive debt. According them, we need to cut, not spend. They’re wrong.
The last time we had a debt-to-GDP ratio this high in America was right after World War II. We didn’t cut our way out of that predicament. We invested in infrastructure and people. We built airports, an interstate highway system, schools and universities, and sent a man to the moon. We gave almost every abled-body man a free education through the GI Bill and those people took the knowledge they gained to build businesses and the largest middle class in history.
We paid for it by taxing the rich. Marginal tax rates for the very wealthy were high but everybody paid some tax. Income inequality shrunk while economic well-being for the majority of Americans increased dramatically. With more money in the pockets of the middle class, more money went back into the US economy, spreading the wealth and keeping economic growth strong.
More than fifty years later, we need to rebuild that infrastructure again. We need a Marshall Plan for rural America, better connecting small towns and counties to economic centers with pavement and rail as well as with fiber and cell towers. We need to build new schools and community colleges with the infrastructure to educate and train a work force prepared for an economy based on ideas, technology and creativity. And we need to make sure they come out of these schools with jobs, not debilitating debt.
If Democrats want to take back Congress, they need to have support from working class America again. Liberals need to stop blaming the victims and wooing them instead. Offer them hope for the future instead of criticism for not being progressive on social issues. Education and exposure will change those attitudes more than ridicule or scorn. Donald Trump will only be here for an election cycle but the problems facing working families will be here long after he’s gone.
Politically those working class voters are up for grabs.
Thomas Mills is the founder and publisher of PoliticsNC.com, a website of commentary and analysis.