Trying to Understand This Election: “What’s the Matter With Kansas?,” 2.0?

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I began this post hoping to find some information to help me fathom these election results—and then present what I’ve learned to you in the hope that you’ll respond with your insights.

How can we explain Donald Trump’s vote total in the midst of the pandemic—among other things?

But along the way, the picture got considerably murkier. So I’m going to present some of what I’ve seen to date, along with my tentative sense that maybe it’s too soon for this exploration—or maybe the topic is way more complex than a blog post can bear (which admittedly hasn’t stopped me before)—or some variation of an old joke: how many economists does it take to interpret which data to help us figure out what’s really going on? I don’t even quote all the ones I’ve just come across.

Thomas Frank published “What’s the Matter With Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America” in 2004. He was grappling with the reasons that his native state, which toward the end of the 19th century had been a “hotbed” of left-wing populism, had become so conservative. 

Frank saw the shift from an emphasis on economic equality to a focus on abortion, gay marriage, and the demonization of those termed the “liberal elites.” Not incidentally, fiscal conservatism had won the day. The result, Frank concluded, was that Kansans voted for politicians whose support of economic policies was against their own interests.

“What’s the Matter With America?”

When Frank’s book was published in England and Australia, it bore the title: “What’s the Matter With America?”

I thought of all this when I read a Washington Post article bearing the headline: “Biden won places that are thriving. Trump won ones that are hurting.” 

The sub headline reads: “In a trend that’s been unfolding since 2000, Democrats continue to gain votes in prosperous, highly educated urban areas. Republicans are gaining in small cities and rural communities.”

I remain enormously grateful for the Biden-Harris win, which was substantial. I’m especially grateful to the Black women and other people of color who made it possible—and it’s well past time that we finally and fully address their legitimate grievances, which should at last be viewed as America’s grievances. Of course those voters ranged widely in their socioeconomic status: they don’t neatly fit into the picture the Post has described.

But I also think we need to examine the divergent voting trends closely if we have any hope of forging enough of a governing coalition to last us for years and allow us to accomplish the critical work of economic and social justice—even after the pandemic is at last under control.

The Post article points out that the election results flipped the usual assumption:

“Are you better off than you were four years ago? That question has been at the heart of presidential campaigns since President Ronald Reagan first asked it in 1980. The general thinking has been that voters who are doing well would vote to reelect a sitting president. 

“That’s not what happened in 2020.

“This time around, those who were better off voted for a change in the White House.

“The parts of America that have seen strong job, population and economic growth in the past four years voted for Joe Biden, economic researchers found. In contrast, President Trump garnered his highest vote shares in counties that had some of the most sluggish job, population and economic growth during his term.”

We knew that Trump would attract more of the rural vote and those who were less educated. It’s still hard for many of us, myself included, to comprehend how anyone other than his most rabid cultists could vote for a man whom we see as a racist, corrupt, inept demagogue who came close to destroying our democracy—and bears considerable responsibility for the deaths of several hundred thousand people. 

Exit polls did indicate that education and race were the strongest indicators of how people voted, but closely behind was a county’s economic status. Those findings were also offered by economist James Chung of StratoDem Analytics. Based on these data, the Post asserts that those votes didn’t follow good economic performance.

Sure looks like folks were voting against their own self-interest. And the fact that many are hurting economically and are less well-educated probably makes them more likely to be bitter and angry. These are the people who depend upon manufacturing, construction, and energy, the Post points out. 

A Quickening National Trend

The Post observes that these results are the continuation of a trend since the turn of the century (which, I note, fits in with Thomas Frank’s findings about Kansas).

Since 2000, Democrats have made election gains in densely populated and affluent urban areas, while Republicans prevailed in rural areas and smaller cities. 

But the pace seems to be quickening. George Bush in 2000 won 2,417 counties, amounting to 45% of the US economy; Al Gore won 666 counties comprising 55%—not a vast split. 

In contrast, according to a Brookings Institution analysis this year, Biden won 490 counties holding 70% of the US economy, while Trump won 2,534 counties—slightly less than 30% of the entire economy. (By comparison, Hillary Clinton won counties accounting for about 64% of the US economy.)

