Conservative Coast

It’s always odd to hear conservatives talk about coasts, specifically coastal states and cities. It’s as if they think there is something about the ocean water that warps the brain. Or maybe it’s some kind of foreign influence drifting in on the ocean currents.

I sort of know what conservatives mean, in terms of recent voting patterns for the parties. But it’s a bit historically, demographically, and ideologically clueless.

Sure, many of the biggest cities are found on the coast, although not all. Besides there are plenty of big cities in conservative states. The fact of the matter is that most conservatives, like most liberals, live in urban areas. The rural conservatives who have outsized voting power in our electoral system are a miniscule minority of the total number of conservatives.

This also ignores the simple fact that the majority of Southern states are on the coast. There are nine southern coastal states. And that includes some highly populated states and big cities.

In fact, Texas is far larger than most countries in the world and one of the most influential states in the country (e.g., the textbook your child is likely using in school). Texas has six of the largest cities among the top twenty largest cities in the country, with three of them in the top ten. Not even California has this many big cities in the top level of population rankings.

Plus, the South has a growing population. For quite a while, it has been the largest regional population in the country, presently consisting of more than a third (37.6%) of US citizens — and, with places like Texas, a disproportionate number of non-citizen residents.

It’s true that the largest city by far is New York City. But why do conservatives dismiss city dwellers? New York City has a long history of being the home of working class whites. Most people who live in cities are working class and the largest proportion of the working class is white. Do conservatives mistrust these people because these working class whites tend to be ethnics, as the early 20th century conservative movement targeted ethnic whites as one of the greatest dangers to the country, just as they now attack Hispanics? Do WASPs still have a bad taste in their mouth all these generations later from their earlier political fights with ethnic whites?

Most people these days live in cities, not just liberals and rich people. A massive part of the big city population grew up in rural areas and small towns or else that is where their family came from a generation or two prior. Until the 1970s, the majority of the black population was still rural. Many big city residents still have family outside of the big cities, family they might visit or be visited by on holidays.

More than anything, when conservatives talk of coasts, they think of the West Coast or as it sometimes is called the Left Coast. Even more specifically, they have Californian in mind. But California has always been a divided state. From before the Civil War to after WWII, there were many large waves of immigrants from Southern states and most of them were working class whites, the most famous example being the partly misnamed Oakies. Unsurprisingly, most of those Southerners settled in southern California. It almost led to the Civil War erupting on the West Coast.

Southern California is the location of the second largest US city, Los Angeles. Ronald Reagan spent much of his time there and his politics were shaped by his experiences at that time. Next to it is the infamous right-wing Orange County, where Richard Nixon was born and raised. Southern California, along with being a major center of the military industry, is where originated big agriculture and an early strain of the corporatism — all of that now being among the most powerful influences in the US economy and politics. It was in this atmosphere that Nixon developed the Southern Strategy and Reagan became a leading figure, first as a corporate spokesperson and then as a politician. Reagan began his highly effective red-baiting while still in California.

That was the soil out of which mega-churches grew and the religious right rhetoric was honed. The preachers of those California mega-churches were televised around the country. Southern California was the headquarters for the Moral Majority movement. Some of the largest conservative rallies of the culture wars happened in and around big cities such as Los Angeles.

That isn’t the California that conservatives like to dismiss as a stereotype. None of these kinds of places quite fit stereotypes. Conservatives fear minorities, even though minority populations are far more socially conservative and religious than white Republicans. It confuses white Republicans that conservatives would vote Democrat.

But that is where the cluelessness comes in. Democrats have always been a big tent party. What Republicans should ask is: In the past, why did so many conservatives, especially among the religious right, vote for reform candidates like Franklin Delano Roosevelt and gave such strong support to the New Deal? Until Trump, why did most of the white working class vote Democrat for most of the past century, even with the rise of identity politics following the Civil Rights Movement? It’s not because of minorities and liberals that Republicans have in the past lost electoral success in certain big cities and in certain coastal states.

Maybe this election will finally get whites on the political right to rethink their false and unhelpful assumptions about their fellow Americans. Republicans have won a complex coalition with this election. But what will they do with it now that they have it? And will they be able to keep it?

6 thoughts on “Conservative Coast

  1. Right now, I’m more concerned with the state of the Democrats. They are a party of the plutocracy, despite pretending to be otherwise.

    But yes, the conservatives do have a lot of contradictions.

    • They both relate. Republicans won many voters that Democrats lost.

      It has been odd that Democrats so rarely talked about the fact that there party was built on and maintained itself as a political force primarily through the white working class. It was the one area of identity politics that was ignored.

      Maybe the Democratic establishment assumed that these voters were already in the bag and that the big unions would keep them in line. But it turns out even many union members voted for Trump.

      It’s amazing that the Democrats held onto the majority of the white working class for so long, at least outside of the South. Like minorities, they are socially conservative. If economics wasn’t more important to them, they should have been won over by Republicans with the culture wars.

      My grandfather was old school Democrat. He wasn’t even unionized and didn’t like unions. And he was strongly conservative in his views. But he was white working class. And economics trumped all else. Even the Civil Rights Movement didn’t turn my grandfather into a Republican. As far as I know, Reagan wasn’t able to sway his vote.

