The Left Has a Culture Problem

Even if Democrats can change the way they talk to rural America, their celebrity allies won't follow

by Brendan Kirby | Updated 19 Nov 2016 at 1:08 AM

The soul-searching among Democrats is in full swing as party leaders try to figure out how the party of FDR lost the white, working class.

Progressive voices in the party, like Reps. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) and Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.), have called for the party to redouble efforts to present a comprehensive policy agenda to address the economic anxiety of voters in rural areas and formerly robust manufacturing communities.

“That’s kind of a silly thing and really goes to the heart of why that bothers rural voters.”

But some experts believe the Democrats’ problem goes beyond the state of the economy or policy issues. Many party leaders and their outside supporters have a messaging problem, making it increasingly difficult to connect with average voters who are living outside of America’s major metropolitan centers.

Ben Voth, an expert on rhetoric at Southern Methodist University, said that problem is epitomized by a Democratic campaign that called millions of Donald Trump supporters — explicitly or implicitly — racist and sexist.

“That’s kind of a silly thing and really goes to the heart of why that bothers rural voters,” he said, adding that the national conversation is “controlled in a very unfair way” by “the ones who interpret the world for us.”

Voth offered an example of the double standard. Democrat Hillary Clinton and Republican Sarah Palin both have been subjected to harsh criticism in public life. The media, Hollywood, music stars, and others with megaphones swing into action to declare over-the-top attacks on Clinton out-of-bounds.

"But they do not oppose Sarah Palin being treated unfairly," he said.

The prevailing attitude makes it hard for Democrats to compete for votes. Voth compared it to a recent discussion in his class about the difference between how two prominent Catholic politicians dealt with the religious issue. John F. Kennedy did so with grace and charm in 1960. But Democratic presidential candidate Al Smith in 1928 used the word "stupid" 37 times in one speech in Oklahoma City.

"You can't just call people names and expect them to go in the voting both and vote for you," he said.

Democrats Lost Ground in 2016
An analysis of the voting data by the Daily Yonder, a website produced by the Center for Rural Strategies, reveals a significant voting shift outside of major cities in 2016. Trump won 65.9 percent of the vote from rural America, up from the 60.4 percent than 2012 GOP  nominee Mitt Romney won. Meanwhile, Clinton won just 29.4 percent of rural voters, down from the 37.7 percent that President Obama won in 2012.

Clinton also lost ground in small cities and their surrounding communities — defined by the Census Bureau as "micropolitan" areas. Her 33 percent share was 7.5 percentage points off of Obama's mark.

Trump's margins in many of those rural counties was stunning. Take Elliott County in Kentucky's coal country: It had never backed a Republican presidential candidate since the state entered the union. Last week, Trump won 70 percent of the vote there.

The Yonder article's co-author, Bill Bishop, wrote in an email to LifeZette that he is not an expert — but he added that issues tell only part of the story.

"But, personally, I think politics today is more about social identity than issues," wrote Bishop, who wrote "The Big Sort," a 2008 book that described the polarization of American politics. "Well, it's about both, but because identities and issues and lifestyle correlate these days … it's not as if Ds can start talking about Y or X and it will turn people around."

Democratic politicians from Obama down have realized their problem.

Dems' Rural Problem
Democratic share of the vote
RegionObama '12Clinton '16
Metro cities53.2%50.9%
Small cities40.5%33%
Rural areas37.7%29.4%
Source: Daily Yonder

"Good ideas don't matter if people don't hear them," Obama said at his first post-election news conference this week. "And one of the issues the Democrats have to be clear on is that given population distribution across the country, we have to compete everywhere. We have to show up everywhere. We have to work at a grassroots level."

Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, who beat Clinton during the Democratic primaries in many of the working-class counties that Trump won in the general election, took to Twitter to express his dismay.

"I come from the white working class, and I am deeply humiliated that the Democratic Party cannot talk to the people where I came from," he wrote.

Rep. John Yarmuth (D-Ky.), one of the few white Democrats left in Congress from the South, put it this way to BuzzFeed: "One of the things we do as Democrats to talk to essentially to address the white male, not-in-college male, is we propose policies that we think will help them, but we don't really ever talk empathetically to them."

Democrats Hurt by Cultural Allies
Even if Democratic politicians make a concerted effort to change the way they talk to and about the white working class, they might find themselves hamstrung by the broader culture — celebrities from the world of acting and music, writers, academics, media figures, and others. What seemed like a huge built-in advantage for Clinton may have turned out to be a liability, said Voth, the SMU professor.

"Not only does that not matter, it angers the public further," he said.

If Democratic success depends on getting the celebrity surrogates to go along with a new strategy, the early returns are not encouraging.

Commentator Symone Sanders, in the aftermath of the elections, dismissed "poor white people" when asked about a report that protesters had pulled a white man out of a vehicle and beaten him.

On NBC's "The Today Show," actor Donald Sutherland said he was ashamed to be a "seen as an integral part of a group that many of whom are mendacious, misogynist, of bigots, racists, and it's appalling."

"Saturday Night Live" alum Taran Killam tweed on election night: "Rural = so stupid."

Killam later apologized, but other stars lashed out.

"This is an embarrassing night for America," actor and filmmaker Chris Evans tweeted. "We've let a hatemonger lead our great nation. We've let a bully set our course. I'm devastated."

Those were heat-of-the-moment Twitter frustrations. But here is Nobel laureate Toni Morrison's considered opinion in a New Yorker essay: "Unlike any nation in Europe, the United States holds whiteness as the unifying force."

Morrison added that "a number of Americans" are responding to changing demographics by doing things such as killing small children at church services.

"There are 'people of color' everywhere, threatening to erase this long-understood definition of America," she wrote. "And what then? Another black President? A predominantly black Senate? Three black Supreme Court Justices? The threat is frightening."

So the question for Democrats essentially is: Even if Chuck Schumer is willing to treat working-class whites with respect, will Amy Schumer go along?

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