Mark Muro of the Brookings Institution told the Post: “This is not a scenario for economic consensus.”

According to the Post,

“The United States is transforming into a knowledge and digital economy, and the political map appears to be shifting with it. Some call it the urban versus rural divide, but it is also a digital versus blue-collar split.”

Another View—Also True…

All this appears true, but today’s New York Times has a different take: “Counties for Biden Had Higher Job Losses.” The Times writer observes that

“After the worst of the downturn in April, many of the most affected red counties recovered far more swiftly than blue counties did. By September, as unemployment fell nearly everywhere, blue counties were more likely to have higher unemployment rates.”

This article seems intuitively right, as we know that Black, brown, and indigenous people have been particularly hard-hit by the pandemic in terms of both their personal and economic health. And service jobs in blue areas have suffered greatly, some to extinction. 

As the pandemic spreads, in a few months we may see those red state areas that haven’t yet been badly affected economically find themselves in more dire conditions.

I’m not tempted to conclude that Democrats voted against their economic interests. They seem to have had concerns other than the economy on their minds—say, the pandemic and racial justice. (I say that with full awareness of my biases…)

A Few More Brush Strokes to Add to the Picture

Here are two more interesting ideas to add to the mix. Jamelle Bouie, a New York Times columnist, offered “A Simple Theory of Why Trump Did Well.”

He says, “It’s the Money, Stupid.”

Trump signed the Cares Act and, in a clever marketing ploy befitting an egomaniac (my description, not Bouie’s), had his Sharpie signature writ large on those checks. 

Lost on those voters was the fact that the legislation originated with the House Democrats, who fought for it against Republican opposition, including Trump’s.

The voters just knew they’d gotten real money in their pockets. (Bouie’s piece is also worth reading for his assessments of other “perceived wisdoms” about the election.)

Another interesting fact is found in a Politico article by Jack Herrera that explains how carefully Trump targeted certain groups of Latino voters, which helped him win Florida and hold Texas. 

Trump became the first Republican presidential candidate in 100 years to win Zapata County, Texas—and that county is more than 90% Latino or Hispanic. 

Reading my mind, Herrera states:

“To many outsiders, these results were confounding: How could Trump, one of the most virulently anti-immigrant leaders, make inroads with so many Latinos, and along the Mexican border, no less?”

The answer: the Latino vote is not monolithic. As the chair of the Starr County Republican Party in Texas says, “Here, people don’t say we’re Mexican American. We say we’re Tejanos.” 

They see themselves as red blooded Americans whose concerns include the oil and gas industry, gun rights, and even abortion. Thus, attempts by Democrats to woo Latino or Hispanic voters without recognizing the particular concerns of the specific community are doomed to failure.

How Do We Proceed?

I recognize that these articles simplify the voters and circumstances on both sides. In addition to the hard core Trump idolators who are probably lost to the Democrats forever (fine!), those 71+ million include the very wealthy who don’t want taxes/regulation, the fence-sitters who were frightened by the disinformation about Biden’s alleged socialism, etc.

I think it’s important that we continue to try to peel away the parts of that 71+ million who are “gettable.” And a big chunk of them are in rural America.

“Democrats need to figure out what their positive and inclusive vision is that speaks to rural America,” said Kenan Fikri, research director of the Economic Innovation Group. “Democrats really didn’t make inroads into rural America this time around.”

Biden is doing the right thing, I believe, by stressing jobs in rural communities and among laborers who are hurting. Concerns about the closings of rural hospitals and lack of access to broadband are also the kind of issues with appeal. 

All this will be possible with a Democratic Senatorial majority, so we must continue to hope for that (and donate, write postcards, make phone calls, do whatever we can to help Ossoff and Warnock in Georgia.) Otherwise, it becomes much more difficult.

I’m not suggesting that we slack off one whit in engaging more young people, Black and brown people, and others who’ve voted rarely or not at all.  We must do both–and continue fighting against voter suppression and gerrymandering.

I’m going to defer to Biden’s oft-stated conviction that he gets along with people because though he questions their positions, he never questions their motives. (Before you start yelling at me, I’m simply saying I think it’s good he can do that!)

