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Beyond Binaries: Stark Oppositions Can’t Explain the Election Results

The real answers run much deeper.

Photo: Vicky Vinch / CC2.0

In the aftermath of the election, media commentators, researchers, and laypeople alike have all been asking the same question: How did this happen? How did the Trump campaign—characterized by a rocky relationship with its own party—win in a landslide despite pundit predictions of a humiliating loss? How did this happen? Analysts of all stripes have fallen back on binarisms to explain the outcome of the election. But these binaries reduce the varied interests of large populations into monolithic blocs and oversimplify the truth—that the same underlying challenges increasingly affect both parties’ supposedly divided bases.

One of the more popular explanations is that the urban vs. rural divide in America led to the Clinton campaign’s electoral defeat. David Wong’s piece on is a popular version of that theory—garnering mentions on Fareed Zakaria’s show and praise across Twitter—and there is undoubtedly some truth to the idea that residential segregation clustered blue voters in places that gave no further Electoral College advantage to the Clinton campaign, as Henry Grabar details for Slate. Yet in the primaries, we saw Trump win counties around major cities like Philadelphia, San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York City, Boston, and Baltimore, over more moderate establishment Republican candidates, and we saw Ted Cruz win rural support in Iowa and Kansas. There was clearly more at work than rural support for Trump and urban support for Clinton.

Another common explanation is that we’re seeing a divide between coastal America and the center of the country. While this is factually inaccurate, given that the Carolinas, Georgia, Florida, and the Gulf Coast all swung Trump’s way, it also ignores strong pockets of Trump support in coastal states like California, as well as Clinton support in middle-of-the-country states like Colorado, New Mexico, Minnesota, and Nevada. Equally, at the county level, even in some deeply red states in the center of the country like South Dakota, Clinton support in some (rural) counties was as high as 70 percent. Again, at the more granular level, there’s more to the story than a coastal/flyover split.

Others have argued that demographic divides are responsible for the election result. There are certainly some racial divides, given than 88 percent of black voters voted for Clinton and 58 percent of white voters chose Trump. But despite Trump’s comment about Mexican rapists and demonization of Latinx immigrants in particular, he still carried 30 percent of the Latinx vote. And despite talking about Japanese internment camps as precedent, he carried 30 percent of Asian voters. From an educational attainment perspective, Clinton won a strong majority of voters with college degrees and postgraduate schooling, but Trump only won 51 percent of voters with a high school degree or less education to Clinton’s 45 percent of the same demographic—not such a large percentage gap.

This is all to say, our standard binaries of conservatism vs. liberalism failed to predict the outcome of the election, and our new binaries do not sufficiently explain the outcome: that many voters disavowed both the Democratic candidate and traditional Republican approaches in this election. We’re all trying to figure out who counts as “us” and who counts as “them,” so we can target the appropriate people in four years to win the next election. And this focus on winning next time blinds us to a subtler answer—that these new binaries all obfuscate the same underlying issues: fear of an uncertain future in a changing economy, growing globalization, the digitization of the workforce, and the loosening of physical borders in an increasingly connected information age.

The fact is, the world has changed, and some people have been left behind and binaries won’t help us understand what happened or solve the problem. Political parties and media outlets and pundits are arguing about which groups need the biggest boost to get back on track. Rather than searching for structural arguments to explain what happened, it’s helpful to take a closer look at what voters actually wanted: an answer to the effects of sweeping industrialization and digitization, global trade, and social disconnectedness.

In this regard, voters are less split than binaristic analysis suggests: both Trump and Clinton’s supporters worry about joblessness, for example. On the trail, Trump promised to bring back jobs from overseas and jobs in coal, while Clinton talked about infrastructure and clean energy jobs. Yet the forces that have led to joblessness—globalization, automation, digitization—aren’t going anywhere. News outlets have reported breathlessly about the end of trucking as a profession as we develop driverless trucking capabilities, and about the end of manufacturing as we know it due to 3D printing technologies. Both these looming crises seem a long way off, but the fact is, automation and digitization are going to keep affecting the American job market. Equally—campaign promises aside—as global supply chains have become more complicated, manual labor will remain cheaper in other countries (barring severely protectionist policy changes that would wreak havoc on the global economy if implemented). Many of those jobs will never come back to America.  

There are other downstream effects of these global forces. Addiction was a major issue this campaign—particularly the opiate addiction epidemic recently concentrated in Appalachia and the Southwest. Both candidates discussed plans to fight opiate addiction as part of their domestic policy platform. Under-education was another concern: that the education children receive in America today does not prepare them to enter the workforce in today’s economy. Immigration—what sort of people we want coming to America, and how immigrants affect the fabric of society—fired up both parties. These challenges will remain unsolved unless both political parties aim to address the causes—the global forces—rather than treating the symptoms.

None of these issues are new, and they affect the various groups supporting both parties. Addiction has been ravaging poor and minority communities for decades, and we responded by criminalizing addicted people in ways that have further devastated African American and Latinx communities in particular through mass incarceration. Now that the opiate addiction is affecting white rural working class communities too, both parties are seeking to address the root causes of addiction, and are looking to find other approaches than criminalization. By recognizing that supposedly opposed groups face the same challenges, we’re now looking for solutions that will help across the binaries we established.

Equally, unemployment has been a scourge among poor and minority communities for decades—black and Latino unemployment rates are significantly higher in many regions than white unemployment rates, and both parties have attempted to address unemployment through a combination of benefits, skills training, and investments in community colleges. Now that the white rural working class communities have helped elect a candidate who promises to rebuild American jobs, both parties are should see the universality of the unemployment challenge and look to address the root causes of joblessness.

This is the right approach—both parties should be diagnosing and treating causes rather than easing symptoms. However, the nation will need to have a reckoning about the fact that when we organize around binaries (urban vs. rural, black vs. white, poor vs. rich, etc.), we will only ever understand these widespread sociocultural symptoms as niche issues. We were able to claim that drugs were a greater problem in black communities and inner cities, and we focused on enforcement more heavily in cities, leaving rural areas behind. We claimed that the approaches to poverty should be different in rural and urban areas, and we focused on addressing urban poverty more explicitly than rural poverty. Our own binaries created a backlash, and built the conditions that led to sprawling support across a number of groups for an outsider who promised change. Both parties helped create the conditions that led to this past election.

As we move forward, if we want to build sustainable solutions, we’ll all have to focus harder on the ways that global forces make life harder for many demographic groups in many places—in cities and in the countryside, along the coasts and across the heartland, among white populations and for people of color. That way, four years from now, we won’t have to ask ourselves, “how did this happen again?”


Hana Passen is the Associate Director for New America’s National Network. Her responsibilities include project management for the Reinventing the Think Tank Initiative and coordinating New America’s growth into a nationally networked organization.