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Fifteen states have voted to recognize the National Popular Vote (NPV), a proposed interstate compact that pledges the electoral votes of every state to the winner of the overall popular vote in the next presidential election. Nine Democratic presidential candidates have pledged support for the idea. Why such enthusiasm? Hillary Clinton.
Clinton won the popular vote without winning over middle America. She won with a popular landslide in California (61 percent) and the Left Coast (50.1 percent in Oregon and 52 percent in Washington) and the other huge metropolitan areas in New York (59 percent), New Jersey (55 percent), Massachusetts (60 percent), and Illinois (55 percent), but lost nearly everywhere else.
The Electoral College helps shape how people run for elections and it influences the way they govern. It forces a more generalized concern for the interests of all areas of the country rather than a special focus on only the most populous. Instead of simply going where the votes are, candidates must go where the electoral votes are. The Electoral College ended up protecting Middle Americans and geographic balance, exactly as it was designed to do, when it helped Donald Trump win the presidency. This is a feature, not a bug, of the electoral college in our late republic.
Strangely, moves toward the popular vote claim to represent the goals of the many, but in practice they really reflect the passions and interests of the few.
Under the NPV, candidates will only campaign in big cities and make promises to the residents of big cities—promises which often come at the expense of those who are in charge of producing the country’s food and energy resources in Middle America.
Hidden in the populist pledge to follow “the true voice of the people” is another left-wing instrument of oligarchy. In fact, it is a tool which would escalate to the emergence of a new feudalism in American politics.
The New Feudalism
Under feudalism, a massive peasantry sat beneath an immobile elite of churchmen and noblemen. Today, thinkers like Joel Kotkin and Victor Davis Hanson worry that states like California are slipping into a “new feudalism.”
The emerging feudalism replaces noblemen with tech and finance tycoons, and priests with the press and universities. Members of this ruling elite are the new “experts” who run our regulatory bodies and provide the bulk of financing for Democratic campaigns.
The power of these classes is affirmed by serfs: lower class urban populations who get just enough from government to keep them dependent, but never enough to improve their station. Their benefits include housing vouchers, state funded daycare, Supplemental Security income, and Medicaid—conditions their overlords would never accept for themselves but are happy to pay, if only to assuage the peasantry and gain their votes.
Peace from the urban poor, however, comes at a price that the middle classes cannot afford to pay. As the preferences that animate this feudal structure of our cities moves to the country under the NPV, the problems of cities spread along with them. More and more states which are composed of the country’s middle class will now find themselves caught between the interests of the oligarchs and the underclasses they have drawn to themselves for their own purposes.
The citizens of “flyover” states who voted for Trump—disproportionately in rural areas—do not fit neatly into the new feudal structure. A majority of middle class Americans will never be serfs or lords. They own property, are more suspicious of big government, and are less dependent on state handouts. If forced to pay the taxes necessary to sustain a feudal system, these middle-class voters would be forced to move—much as we see is already happening in states like California.
America’s Rural Crisis
After the Great Recession, the people sitting at the top of the feudal structure continued to benefit from jobs well positioned to thrive in the newly-regulated state: law, corporate finance, Big Tech, university administration, education, and government.
The more those sectors expand, however, the more our country’s impetus toward corporate feudalism grows. America’s rural populations—the independent yeomen in this equation—are the populations that suffer the most.
The numbers affirm this reality. In the distressed communities index assembled by the Economic Innovation Group, the number of Americans living in prosperous ZIP codes increased by 10.2 million to a total of 86.5 million after 2008. The “great reshuffling of 2008” has been a job boon for the managerial classes living in wealthy ZIP codes. To cite just one statistic, “prosperous ZIP codes added more business establishments during the recovery years than the bottom 80 percent of ZIP codes combined.”
With the runaway growth of prosperous ZIP codes and the population boom in those districts, we learn that the rural populations have hemorrhaged in middle America, falling by 3.4 million residents—losing thousands of small businesses, and escalating dynamics which break down small communities.
Implementing the NPV nationwide would serve as yet another blow to rural and middle America. Presidential candidates would no longer need to campaign in the distressed rural regions or even pretend to care about their interests. Feudalism could easily move to the rest of the country.
A Suburban Response
How should conservatives react to these trends? Should they compete with democratic candidates in the cities? Become the party of enterprising cities ourselves? Become part of that scene? Maybe.
But maybe there is a way to look after the interests of distressed rural communities in ways that also appeal to the suburban vote, which continues to be the true battleground of American politics. In addition to a winning strategy in the Electoral College, Republicans need to increase their hold on suburban America if the Democrats continue to dominate the cities.
For President Trump, this means forming a suburban coalition of voters who are not staked in strictly rural, or strictly distressed, ZIP codes. Since suburban voters are far from monolithic in their views, conservatives need to consider how to appeal to suburbanites without alienating the reliable rural voters.
Perhaps the best way to think about where to draw the line when forming these new wedges comes down to who received a university education. University-educated suburbanites are upward members of the managerial class and see themselves as potential members of the landed gentry, with the goal of living in a prosperous ZIP code. These members fall on the left side of the “diploma divide” we see in our politics.
A large portion of suburban voters, however, still lack college credentials and are not necessarily part of “distressed communities” index—at least not yet. These voters have no place in the feudal vision of our progressive overlords. Like the rural yeoman, they likely consider themselves to be “middle class,” but work in industries such as construction, facilities, manufacturing, or transportation.
Consider Juneau County in Wisconsin, where President Trump in 2016 outperformed President Obama’s 2012 total by 33 points. While there has been little distress in the community since the 2008 recession, 64 percent of the residents have a high school degree.
Or look to densely populated Woodbury County in Iowa, where Trump outperformed Obama by 20 points. Although not in the “at risk” index, 55 percent of the workers in Woodbury completed their education at high school.
In Ohio, think of Sandusky County, which flipped eight points from Obama to Trump. Though not a “distressed community,” nearly 65 percent of the population only has a high school diploma.
As it stands, the distressed suburban voters constitute 18 percent of the suburban bloc, while the prosperous suburban voters constitute 21 percent. This leaves 61 percent for the rest to fight over—and I would offer that the majority of them do not have college degrees. Even though more Americans than ever have a college education, they still only constitute one third of the country.
Appealing to suburban voters and replicating instances like Juneau, Woodbury, and Sandusky nationwide would be a strategy to win over suburban voters.
Such a plan could create a majority coalition that would resist the National Popular Vote. The interests of a suburban and middle class party would align more with the rural yeomen than with those of voters who aspire to be at the top of a new feudal America.
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