Editor’s note: This post is part of a summer-long series, The Sociology of Trump. Every Friday RI Future will feature an essay written by a Brown University sociology student on an aspect of Trumpism. Read the introduction: Culture, power, and social change in the time of Trump.
Red and blue states just won’t do anymore. It’s not because Trump won the vote in states thought to go blue. It’s because we need to move beyond these crude markers to see the real spatial, and social, distinctions that move voters toward and away from Trump. Khaila Mickens elaborates not only the urban/rural divide across America, and across North and South. She also gives us a sense of how her own classmates in Roanoke City and Roanoke County thought through the choice between Trump and Clinton. Race and class clearly matter. – Michael Kennedy, professor of Sociology and International and Public Affairs, Brown University.
The city of Roanoke is just large enough to find itself on a map of Virginia. However, the city of Roanoke is not the only Roanoke in the vicinity. As one drives around the area, one finds signs themselves going back and forth between “Roanoke City” and “Roanoke County.” The lines between the two separate administrative districts are not truly dividers of geographical area—it is impossible to be in the city without being surrounded by the county, and one must often cross through the city to get to different parts of the county, sometimes multiple times due to the way the lines and the roads are drawn. I lived near one of the many edges of the county, where it would cross into the city and suddenly a world of color would present itself. The city and the county share nothing beyond a name: the racial demographics, socioeconomic populations, and voting patterns are enormously different. In discussing the sociology of Trump, I will be analyzing the electoral divide between the city and county, and why the city voted for Hillary and the county for Trump, despite occupying the same space, and the city lying inside of the county.
Northern liberals, who have often never been further south than Washington, DC in the continental United States, often link the South in its entirety to the Republican Party and “Trump-ism” (racism, sexism, neoliberalism, America First! doctrine), and the north to the Democratic Party and a spirit of progress. They speak of a need to “unite” and eliminate the political polarization between the North and South. This is blatant ignorance that ignores a simple fact: geographically speaking, the United States is red. A significant urban to hinterland political divide exists in all states, and it is mostly the proportional difference in population concentrated into urban areas in different regions that separates “red states” from “blue states.” Urban areas, regardless of the state or region, are likely to vote Democratic. Suburban and rural areas are likely to vote Republican. It no longer has much, if anything, to do with North vs. South.
The above are Presidential election results by county in New York and Alabama, and a short proof for my point. New York, when you consolidate the boroughs of New York City into one county (they separate them for counting purposes), has fourteen blue counties. Alabama only has one less at thirteen. These blue counties nearly all have major cities in or around them. Of course, the millions of people in New York City, carry the state into the blue. Birmingham, the largest city in Alabama, has only around 215,000 people (212,247 in 2014), and does not have the same carrying power.
Working from the point of the urban vs. nonurban divide, Josh Kron makes this point in an article for the Atlantic, “The difference is no longer about where people live: in spread-out, open, low-density privacy—or amid rough-and-tumble, in your face population density and diverse communities that enforce a lower-common denominator of tolerance among inhabitants.” Large cities all throughout the so-called “conservative South” vote for the Democratic Party—Austin, Dallas, Houston, San Antonio, Atlanta, New Orleans, Birmingham, and Charleston are among these cities.
In 2014, the Pew Research Center reported that liberals were twice as likely as conservatives to live in urban areas. The center also reports on the popularity of the Democratic Party to minorities and young adults, who “tend to cluster in large cities.” Furthermore, population density, which is greatest in large cities, has a lot to do with political alignment: in the 2012 election, metropolitan counties carried by Obama were more than twice as dense as those carried by Romney at 412 to 193 people per square mile (source). The knowledge communities cradled in cities in diverse industry and academia contribute further to a liberal mindset.
