The Future of Rural Republicans
Republicans have a lot on their plate these days. Ballooning deficits, an unraveling Middle East, and a looming impeachment battle are enough to make any member of Congress seriously consider retiring, or at least chucking his cell phone in the Potomac. Yet as heavily as the crises of the moment weigh upon Republicans’ minds, and as intense as next year’s election will surely be, smart Republicans must be thinking about life after Donald Trump. Even if the president manages to win reelection, he will very quickly become a lame duck, and members of his own party will begin to stake out positions in the post-Trump realignment.
Much of the political analysis to date has centered on the question of what a post-Trump GOP might look like—what kind of leaders and ideas might emerge after Trump leaves office. But a related and equally interesting question has received less attention: What will the Republican electorate look like?
In an opinion piece for the New York Times last spring, Will Wilkinson of the Niskanen Center examined the “vitality index,” a statistic created by the Brookings Institution’s Hamilton Project to combine various indicators of wellbeing—like income and employment and poverty and life expectancy—for every county in America. GOP policies, Wilkinson argued, have left Democrats with an opening in rural America, if only they were willing to pursue it. Judging by the state of the Democratic presidential primary, it’s hard to believe they’re taking this opportunity seriously. In any case, Wilkinson’s argument should also be heeded by Republicans. The plight of rural America is such that both parties should be seeking ways to improve the lot of their fellow citizens far removed from the city centers that dominate our media and cultural landscape.
The challenges for Republicans are twofold. All voting is cultural to a degree, but if Republican voters ever wean themselves off the politics of resentment, they may wake up and ask how Republican policies have helped them. Indeed, that was part of Donald Trump’s original appeal to middle America: The political bigwigs have failed you! What will happen if, after four (or eight) years of trade wars and high deficits, GOP voters feel no better off than before? Will they conclude, once again, that perhaps the political class made a poor calculation? If Republicans want to keep these voters’ trust, they must present policies that attempt to address the problems of life in rural America: stagnant jobs and education, poor infrastructure and technology, and uncertain rural health care. Those issues are ripe for big-government Democrats (and not a few Republicans, these days), but conservatives must present conservative solutions, as well.
All of this is on top of a more nebulous problem. Republican candidates romanticize our rural heritage in myriad ways; in some districts, getting elected all but requires driving a truck or toting a gun in your ads. Yet rural America is bleeding population. According to a recent analysis, more than a third of rural counties are “experiencing protracted and significant population loss.” And when rural communities produce high-quality students, those students rarely come back home. After several years in a college town or urban core spent earning a postgraduate degree in law, medicine, or some other professional field, rural America, where a craft beer or housemade pasta is nowhere to be found, loses a great deal of its appeal. The romance of the Wendell Berry novels, which I love, hardly reflects reality. As Judy Garland once sang, “How ya gonna keep ’em down on the farm, after they’ve seen Pa-ree?”
Therein lies much of the problem. It’s not simply that rural America lacks for services that much of suburban and even urban America enjoys. For better or worse, that has been a reality in rural areas for a very long time. The problem is that rural America is suffering from a severe brain drain, as it comes out on the losing end of the Big Sort. Some number of rural young people will always come back home or relocate to a similar community, but these young people often work in fields—teaching, nursing, mid-level sales—that have limited income potential. When the most ambitious and gifted young people don’t return home to put down roots, rural communities suffer.
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The progressive wing of the Democratic party has recently returned to one of its more tried, and tired, ideas: dismantling the Electoral College. Almost no one on the right is giving an inch to these arguments, nor should they. The structure of the Electoral College is still appropriate to ensuring that presidents earn the support of a substantial portion of the country. A national popular vote would drastically alter that equilibrium, rendering rural states less influential than they already are. It would be unfair to a significant number of Americans, effectively rendering them second-class citizens.
Even so, beneath these debates about the Electoral College is a reality that conservatives must confront. Social media has been filled in recent weeks with versions of a meme that shouts “Impeach This!” while displaying the 2016 national electoral map, dominated by the red states. The president has himself tweeted out a version of this map. It’s a powerful image, even if delivered in a hamfisted sort of way. The problem for Republicans is that the impressively vast red territory on that map is significantly lower in population in the blue territory. As David French has noted, land doesn’t vote. People do. Alternative versions of the map that take population into account—like this 3D version—can correct the misimpressions left by the meme.
Moreover, a quick look at the “Impeach This!” map followed by the Hamilton Project’s Vitality Index map shows a disconcerting overlap. With the exception of low-income urban cores that lean heavily Democratic, the areas of the nation with the lowest vitality tend to track most closely with the Republican electorate.
On one hand, that’s fine for Republicans. Rural voters can still be part of a winning coalition. The problem is that electoral gains made among rural voters came along with the rise of problematic candidates—think Paul Nehlen and Roy Moore—and were accompanied by falling support from suburban voters. If Republicans are to survive after the Trump years come to an end, they must expand their voter base beyond rural areas and back into the suburbs. And not just suburbs alone; the GOP must make inroads among the self-sorted cognitive elite that is slowly but surely slipping out of its coalition. The best way to do that is by rejecting the politics of cultural resentment and embracing market-oriented solutions to problems like trade, health care, education, and retirement.
We may rhapsodize about the American heartland, but the fact is that it is growing less dynamic. Serious Republicans who want their party to thrive beyond the age of Trump must work harder to strengthen and grow the heartland while still finding ways to appeal to metropolitan voters.