The politics seem crazy because Donald Trump has catalyzed political population exchange that has been decades in the making. The change is simply that working-class white voters are now Republicans and suburban white women are now Democrats.
The great untold story of American society for a half-century has always been the simmering, patronizing, contempt of wealthy, educated whites for blue collar, high school educated whites. The people who build roads, fight wars, and serve lunches have always felt the people who drive BMWs run Washington, have dinner at “the club,” and look down on them.
For decades, Never Trumpers (formally establishment Republicans) and Democrats (coastal elites) were dismissive of the real pressure faced by the working class from immigration and free trade. Responses like “Those jobs are never coming back,” and “Those jobs are dangerous and boring anyway” are translated to working-class people to mean: “You dumb redneck, you don’t matter so shut up and get a job in fast food or apply for welfare.”
And therein lies the genius or serendipity of the party realignment that Trump set into motion. The Electoral College system made winning states brimming with disenfranchised white voters like Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and, yes, Florida, a necessity for winning the presidency. Conservative ideology, however, required Republican candidates to declare war on the same unions which millions of white, working-class voters support. Free market thinking dictated a commitment to unfettered free trade which crushed the industries that make “things.”
Many political observers (code: educated, well-paid political professionals) wonder at how the God-fearing, churchgoing people of flyover states and drive-thru counties can morally stomach to support Trump. It’s simple. Life for the working class is hard, and it’s not uncommon for women to have children out of wedlock, for men to struggle with drug or alcohol abuse, for families to be utterly dysfunctional, and for Church to be seen as a virtue but not a requirement.
In effect, Trump sympathizes with their economic issues and is relatable.
That explains the white working-class voter portion of the new party equation. Now, to analyze the educated suburban women.
The explanation is also pretty simple. Trump is in the same vein as drag racing, Jeff Foxworthy, Skol, Natural Light and Caterpillar Boots. He is not a brand designed for upper-class women.
Before proceeding, it is important to note that “class” is a blurry term for which income and education levels are only a shorthand. In reality, many high-income earners come from working-class households and retain those values despite outward appearances. Conversely, many middle-income earners come from lineages of trained professionals like clergy, teachers, and nurses who display the same social traits of the professional class.
In the social world of the upper classes, success and acceptance are governed by the ability to present the proper decorum and appearance. In the upper and professional classes, income is earned through interactions with people. When working with people, polite, indirect and empathetic language is rewarded.
For the working class, the social benefits come from physical strength, humor and practical skill. In the working class, income is earned through interactions with things. When working with things, simple, direct and unequivocal language is rewarded.
Many of the characteristics that define the working class male are anathema to the upper classes and women, in particular. The gruff, unpolished directness of the working class male is something interpreted as threatening or aggressive by upper class women.
There is an abundance of sociological research about why high-status women typically don’t hang out with lower-status, men but most of us intuit naturally that the important women at New York Fashion Week typically don’t enjoy the company of the guys in the bleachers of a NASCAR race.
So, we have in a nutshell why American politics look so crazy now. We are in a period of transition similar to 40 years ago when the southern states moved from red to blue. The cities and upscale suburbs are trending safely Democratic and the rural areas and exurbs are moving reliably Republican.
I could go deeper into why this is actually bad for Democrats because they must fuse the atheistic religion system of modern progressivism with nominally Christian moderate suburbanites into a coalition, but I’ll spare you. I could also tell you why the next economic downturn is going to turn half of millennials into Trumpian economic populists, but I’ll also save that story
The walk away from this piece is knowing that your political calculus should be different. Stop looking only at party registration and start looking at the sociographics of a district.
The tide is turning, and the strategy of the past can’t be the strategy of the future.
Joe Clements is co-founder and CEO of Strategic Digital Services, a Tallahassee-based tech company.