Midterm elec­tion is a tale of two elec­torates in Amer­ica

The Modesto Bee (Sunday) - - Issues& Ideas - BY DAVID BROOKS

One of the plea­sures and chal­lenges of this job is you do a lot of trav­el­ing. I’ve been in 23 states over the last three months. The gen­eral im­pres­sion I get is that I’m not cov­er­ing a midterm elec­tion cam­paign. I’m cov­er­ing two sep­a­rate elec­torates.

The big­gest dif­fer­ence is at­mo­spheric. In ur­ban and sub­ur­ban Amer­ica, Don­ald Trump’s ou­trage du jour is on ev­ery­body’s lips: Did you see what he tweeted now? Did you see his racist ad? Where will the Mueller in­ves­ti­ga­tion go?

In ru­ral Amer­ica, by con­trast, all that stuff is like a thun­der­storm in In­ner Mon­go­lia. It’s some­thing hap­pen­ing very far away with no par­tic­u­lar rel­e­vance here, and so no one’s pay­ing much at­ten­tion.

In ur­ban Amer­ica peo­ple talk about Trump con­stantly. In ru­ral Amer­ica peo­ple gen­er­ally avoid the sub­ject. Even if 80 per­cent of the lo­cals sup­port Trump, you never know how some­body will re­act if you men­tion his name – they might call you a racist – so it’s not a safe topic of con­ver­sa­tion.

The other big im­pres­sion I get is that grand canyons now sep­a­rate dif­fer­ent sec­tors of Amer­i­can so­ci­ety and these canyons are harder and harder to cross.

On the one hand, as Amy Wal­ter of Cook Po­lit­i­cal Re­port has pointed out, very lit­tle has changed over the past two years. In 2016, 54 per­cent of white vot­ers sup­ported Trump, and the ex­act same per­cent­age of those vot­ers sup­port him to­day. In 2016, 38 per­cent of col­legee­d­u­cated white vot­ers sup­ported Trump and 38 per­cent sup­port him to­day.

A lot has been said, but few minds have been changed.

On the other hand, ev­ery­body’s po­lit­i­cal po­si­tions are more dug in. Col­lege-ed­u­cated sub­ur­ban woman re­ally don’t like Repub­li­cans. White men with­out col­lege de­grees re­ally don’t like Democrats. Ur­ban Amer­ica is re­ally blue. Ru­ral Amer­ica is re­ally red.

The race in 2016 en­trenched those po­si­tions on the pres­i­den­tial level. The 2018 race en­trenches them all the way down the ticket.

I’m with Ron Brown­stein of CNN and for­mer Repub­li­can Rep. Tom Davis: This is not a wave elec­tion; it’s a re­align­ment elec­tion. The re­sults Tues­day will not be shaped by some crest of mo­men­tum be­hind the Democrats. They are go­ing to be shaped by the fact that peo­ple are har­den­ing into their cat­e­gories, and those cat­e­gories tend to pro­duce a Demo­cratic House and a Repub­li­can Se­nate.

The Repub­li­cans were sad­dled with an un­pop­u­lar pres­i­dent, and the nor­mal thing to do would have been to try to get House races to turn on lo­cal is­sues. But Trump makes ev­ery­thing about him­self, and so has na­tion­al­ized all the races.

Con­gres­sional elec­tions are now mostly just miniver­sions of pres­i­den­tial elec­tions. The qual­ity of any in­di­vid­ual can­di­date mat­ters a lot less, and there’s much less vari­a­tion in how dif­fer­ent can­di­dates are con­duct­ing their cam­paigns.

In Mis­souri, for ex­am­ple, the Repub­li­cans are run­ning Josh Haw­ley for Se­nate. Haw­ley could have run an in­ter­est­ing cam­paign that would have crossed a lot of bound­aries. He went to Stan­ford and Yale Law School. He wrote a fine book on Theodore Roo­sevelt, and sev­eral ex­cel­lent es­says for the jour­nal Na­tional Af­fairs, in­clud­ing an eru­dite one on epi­curean lib­er­al­ism. But he’s em­braced Trump and run as a pretty stan­dard Trump­kin Repub­li­can.

Na­tion­al­ized pol­i­tics forces lo­cal can­di­dates to act mostly like Trump or Pelosi stand-ins and less like them­selves.

The one word that the two elec­torates have in com­mon is “un­rav­el­ing.” Both groups have a sense that Amer­ica is un­rav­el­ing. If you ask them what “is­sues” mat­ter most, they’ll say health care or im­mi­gra­tion. But that’s not the right ques­tion to


ask, be­cause it doesn’t get at the sense of ex­is­ten­tial anger and angst that is re­ally driv­ing things.

Of course, the two elec­torates tell en­tirely dif­fer­ent un­rav­el­ing sto­ries. In ru­ral Amer­ica, the sources of un­rav­el­ing are the im­mi­grants (sym­bol­ized by the car­a­van) and the rad­i­cal­ized mobs of ed­u­cated elites (sym­bol­ized by the me­dia). In ru­ral Amer­ica ba­sic val­ues like hard work, clear gen­der roles and the so­cial fab­ric are dis­solv­ing be­fore peo­ple’s eyes.

Ti­mothy Car­ney had a very fine piece in the Times on Thurs­day that cap­tured the sense of so­cial de­spair. “I got a loaded .22 right by my door,” one man in ru­ral Penn­syl­va­nia told Car­ney, “I don’t trust no­body in my apart­ment com­plex.”

Ur­ban Amer­i­cans see the un­rav­el­ing com­ing from the ris­ing tide of na­tivism, the way Trump evis­cer­ates so­cial norms, the un­der­ground army of alt-right ex­trem­ists with guns. If any­thing, the blue sense of un­rav­el­ing is more com­pre­hen­sive.

Demo­cratic ide­ol­ogy is in­creas­ingly dom­i­nated by the ed­u­cated up­per-mid­dle class. As polls show, those Democrats are los­ing faith in cap­i­tal­ism it­self, in the Amer­i­can dream it­self. White lib­er­als de­scribe racism as a big­ger prob­lem pre­clud­ing black ad­vance­ment than do African-Amer­i­cans.

As Emma Green noted in The At­lantic, for many, pro­gres­sivism isn’t just a set of po­lit­i­cal be­liefs; it’s a set of litur­gies, rit­u­als and moral doc­trines for the sec­u­lar unchurched.

Pol­i­tics is no longer mainly about dis­agree­ing on is­sues. It’s about be­ing in en­tirely sep­a­rate con­ver­sa­tions.

The Venn di­a­gram is dead. There’s no over­lap­ping area.

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