The numbers in the articles I’ve cited may present a confusing picture, but regardless, they suggest to me that if the Biden administration is to succeed—and grow its mandate in 2022—it must find ways to win over more of those who voted for Trump and the Republicans. 

I don’t think we can have a secure democracy if we don’t.

What do you think?


Continue reading “Trying to Understand This Election: “What’s the Matter With Kansas?,” 2.0?”

Post-Election Good News…

Image courtesy of Chicago Tribune


There will be much discussion about the meaning, trends, and implications of this election, and the results were not without disappointments. But it’s too soon for all those debates. At this point, I’m simply offering my top-of-mind list of what I perceive to be the positives for our country.


WE HAVE RID OURSELVES OF DONALD TRUMP AND ALL HIS BAGGAGE. (Determined to emphasize the positive here, I’ll refrain from enumerating the damage he’s done–and is likely to continue trying to do.)

WE HAVE A BRILLIANT, CHARISMATIC, HIGHLY ACCOMPLISHED, HARD-WORKING, WARM BLACK WOMAN OF INDIAN HERITAGE AS OUR VICE PRESIDENT. Thus, we have finally joined many countries worldwide in electing a woman to high office.





The noted historian John Meacham said this week: “Close elections produce consequential Presidencies.” This is a hopeful time for renewing our quest to become the country of our ideals.


Continue reading “Post-Election Good News…”

A Non-pharmacologic Anti-Anxiety Election Day Presentation by the Biden Team

The “Election Protection Briefing”  below should calm jangled nerves–whether or not you choose to watch the returns. Make sure to click on the center arrow (and also, if one appears in the lower left corner,) to start the presentation.

 Jennifer O’Malley Dillon, the campaign manager, and Bob Bauer, a noted election law expert who heads the Biden-Harris legal team, provide an overview of where things stand in terms of early voting, expectations, and the current and anticipated legal challenges. A brief Q and A with members of  the press follows.

Bottom line: Things look very good, lots of paths for Biden to reach the magic 270 electoral votes, but if you have not yet voted, please do so pronto! And make sure your family and friends do the same.


Continue reading “A Non-pharmacologic Anti-Anxiety Election Day Presentation by the Biden Team”


The election is a job interview. This political ad asks, ‘Would you hire Donald Trump?’

If you haven’t already voted, this link leads you to state-by-state information about when absentee ballots must be received to be counted. DO NOT USE THE POST OFFICE: drop off ballot in a legitimate drop box or at your local or county clerk’s office.

Do so as soon as you can to ensure that your vote will be counted. Lawsuits in some swing states are expected to be filed to negate ballots that arrive after the close of hours on Election Day.

You can also use the various links on the NCSL page of the above link to learn when early in-person voting ends, and how to get any information you may need (hours, polling place, etc) about voting on Election Day, Tuesday, November 3.

Early voting is still possible in these critical states: Florida, Illinois, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, New Mexico, North Carolina (til 3 pm tomorrow–Saturday), Ohio, Virginia (til 5 pm tomorrow), and Wisconsin. Check the link above for days and hours for these and all other states. Some have Sunday voting hours.

Please vote: your single vote does, indeed, matter–a lot–and this is the most important election in our lifetime. Your healthcare, economic well-being, environment, safety, and a host of hard-won rights are on the ballot. Decency, justice, and democracy are on the ballot. Indeed, as Covid spreads without a plan, your life may well be on the ballot! Your vote is your voice for a better future.



“The Joe Biden Most Americans Don’t Get To See”

Opinion by Michael McFaul

[Note from Annie: I think the article below, which appeared in The Washington Post on October 24, provides a helpful addition to the public’s understanding of Joe Biden from the perspective of someone who worked closely with him–in this case, on foreign policy.

This aspect of a President’s responsibilities has understandably not received much attention in the midst of our internal crises. In fact, despite its importance, foreign policy often doesn’t attract much interest from the public.

But it is likely to become more evident as hoped-for President Biden begins the necessary task of reshaping America’s role in foreign affairs following Trump’s decimating our leadership reputation and the long-held sense that the US has been—for the most part—a force for good and stability in a dangerous world.