However, the cities being on the Democrat’s side did not score Hillary Clinton the presidency. In 2012, the voting share of the one hundred largest counties was only 39.4%. Trump’s campaign capitalized on rural areas to win this election, realizing that the election could not simply be won by cities. Rural areas already incline towards the Republican party, identifying with conservative values and not seeing the fruits of government spending in their own communities—more rural communities are falling apart without the resources afforded to urban areas (Leonard source). As this essay is a very particular analysis, there is no need to go much further into the urban/nonurban divide, but to analyze how this works in the Roanoke County/Roanoke City divide, starting with some differences between the two electoral counties.
We’ll begin with information from the U.S. Census Bureau (city, county). Roanoke City, housed within the geographical area of the county, has a population estimate (as of 2016) of 99,660 people to the county’s 94, 031. Thus, we know that the city has a much higher population density: 2,279 people per square mile to only 368 in the county. With this information, we can know that the city is far more likely to vote for the Democratic Party, and further information supports such an assumption. The median household income in Roanoke County was 60,519 in 2015. That same year, the city’s median household income was $39,930. The racial demographics are equally dissimilar. In 2015, the county was 88.4% white, six percent black, and under four percent anything else. This is in stark contrast to the city, where white people make up only 64.7% of the population, black people 29.3%, and Hispanic/Latino six percent.
The county is, however, culturally diverse in its own way. I went to a high school with kids who lived “up on the mountain” (who were all about trucks, guns, and hunting, and formed the “truck line” in the school parking lot), rich kids (who lived in the immediate vicinity of the country club in actual mansions, and nearly all had lake houses at Smith Mountain Lake), three or four poor kids living out in the sticks with the wheat and animals, and middle income kids living at the foot of the mountains. However, they were nearly all white.
In more academic circles within the school (kids who took AP classes, did activities such as band, so on so forth), it seemed to be agreed that Trump was not an ideal candidate. At least fifty percent of the senior class of 2016 went to see Marco Rubio speak at Roanoke College, and many, I know, voted for him during the primaries. Through discussions in our AP Government class, I observed that most thought Trump as simply being incompetent, and his ideas, especially the building of a wall, absolutely bogus.
However, when Trump became the official nominee of the Republican party, things slowly began to change. These people, who hadn’t believed Trump could get the nomination, were now either committed to voting for him, or trying to decide “the lesser evil” between him and Hillary. My observation was that they didn’t struggle so much with choosing between a xenophobic, racist, and sexist man and a politically experienced woman of the Democratic Party. Instead, for them it was a choice between incompetence and the liberal devil. Using logics such as the ability of Trump to hire “good advisors”, these voters chose Trump in the end.
They didn’t have to think about racial politics, and how Trump’s presidency could worsen an already terrible position they held in society due to the color of their skin. They didn’t have to think about deportations that would rip them away from their homes, or discrimination made against them due to their religion. They didn’t like Obama, and Hillary was just a reincarnation of that. The county, with their higher incomes and white bodies, had little to realistically fear from a Trump presidency, and zero incentive to vote for a woman who would “increase their taxes” to fund people who wouldn’t find work, and then go on to take their guns. The city, on the other hand, was different. Earlier in 2016, an unarmed black man had been shot and killed by Roanoke City Police. It has a considerable black population and lower incomes, and while it would have likely voted for Hillary regardless of the other candidate, it was also repulsed by the other candidate, whose rhetoric often targeted them.
Roanoke City and Roanoke County occupy the same space and share the same name, but are, in all other ways, different. Voting differences between urban and non-urban areas exist, and continue to grow wider, offering greater opportunity for growth in the Republican party and a greater threat to the Democratic Party. Donald Trump seized upon this difference to win the 2016 election. If the Democrats want to remain a strong party, achieve their goals, and grow, they must look beyond their urban strongholds and past regional voting “patterns” that do not necessarily exist in the modern era. They must learn to see “county” rather than “state,” and campaign accordingly in order to keep their strongholds and loosen the grip the Republican party, and national ills such as President Trump, have on their own. America, land area wise, is red. But with better strategy and (perhaps) newer platforms, the Democrats can have more than just a few blue dots on the map.