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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Edsall: How ‘Social Capital’ Influences Political Choices

In his New York Times column, “There’s a Reason Trump Loves the Truckers,” Thomas B. Edsall shares some revealing research on how ‘social capital’ influces political choices, and notes Trump’s predictable response:

“We want those great Canadian truckers to know that we are with them all the way,” Trump told rally-goers in Conroe, Texas on Jan. 29….I see they have Trump signs all over the place and I’m proud that they do,” he added.

Edsall notes that in “The Rise of Populism and the Revenge of the Places,” [Andres] Rodríguez-Pose argued:

Populism is not the result of persistent poverty. Places that have been chronically poor are not the ones rebelling.” Instead, he continued, “the rise of populism is a tale of how the long-term decline of formerly prosperous places, disadvantaged by processes that have rendered them exposed and almost expendable, has triggered frustration and anger. In turn, voters in these so-called ‘places that don’t matter’ have sought their revenge at the ballot box….Social capital in the U.S. has been declining for a long time. Associationism and the feeling of community are no longer what they used to be and this has been documented many times. What my co-authors and I are saying is that in those places (counties) where social capital has declined less, long-term demographic and employment decline triggered a switch to Donald Trump. These communities have said “enough is enough” of a system that they feel bypasses them and voted for an anti-system candidate, who is willing to shake the foundations of the system.

Put another way, and regardless of Trump’s future prospects, right-wing populism’s primary constituency is the more recently dispossessed. As Edsall explains, “Translated to the present, in economic and culturally besieged communities, the remnants of social capital have been crucial to the mobilization of men and women — mostly men — who chanted “You will not replace us” and “blood and soil” in Charlottesville, who shot bear spray at police officers on Jan. 6 and who brought Ottawa to its knees for more than two weeks.”

Citing other research, Edsall writes that “cultural conflict and regional economic discrepancies also generate powerful political momentum for those seeking to build a “coalition of resentment.” Since the 2016 election of Trump, the Republican Party has focused on that just that kind of Election Day alliance.” Further,

Shannon M. Monnat and David L. Brown, sociologists at Syracuse and Cornell, have analyzed the economic and demographic characteristics of counties that sharply increased their vote for Trump in 2016 compared with their support for Mitt Romney in 2012.

In their October 2017 paper “More than a rural revolt: Landscapes of despair and the 2016 Presidential election,” Monnat and Brown found that “Trump performed better in counties with more economic distress, worse health, higher drug, alcohol and suicide mortality rates, lower educational attainment, and higher marital separation/divorce rates.”

Trump’s populist message, Monnat and Brown write in their conclusion,

may have been attractive to many long-term Democratic voters in these places who felt abandoned by a Democratic Party that has failed to articulate a strong pro-working class message, whose agendas often emphasize policies and programs to help the poor at what seems like the expense of the working-class, and who evidently believed it did not have to work very hard to earn votes from behind the “big blue wall.”

Edsall notes that “Regardless of the sources of discontent and regardless of the characteristic of those leading the assault on the liberal democratic state, there is no question that the trucker’s insurgency in Canada is catching fire abroad — currently in France, Britain, Belgium, New Zealand and Australia.”

Also, as Edsall observes, “Non-college whites in the United States, like the protesting truckers in Canada, continue to face grim prospects, subordinated by meritocratic competition that rewards what they lack: advanced education and top scores on aptitude tests — accomplishments that feed the resource allocation, the status contests and the employment hierarchies that dominate contemporary life and leave those who cannot prevail out in the cold.”

No one should be surprised if the protests spring up inside the U.S. leading up to the midterm elections. As Edsall concludes, “As long as these voters remain on a downward trajectory, they will continue to be a disruptive force, not only in the political arena but in society at large.”

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