Biden is definitely not a warmonger: he has said his vote leading up to the Iraq War was a mistake, and he opposed the surge that increased our presence in Afghanistan. He sees our troops as individual human beings, and I have confidence he would not send them into harm’s way unless he believed–after receiving the best advice–that US security hung in the balance. Importantly, he knows the vital role our allies play, and he would never cozy up to dictators.

McFaul, whose writings I’ve highlighted previously, served as US Ambassador to Russia during the Obama administration. He is now a professor at Stanford University.]


“I have already cast my vote in the 2020 election, and I don’t mind telling you I voted for Joe Biden — in part because of his positions on issues and in part based on my assessment of President Trump’s performance over the past nearly four years.

But a third factor influenced my vote as well — Biden’s conduct and character that I witnessed personally while working at the White House with him during the first years of the Obama administration. When you work behind the scenes with a political figure, you see what’s real and what’s for show. Most voters have never seen how Biden governs. I have.

We were late leaving Tbilisi, Georgia, in July 2009, but the country’s then-president, Mikheil Saakashvili, asked then-Vice President Biden to squeeze in one last informal meeting with refugee children from South Ossetia who had fled their homes as a result of Russia’s invasion of Georgia in August 2008.

Saakashvili knew Biden. He understood that such an encounter would translate our abstract, geopolitical negotiations into a more emotional appreciation of the horrors of war. He was right. On the plane ride out of Georgia, Biden gave a passionate indictment of Russia to an American reporter, offending Moscow at the moment when Russian and American diplomats were negotiating a major arms control deal. Biden believes that morality must play a role in U.S. foreign policy, even when inconvenient.

But that doesn’t mean he can be manipulated. He’s too well-prepared for that. On a trip to Moscow in March 2011, I was part of the team that helped Biden get ready for his long meetings with then-Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. Biden’s work ethic was something to behold. He doesn’t wing it.

Putin is intimidating. I’d met him before with other U.S. officials. In his meeting with Putin, Biden was polite but forceful and principled, seeking agreement on a limited agenda, but never friendship. Moments after leaving Putin’s office, Biden met with Russian human rights leaders, which annoyed some in the Kremlin and some in our own government. And that was just fine with Biden. Biden’s strategy of engagement with autocrats, as well as their critics, is exactly right.

On the flight back home from our trip, Biden didn’t retire to his private cabin, but joined us staff in the back of the plane — not just for a few minutes, but for several hours. The more we talked, the more energized he became, covering everything from missile defense to the Violence Against Women Act.

At some point during the flight, his national security advisor, Antony Blinken, fell asleep in his seat, right across from Biden. When he woke up, I asked Tony how he could fall asleep in front of the vice president. Tony replied that if he didn’t, he’d never sleep on these trips, since Biden always had more energy and more interest in engaging with his colleagues than anyone else on the plane. Biden loves being part of the team.

Yet he also has an ability to work with people beyond his inner circle to get things done. In December 2010, I was there when Biden presided over the Senate’s ratification of the New START Treaty, reducing by 30 percent the number of deployed nuclear weapons allowed in Russian and American arsenals. President Barack Obama assigned Biden the job of corralling the required 67 votes. He secured 71. When the cameras were off, I saw the depth of the friendships Biden had developed with Republican senators, which he drew upon to enhance the security of all Americans.

In January 2012, on my last day working at the White House before deploying to Moscow as the new U.S. ambassador to Russia, I was sitting in the West Wing reception area, waiting with my family to say goodbye to Obama, when a Biden aide walked by and asked why my family happened to be there. After learning why, this aide came back several minutes later and ushered our family into Biden’s office.

Someone important had to wait for a while longer as the vice president rearranged his schedule to express his gratitude to my wife and two sons for agreeing to take on this assignment to represent our country in Russia. Biden focused in particular on my sons’ sacrifice, knowing well the burdens public service puts on families. Biden didn’t have to do this meeting; he wasn’t campaigning or doing anyone a favor. But both of my sons will be voting for Biden as well.”

Continue reading ““The Joe Biden Most Americans Don’t Get To See””