The People Behind the Polls

Touring the US by bike we have the fortune to spend extended time both in rural and urban parts of the country, becoming somewhat familiar with the trajectories of the lives we intersect. The narrative of urban areas, from Rochester to Buffalo to Pittsburgh and Columbus, is one of growth, revitalization, and hope for the future. Built off increased job opportunities in technology, education, healthcare, and banking, as well as the larger trend of urban renewal, the people we have met in these cities tell stories of things “turning around,” people moving back into the city, and public and private investment in infrastructure and neighborhoods. Meanwhile, rural and suburban citizens share tales of shrinking industries and depressed economies. These individuals seem far more fearful of the future, and distressed at the thought of things continuing on this trajectory for the next four years.

These divergent trends have been of much discussion during this election, and are supported by the Census Bureau’s recent report on household income. The report was largely excellent, documenting a household income increase of 5.2% spread throughout all classes, with the largest gains experienced in the 10th percentile, yet there was still uneven growth in metropolitan compared to rural areas. Read more here and here.

The growing schism in the electorate which this election continues to expose and exacerbate owes its roots to more than uneven growth and unmet material needs.   A pervasive lack of trust in Hillary Clinton, and the Democratic Party in general, seems to be the overarching consensus that unites the rural communities through which we have passed.  “It’s just scary,” said a woman working at McDonalds, where we had stopped for a McFlurry break on an 87 mile day through the hills of eastern Ohio.  She wears a red, white and blue “women for Trump” pin on her hat.  “Everything with the email, the 2nd Amendment and ISIS, it’s all really scary,”  she continued.  Eight years ago, she was a stay-at-home mom to her daughter, now twelve, and her life was “perfect.”  Her husband makes $16 an hour making garage doors, a solid middle-class income for rural Ohio, but his health insurance premium has spiked under the Affordable Care Act, forcing her to take a job at McDonalds.  “The Democrats haven’t been nice to us” she says, and her co-worker at the counter echoes the sentiment. 

Over lunch, we took the time to digest the conversation, along with our McFlurries.  The Affordable Care Act was drafted with the intent to expand health insurance coverage in the United States.  With more Americans covered and stipulations against price discrimination based on pre-existing conditions and risk factors, insurance companies have struggled to estimate costs, and premiums have risen for healthy, middle-class consumers.  This is easy to rationalize when you are paying a subsidized rate for coverage (as most millennials either are or will be once they leave their family plans), or when you have access to coverage when you were previously uninsured, but one has to understand the alienation a hard-working, middle class family would feel in this situation.

In this context, the rise of a political outsider, especially a conservative, ideologically extreme one in Donald Trump, makes a great deal more sense.  Many communities have felt overlooked and alienated by the progressive policies of Obama, which Clinton will surely build on, partly because small-town America continues to struggle economically, but more so because the progressive narrative contains stipulations that may be perceived as restrictive, or even disruptive, in more culturally and economically homogenous rural regions of the country.  This is particularly true in communities centered around agriculture and mining, where people feel the sting of stricter environmental regulations and international trade agreements more so than they are able to appreciate the benefits of clean air, clean waterways and economic development in far away places, both within the U.S. and beyond its borders. 

This climate of political distrust makes it easier for frustrated Americans to welcome the arrival of an unconventional and flashy candidate who so openly echoes their fears, while overlooking his inability to lay out concrete proposals beyond immigration and economic protectionism.  “I don’t think Trump will be able to make it like it was for me and my family, but I just can’t trust Hillary, can’t trust the Democrats” says the woman at McDonalds.  “I think she’ll stick with Obamacare and that scares me.”  If anything, this election has highlighted that many Americans feel scared of where things are going.  Mr. Trump has found success articulating these fears and finding scapegoats, thus creating an illusion of alignment with peoples hearts without actually working through the process of creating a forward thinking solution.  Thus, when Mr. Trump visits coal country, mocks the EPA and tells residents to get ready to be “working their asses off” his followers go wild and swell in numbers, and no one questions how or even if the real-estate developer from Manhattan will follow through on his promise. 

Much has been written and said about how Trump’s rise is symptomatic of a deep cultural schism in the American electorate.  Undoubtedly, the health of our democracy depends upon bridging this divide and rebuilding the trust between its two sides.  Whether we, as five urban millennials campaigning for Hillary on our bikes, can do anything meaningful toward bridging this divide is not fully clear to us yet.  If anything though, this trip has given us the surprisingly powerful experience of meeting the human beings behind the polls and news stories surrounding Mr. Trump’s rise.  One particularly unfortunate offshoot of this has been the painting of Trump supporters as either dumb, prejudiced, misogynistic or all three.  For the most part, this could not be further from the truth.  “I love everyone’s opinions” says the woman at McDonalds, and we can tell she is sincere as she tells her story.  Perhaps by being open and genuine with the people we encounter along our journey, we might gain a greater understanding of what created this schism and begin the work of rebuilding the trust that does, indeed, make us stronger together. 

Mike, Meredith, Ben, Nina and Jamie

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