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The Economic Anxiety “Debate”

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I am really frustrated with the entire state of the post-election debate, whether it is liberals hating Bernie Sanders, the left gloating, or especially the dismissal of economic anxiety as a real thing. This debate is especially problematic because you have some people legitimately saying that the overwhelming reason for white votes for Trump is economic anxiety. This is not true. Most whites have been voting Republican for a long time. On the other hand, you have stories like this that interview white Republicans that seem to dismiss the entire idea of economic anxiety because that’s not what is driving the various voters they speak with. Such is this piece on voters in Ritzville, Washington. Ritzville is a town in eastern Washington with not much going on except for being an outpost on I-90.

Ritzville proper is something of a time capsule from the ’50s. Even the names of the throwback storefronts hint at this — Memories Diner, the Ritzville Pastime Bar and Grill. It’s also got a Perkins and a Starbucks closer to the highway and the people of Ritzville are proud to tell you both are among the most successful in the state — thanks to truck drivers and travelers making one last stop before the final push to Seattle.

Two main streets run parallel on either side of a set Northern Pacific railroad tracks, headed south toward Tri-Cities. One street’s got the gas stations and the motels while the other is where the old stone buildings and “character” of the town lies, including Chamberlain’ shop. Every few hours, an Amtrak or a multi-engine train pulling coal or oil or grain lumbers by and the town is cleaved in two.

It seemed like a place to test the dominant narrative that has grown out of the election: This, supposedly, is the place government has forgotten — the home of the poor, rural, white masses that flipped the national electoral map for Trump. While cities flourish, the story goes, agrarian backwaters like Ritzville have fallen off of the map for public officials. Frustrated, residents of towns like this turned to Trump, casting a vote for change, even if it came from a man further from these parts of the world than any candidate in history.

Yes, Donald Trump turned Grays Harbor and swaths of Washington’s Timber Belt red. Yes, factories have closed and union members have leaned farther right. But the people I spoke to in Ritzville and nearby Lind don’t go right to economic hardship when asked why they voted for our new President-elect. They meander toward other things like refugees and Trump’s proposed wall along the Mexican border and, yes, the “rioters” in Seattle before arriving at economic anxiety, if they ever get there at all. Many out here are doing just fine.

Seems to me like some basic research about Ritzville is in order before making any claims about its relationship to the election. In 2016, Adams County voted 67-24 Trump, at least according to the latest number I saw. In 2012, Adams County voted Romney 66-32. In 2008, Adams County voted McCain 67-32. In 2004, Adams County voted Bush 73-26. In 2000, Adams County voted Bush 69-28. I could go on. There is nothing about what happened in Ritzville or Adams County that says anything at all about what has changed between 2012 and 2016. It says nothing about “economic anxiety” in any way. What it says is that Adams County, Washington is a deeply conservative place and that hasn’t changed meaningfully at any point in last 5 election cycles at least.

And that’s what is really frustrating about the blithe dismissals of economic anxiety as an important thing. Of course one can point to crazy racism and laughingly say “Economic Anxiety!!!” But that doesn’t help because those people weren’t changing their votes over this or any other issue.

Where the economic anxiety debate legitimately matters is not in long-term Republican counties. It’s in traditionally blue counties in swing states that swung sharply to the right in the last 4 years. Erie County, Pennsylvania went 48-46 for Trump. He won by 2000 votes. In 2012, Obama defeated Romney 57-41 in Erie County, winning by 19,000 votes. Donald Trump won Pennsylvania by about 68,000 votes. It is counties like these–blue-collar union counties with long histories within the Democratic Party, histories that lasted long after LBJ delivered the South to the Republicans in 1964, long after the Reagan era, that voted for Barack Hussein Obama twice. The critical question is why did these people switch their votes at this time. This is where a discussion of economic dislocation and hopelessness plays an important role. It must play an important role. These are voters that Democrats can probably get back without appealing to racism, which it absolutely must never do. That’s the debate we need to be having. Economic issues need to be taken seriously as part of that debate.

But as for why ranchers in eastern Washington or suburbanites north of Dallas voted for Trump, stories that say it was not because of economic anxiety are so obvious as to be ignored.

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