      So, why did so many white working class Democrats finally turn to Republicans? It’s fascinating that Trump was able to pull that off. Or simply that Clinton was such a massive failure in turning them away.

      Part of me feels amused in thinking what Republicans are going to do now. They have never promoted policies that most white working class want, especially not the unionized white working class. The GOP is in a no win situation. They either lose these voters back to the Democrats or the entire party is transformed into something old school Republicans won’t recognize.

      The other side of this is that, in at least temporarily losing a major voting bloc, Democrats have a chance to reinvent themselves. Even if they seek to win back the white working class, they could do so on new terms along with a new vision and new policies. It’s hard to see how Democrats are going to simply rebuild the old coalition with no changes.

    • So, why did so many white working class Democrats finally turn to Republicans? It’s fascinating that Trump was able to pull that off. Or simply that Clinton was such a massive failure in turning them away.

      The answer is simple enough – economics.

      I used to live in Ohio. That area has been devastated by the decline in manufacturing jobs. Trump’s promises of tariffs and jobs were music to their ears. They know that he will never keep them. The difference is that Trump might actually try, while people know that Clinton will say one thing, then sign more trade deals.

      The arrogance of the Liberals notwithstanding, people are not as dumb as they are made out to be by the politicians.

      • I agree. The people do know more than the elite assume. It’s just that normally the people feel like they have little choice in elections. The system feels so rigged.

        But this election was different. They had genuine reason to believe that Trump could, if nothing else, shake things up. It wasn’t a stupid choice to make. It was simply, from their perspective, the lesser evil.

        Plus, there is always the chance that Trump might do something that helps average Americans. Such as clamping down a bit on neoliberalism or building infrastructure.

  2. The area of New Jersey that I grew up in is a red county. Cape May, the southern most tip of the Garden State is as red as they come. Like so many rural areas of the country, it is mostly empty (aside from beach front islands) and most of it commerce is either agricultural or fishery related. In many ways they are out of step with the rest of the state, and often pay for it dearly in terms of statewide projects and grants. It is a long way from Cape May to Trenton.

    • That’s my point exactly. Cape May is still coastal. Even the typically Democratic big cities are surrounded by typically Republican suburbs and bedroom communities with voting power that easily rivals the big cities. You don’t have to go very far outside of big cities to be in a very different world.

      My great grandfather grew up in a rural area in New Jersey that is barely outside of New York City. He lived close enough that he took a wagon of produce to sell in the city on a regular basis. I live in the liberal mecca of Iowa and yet here in town I can walk to farmland in minutes. In working class jobs in this liberal town, I’ve regularly worked with people who live on or were raised on farms. Even many bosses I’ve worked for grew up in rural Iowa.

      The thing is that there is no monolithic conservative population, any more than there is a monolithic white population and a monolithic working class. A white working class conservative living in New York City is different than a white working class conservative in a suburb, and both of those are different from a white working class conservative living in Cape May. And being white working class conservative is different if you’re living in Appalachia, the Midwest, or the West Coast.

      It confuses people that most of the white working class has almost continuously voted Democrat for at least a century. People assume that the white working class is strongly conservative. How could white working class conservatives vote for Democrats? Well, Iowa might explain some of this, in that conservatives here are often rather moderate, even liberal in many of their views (and many Midwestern liberals are rather conservative-minded). I know many Midwestern liberals who are working class or grew up working class.

      Whites, the working class, and conservatives are demographics that have been split for a long time. Depending on the specific mix of demographics and the specific location they live in determines which party they are likely to vote for. Also, it comes down to a weird kind of identity politics. Even ideological labels are identity politics and often rather confused at that. Pew data from a few years back showed that one in ten people who were liberal across the board, socially and fiscally, identified as conservatives.

      Also, remember that small town and rural Heartland used to be a stronghold of unions and the Democratic Party. Appalachia, for example, was one of the fiercest regions for labor organizing. They may have been socially conservative, but they had absolutely no interest in conservative economics and conservative politics. Not only did they not have any interest, they sometimes took up guns to literally fight against that conservatism when they felt like they were being oppressed and taken advantage of.

      With the loss of good mining and factory jobs, there has been shrinking union membership and weakening union power. That was at the heart of the old Democratic Party. The white working class stayed with the Democrats for a long time, but the coalition had been weakening for decades. The white working class once had the power to go on strike and force entire industries to a halt. And if you tried to call them commies to their face for being union, they would quickly put you in your place. Many of them didn’t take being called a commie as an insult, no matter their opinion of Marx and the Soviet Union. They were red-blooded Americans and anyone who didn’t like it could go fuck themselves.

      That was back when the white working class had power. And the Democratic Party aligned itself with this part of the population. Even with the rise of civil rights and identity politics, the white working class was the pillar of the Democratic Party. But the Democratic Party took them for granted and betrayed them. Many Americans have felt left behind by both parties. These people voted for Trump not because he was the GOP candidate but because he told the political and economic elite to go fuck themselves. The fact that Trump was one of those elites was a minor detail, no different than the fact that FDR was one of those elites as well.

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