While I am largely in agreement with the characterization by Ronald Brownstein of the Atlantic of the 2016 election as exposing the rural-urban divide, I think he falls into the trap of being too much of an urbanite, befitting an heir to Walter Lippman.
The New Deal coalition, contrary to Brownstein’s characterization, was not the triumph of the city over the countryside. Rather, the New Deal coalition was created by FDR arranging the peace between the city and much of the countryside. The Democrats, prior to 1932, had always been badly split between the city and the countryside, with the city wing, represented by the likes of Grover Cleveland, unable to live peaceably in the same coalition with the country, typified by people like William Jennings Bryan. Even when the country, supposedly, outnumbered the city, as during the 1896 elections, the country could not defeat the city in a straightforward election. If the election of 2016, it would have represented a straightforward reply of the election of 1896, and with the country far more urbanized and cosmopolitan, the country would have stood no chance.
The New Deal coalition that sprang up in 1932 was something very different: it joined together the cosmopolitan city elites and the country folk of middle class and below. For the former, New Deal was about defeating fascism abroad and high minded social reforms at home. For the latter, it was about electrifying the countryside, creating and protecting dignified jobs, and breaking up financial and industrial monopolies. The core of the two did not contradict each other, but the peripheral interests of the city and the country did coincide–for example with regards racism and segregation. But the bottom line is that FDR and his allies saw where the city and the country could work together and gave each what they felt was necessary to cooperate, and in so doing, marginalized the Republicans to the wealthy out in the countryside.
How did Republicans respond to their marginalized status in face of the New Deal coalition? It was not in the countryside that they sought to make a comeback, but in the city. Republican internationalism and “country club Republicanism” generally appealed to the “respectable,” Cosmopolitan city folk who thought the countryside uncouth–that they did not care for fighting communism abroad, were too inured to political corruption and wasteful side payments, etc. A lot of the more “intellectual” pursuits by these new Republicans, William Buckley, Ayn Rand, various streaks of libertarianism, all targeted the city folk for conversion. The country folk had little interest in these ideas and no incentive to abandon the Democrats.
The strain in the New Deal coalition came not from the Republicans, but from within. The uncouthness of the countryside bothered the city elites of the Democrats, too, even as they cooperated politically. Jim Crow and segregation are the obvious examples of the uncouthness of the countryside, but there were others. The Democratic city elites were as committed to international interventionism as much as their Republican counterparts, even if their motives might have been subtly different. But other issued were cropping up throughout ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s: environment, religion, multiculturalism, etc. I don’t think these were ever a fatal division: I keep bringing up that the problem posed by evolutionists for the religious is not that they espouse evolution, but that they are hostile to religion and rely on evolutionism to justify their hostility. If the city folk saw the country folk as a potentially valuable coalition partner, they could have compromised to maintain the coalition. I don’t think they did. To the city folk, the uncouthness of the country folk was itself the problem, not the particulars of what they demanded. When the opportunity came up to do away with them as a coalition partner, they cut them off and declared it a “reform” that allegedly strengthened “parties,” even as it subverted the coalitional basis that the Democratic Party were built on.
When was this severance of linkage between the country and Democratic Party completed? That question does not have a very obvious answer. Kevin Phillips somewhat naively thought that the estranged countryside would flock to the Republican Party since they had nowhere left to go. This was the basis of the so-called Southern Strategy which partially paid off in 1972 for Nixon and on a much greater scale by Reagan in 1980 and 1984, but its limitations are exposed by the continuation of large Democratic majorities in the House. The Democrats could hold on to the House as long as the party in Congress was not so identifiably ideological that individual members could maintain their identities as the representatives of the local interests, which lasted until 1994 when the Democrats outside the liberal areas largely crumbled. Even so, Democratic presence in the countryside was never completely wiped out. The original argument in the Emerging Democratic Majority by Judis and Teixera, it should be noted, assumed that the Democrats could keep the downscale rural voters in their coalition, while expanding on the cosmopolitan, professional city folk. It was not as unjustified as people think: As recently pointed out by Nate Cohn of New York Times, Obama, in 2008 and 2012, got far more rural white voters than people think, the same voters who were won over by Trump in 2016.
The large scale transition of the countryside from the Democratic to the Republican camps as represented by Trump’s electoral victory places 2016 in the same context as 1932. Trump won by largely retaining the upscale, largely suburban coalition of Mitt Romney from 2012 while adding the rural working class on a scale not seen by Republicans, ever–including Reagan. Like FDR in 1932, he has seemingly arranged peace between the (sub-)urban elites, albeit of different orientation, and the countryside and brought them into the same winning (if rather narrow for now) coalition. It lacks the same magnitude as that of 1932: Trump lacked sufficiently credibility to build a larger coalition and the country is much more urban and cosmopolitan, with far greater distaste for the uncouthness of the country, with much of those disapproving of the country remaining in the Democratic camp. Still, if the coalition that Trump put together persists, and expand on it beyond the barriers of race and ethnicity, both huge ifs, obviously, this represents a true game changer that disrupts American electoral politics as the election of 1932 did. While Trump may be a terrible person and a prick, he does have a legitimate, enormous, but potentially transformative challenge before him, on par with FDR on the eve of the New Deal. The real question is not whether he is a boorish prick or a terrible person in general (in private, so was FDR), but whether he is up to the challenge. I’ll be damned if I thought he is, but I think we need to place the election and the political coalitions it exposed in the right context, at the very least, and appreciate the enormity of the challenge, risk, and opportunity that a Trump presidency represents without getting hung up on what a bad person he is.