This essay is part of a RealClearPolicy series centered on the American Project, an initiative of the Pepperdine School of Public Policy. The project looks to the country’s founding principles to respond to our current cultural and political upheaval.
After the economic shutdown in March, we had a strange sense of déjà vu as we walked past empty shops in our once bustling California college town. We felt as if we were back in Ottumwa, a small rustbelt city in Iowa where we had been doing fieldwork for our new book, “Trump’s Democrats.” Like many solidly Democratic places that voted for Trump, Ottumwa’s once thriving Main Street was lined with crumbling sidewalks and boarded storefronts long before COVID-19 shuttered millions of American businesses.
Although COVID-19 hit disadvantaged individuals the hardest, it has also been a kind of equalizer by spreading economic ruin far and wide. And, so, as we walked through our college town, we wondered if the plague, for all the carnage and destruction it has wrought, might nevertheless help bridge the social divide between Democratic communities like our own and those that supported Trump.
Bridging this divide is critical for Joe Biden’s campaign, as it looks to beat Donald Trump in November by appealing to voters in places like Ottumwa. But that’s unlikely to happen if the Biden campaign is reading the latest political science.
This research finds that Trump voters in 2016 were not particularly economically distressed nor likely to suffer from social problems, like drug addiction. These whites, we are told, are mostly just racists — a basket of privileged deplorables.
Yes, this research acknowledges that the places that supported Trump tend to look like Iowa’s Ottumwa. Counties that voted for Trump, for instance, suffer disproportionately from a host of economic and social problems, including suicide and drug addiction. But such facts, we are told, are irrelevant since it’s individuals — not places — that vote. Political scientists John Sides, Michael Tesler, and Lynn Vavreck put it bluntly: “Counties do not vote. People do.”
Such arguments ask us to believe that the many new Republican voters in 2016 just so happened to live in communities that are suffering serious economic and social woes. That would be a strange coincidence, especially given that the Republican presidential candidate promised during his campaign to make those same communities great again.
Why should we assume that citizens in places like Ottumwa feel little concern for the fate of their towns? That might be the case if these voters are simply a mass of disconnected individuals making economic calculations purely on the basis of their personal welfare. After living in three working-class Democratic communities that voted for Trump, we think that’s wrong.
In all the places we studied — rural Elliott County, Kentucky, suburban Johnston, Rhode Island, and the aforementioned Ottumwa — citizens appear to be deeply connected to their communities. Their social and political identities, in fact, seem to be inextricable from the towns in which they live — so much so that they perceive even Americans living in nearby places as outsiders. Because these citizens’ identities are primarily rooted in places, one might say that their political ethos is “Johnston First” or “Ottumwa First.”
This localist ethos was evident in everyday life. In Ottumwa, for instance, many citizens believe they should buy goods and services only in the city itself. As one Ottumwan told us: “If it costs me an extra $20 a week to shop local, it’s an investment in my community, I’m going to do it.” Such behavior baffles Ottumwa’s libertarians, who assert a faith in homo economicus. One, who manages a local auto parts store, noted, disapprovingly: “I’ve seen people go to a local dealership in this town and spend ten thousand more on a vehicle than they could [get in] Des Moines.”
In little Elliott County, meanwhile, a scandal erupted when a school superintendent job was offered to someone from a neighboring county. After all, locals told us, county jobs should benefit one’s neighbors, not “foreigners” from other counties.
In Johnston, town officials police their municipal indoor basketball gym to make sure it doesn’t become too crowded. They worry about interlopers from nearby Cranston pushing Johnstonians off their courts. “We check IDs,” a supervisor at Johnston’s recreation center told us.
If such strong placed-based identities seem odd, it’s because these working-class communities are put together differently from the ones that are more familiar to members of the professional-managerial elite. Elites are situated in communities that are less neighborhood based. Their communities are much wider, more virtual, and centered in professional networks that span regions — even nations and globe.
Of course, elites are often good localists of a sort. They tend to be involved in community institutions, for example. But their social identities are not unalterably linked to the place in which they live. A member of the professional elite would be equally at home in Brookline, Massachusetts or Palo Alto, California — or even London, England.
However, an Ottumwan would feel out of place in Johnston, and a Johnstonian would not feel at home in Elliott County. In such places, one is only truly “known” locally. And because social networks are more rooted in particular places, leaving town can result in a sort of social death. The opposite is true for elites: When we move to a new city for a better job, it often enhances our social and professional reputations.
That means that some locals in places like Ottumwa decide to stay put, even when they can find better economic opportunities elsewhere. When we asked one successful business owner in Ottumwa, whether he’d ever consider leaving town, he replied that he couldn’t even imagine leaving the north side of Ottumwa, much less the city itself. As he put it: “I’m a north-sider!”
These place-based identities help explain why Trump voters were more likely to live in communities with economic stresses than personally suffer from them. In 2016 Trump appealed to their loyalties to place, not simply racial identity and prejudices. On the hustings in Ohio, for example, Trump didn’t just tell supporters that he would bring back manufacturing jobs. He also said: “Don’t move.”
Like Trump, Biden could appeal to these voters’ place-based identities by positioning himself as the candidate who will preserve small-town America. Unlike Trump, he should offer a more racially inclusive, place-based appeal. One way to do that might be to link the collapse of hometowns in the white rust belt to the displacement of racial minorities in our rapidly gentrifying cities. In both cases, our new commercial order isn’t serving Americans with deep attachments to neighborhoods and towns.
In short, Biden should practice a less divisive version of identity politics, one that could help reunite a Democratic Party that has become badly fractured along racial lines. To do so, though, he must resist the calls by some political scientists to reduce the loyalties of the white working class to race. Unlike the Proud Boys, most whites in the rustbelt take more pride in their hometown than their skin color.
As more privileged Americans across the country watch small businesses shuttering in our once prospering towns and cities, it may also help heal our divisions if we remember towns like Ottumwa — places that have known plagues worse even than COVID-19.
Stephanie Muravchik is associate fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia. Jon A. Shields is associate professor of government at Claremont McKenna College. They are the authors of “Trump’s Democrats.”