structure beats culture; culture roars back

In American Democracy, I argued that there are times in American politics when culture beats structure: when the popular will—the democratic culture, as Tocqueville imagined it—is represented even though political and electoral structures seem to interfere with or prevent such representation.

This was not such a case.

Earlier, colleagues and I wrote about four cases of what we called postmodern electoral crises. These events are characterized by actors strategically deploying structural tactics designed for unusual situations in the service of normal politics. Thus tools designed to represent the demos are used to shape or distort it.

This was closer to such a case.

Here’s the structural story. More American voters selected the Clinton-Kaine ticket than selected the Trump-Pence ticket, by a very substantial margin, but the electoral rules selected the latter. More American voters chose Democratic than Republican Senate candidates, though by a smaller margin depending on how it’s measured, but the electoral rules selected the latter. And while more American voters selected Republican than Democratic House candidates (about 51.5%-48.5%), the resulting distribution in the House is much more lopsided than the electoral result.

Consider the electoral result in my home state of North Carolina, considered a key swing state. In 2012, Mitt Romney garnered 2.27 million votes of 4.5 million cast by a voting-eligible population (VEP; see of 6.95 million. That’s 50.4% of votes cast and 32.7% of VEP. In 2016, Trump won 2.346 million votes of about 4.73 million cast among a VEP of 7.317 million. That’s only about 70,000 more votes than Romney, in a state whose VEP grew by about 367,000, so it’s 49.9% of votes and 32.0% of VEP. (The numbers for 2008: 2.128 million for McCain out of 4.31 million cast and 6.584 million VEP, so 49.38% of votes and 32.3% of eligible voters.) Democrats, by contrast, dropped from 32.5% of VEP in 2008 to 31.3% in 2012 to 29.7% in 2016. (See Table)

  Dem Rep Votes D% Votes R% Votes VEP D% VEP R% VEP
2008 NC 2142651 2128474 4310789 0.497 0.494 6584302 0.325 0.323
2012 NC 2178391 2270395 4505372 0.484 0.504 6947954 0.314 0.327
2016 NC 2170981 2346439 4704782 0.461 0.499 7317507 0.297 0.321
2016-Gov 2290565 2283655 4676181 0.490 0.488 7317507 0.313 0.312
2012-National 65446032 60589084 128556837 0.509 0.471 222474111 0.294 0.272
2016-National 63649978 61943670 132668627 0.480 0.467 231556622 0.275 0.268

That breakdown is incompatible with the image of hordes of newly liberated white working-class voters swarming to the polls to sweep Donald Trump into office. Trump lost ground relative to Romney as a share of VEP! But Clinton lost more ground relative to Obama. As of this writing, the story is similar at the national level, though harder to interpret precisely given changing vote totals and state-by-state differences. Figure 1 shows ratios as red-to-blue, county-by-county (thanks to Emmie Mears via Facebook).

purple-states-2016There are other structural stories to be told: voter suppression efforts (which largely failed in 2012) appear to have been successful this year in key states including North Carolina. It’s difficult for a party to defend the presidency for a third term. There are also relatively small-scale cultural stories: the timing of the FBI’s announcements about the e-mail scandal, for example; the Clinton campaign’s decision to focus on turnout over persuasion; the turnout-depressing effect of negative campaigns; and (in my view the most substantively important) the freak-show of a public sphere that has emerged.

Any one of these stories is likely enough, on its own, to explain the tiny margin in three states that would have changed the outcome of the Electoral College. We have an electoral system that is spectacularly bad at representing small differences; they are magnified into large outcomes. Culture roars back: in the face of a huge, meaningful outcome, the impulse to make huge cultural interpretations is strong. (As Foucault shows us, major events generate profligate amounts of discourse.) But I think it’s inaccurate and potentially dangerous.

None of the stories is sufficient to warrant a wholesale change in the political values or emphasis of the Democratic party, which is what some commentators are suggesting in the name of competing for white, working-class voters.

That said, I think it’s not unreasonable to imagine a Democratic coalition that would win 60-70% of the popular vote, both in North Carolina and nationally. There’s no good reason for them to be satisfied with a narrowly-divided, 50-50 split; the policy positions and inclusive vision that characterized, for example, the 2016 DNC Convention, ought to be able to attract a comfortable majority that would be resilient to these structural hurdles. That’s the cultural work to which the Democrats ought to set themselves.

Yes, that does mean listening to, and paying attention to, the concerns of working-class voters (white and not), as well as of downwardly-mobile precarious families in the lower middle class. That shouldn’t be a hard lift for a party with roots in labor and economic fairness. But it can’t be at the expense of the inclusive vision (derided as “identity politics,” as if white, male voters voting their race and gender aren’t doing “identity”) that the party has slowly built in the post-civil rights movement era. It also can’t rest on the demographic “new majority” theory; one thing we can learn from this election is that Democrats need to earn the votes of new voters, not expect them as the spoils of demographic change.

I plan to write more on this at a different point, but I don’t think the white working class is inherently bigoted; the Democrats’ cultural work should be opportunity and justice for all: an affirmative, populist platform with the capacity for a real majority.

(I hope and plan to write several more entries on the election, including one on the public sphere; one on public opinion and the character of the white working class; and one on the Democrats’ fling with global capital. But I don’t know if or when I will get to these, so wanted to go ahead and publish this one.)

Author: andrewperrin

University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

2 thoughts on “structure beats culture; culture roars back”

  1. I love your breakdown and analysis of the election. I think that the impact of voter-suppression efforts in the last election are going to be written about for the next decade. At the end, you wrote that you don’t think the white working class is inherently bigoted, which I agree with. But I think there needs to be a conversation about the white working class political indifference to racism. Race has been an electoral issue since the Founders wrote the Constitution with the 3/5 clause. The Jim Crow Era, the Southern Strategy, the disenfranchisement of felons (which disproportionately target POC), and now Trumpism are all part of a continuum. Trump didn’t come out of nowhere.


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