Existential Threat — Or Politics As Usual?

AW
April 7, 2021

In Washington — and in many state capitols — legislators and activists have cast voting legislation in apocalyptic terms, claiming that any change in voter law represents an existential threat to democracy as we know it. New rules on obtaining a ballot are decried as suppression, while anything that opens access to voters is an invitation to fraud. But, for many voters, these laws aren't threatening the future of democracy; instead, they are just the latest example of the two parties using any means necessary to give themselves electoral advantages. 

A couple of weeks ago, I had the opportunity to watch two focus groups of white swing voters. One group was more conservative-leaning (all had voted for Trump but were defined as not particularly enthusiastic about him, i.e. these are not Trump super fans ), the other group included those who voted for Biden in 2020 after voting for Trump in 2016. In other words, these are the kinds of voters that would be open to more nuanced arguments about issues. They aren't simply knee-jerk Trump or Biden voters.

My analysis of these focus groups, of course, should be taken with the proper caveats. These are just ten voters. Their views are not representative of every kind of Trump-Biden or Trump skeptical voter in the country. The conversation allows us to appreciate how many 'regular' folks are processing this moment. 

Despite President Trump's unfounded claims of voter fraud, a violent attack on the U.S. Capitol, and a flurry of bills being introduced around the country that could restrict access to the ballot, no one in either group thought that the right to vote was under attack. One man who had voted for Trump in 2016 and Biden in 2020 said "if you want to vote you can figure out a way to do it." The other four Trump-Biden voters nodded in agreement. All of the non-enthusiastic Trump voters believed that it is "easy to vote" ("I've never had a problem with it," said one of them). Another said, "if you want to vote, you'll make it a priority." 

While three of the Trump voters said they were disappointed in Trump's post-election attacks on the election results ("his personal agenda took over”, "he wasn't able to admit defeat"), and praised Vice President Pence's "diplomatic" handling of the Electoral College dispute, they also saw the decision by congressional Republicans to back up the president's claims of voter irregularity as politics as usual rather than an existential threat to American democracy. One of the 'skeptical' Trump voters argued that these GOP members knew that they had to appease their voter base and "took a political, not a professional approach" to their job.

And, it wasn't just the Trump voters. Even those who voted for Biden in 2020 after supporting Trump four years earlier didn't think that Congress or President Trump would have been able to overturn the election results. 

More importantly, both groups believed that fights over voter laws were more about political gamesmanship than an attack on democracy itself. Said one of the Trump voters, "everybody just wants to win." One of the Trump-Biden voters said, "I don't trust one party more than the other on voter rules." 

Where many activists see a threat to the very foundation of our political system, these voters see crass political calculations. One of the skeptical Trump voters claimed that "the only reason Democrats want to make it easier to vote is because they think more voters voting would help them." A Trump to Biden voter, meanwhile, argued that GOP attempts to tighten up voter eligibility is just "about trying to get more Republican votes. They say it's about fraud, it's not." 

Given this ambivalence among these voters, there's been a lot of head-scratching as to why major corporations like Delta, Coca Cola and, of course, Major League Baseball decided to criticize the new Georgia law publicly. Why weigh in on an issue that isn't about something that affects their 'bottom line' — like taxes or regulations?

The answer can be found in our geographic polarization. Or, more specifically, our geographic/economic divide. "The Democratic Party is now anchored in the nation's booming, but highly unequal, metro areas, while the GOP relies on aging and economically stagnant manufacturing-reliant rural and exurban communities," Brookings Institute analysts Mark Munro and Jacob Whiton wrote in September of 2019. "The concentration of more than 70% of the nation's professional and digital services economy in the territory of one party would seem to register an almost unsustainable degree of polarization."

Just 12 years ago, according to this excellent analysis by the Wall Street Journal's Dante Chinni and Aaron Zitner, Democratic-held and Republican-held CDs produced about an equal percentage of the country's GDP. By 2019, however, Democratic-held districts produced about two-thirds of the nation's economic output. How did this happen? For the last decade, Democrats have been steadily losing ground in small-town and rural America while also making inroads into fast-growing and formerly GOP-held metro areas in and around places like Phoenix, Dallas, Houston, and of course, Atlanta.

Not that long ago, voters in metro Atlanta suburbs of Cobb and Gwinnett County were voting overwhelmingly for GOP candidates like Mitt Romney (The 2012 GOP nominee won both counties by double digits). By 2016, Hillary Clinton carried both by narrow margins. In 2020, Joe Biden won those suburban areas by even larger margins than Romney had carried them eight years prior. 

The companies that call Atlanta home, like Delta and Coca-Cola, are based in metro Atlanta. As is their employee base. Like other Sun Belt metros, Atlanta continues to draw more and more non-southern residents to the region. As Robert Lang, a professor of Urban Affairs at UNLV, and one of the co-authors of the book "Blue Metros, Red States," writes about Georgia's economic transformation. "Atlanta is now a world-class city, and its politics increasingly reveal a demographic shift. For decades, greater Atlanta attracted waves of immigrations, especially small-town, in-state movers seeking opportunity in the "Big Peach." Most out-of-state migrants to Atlanta before 2000 were from other southern states. But since the 1990s, Atlanta has become a true national and international destination for migrants."

To be sure, Atlanta's blue swing isn't entirely driven by 'blue state' expats bringing their values to the once deep-red south. Many one-time Yellow Dog Democrats in rural parts of the state have become loyal GOP voters, while the so-called Country Club Republicans in the leafy Atlanta suburbs are more comfortable in the modern Democratic Party. Even so, the decision by many companies to take a stand on key social issues is something that is driven more by employee input than anything else.

A 2016 survey taken of major corporations by the Public Affairs Council found that a majority (60 percent) “experienced rising stakeholder pressure to get engaged in social issues such as discrimination, sustainability, human rights and education." Leading the push for engagement within these companies: senior management and employees. According to the survey, 78 percent of the companies said senior management were the most influential in deciding whether to get involved on a social issue, followed by employees at 70 percent. About half (51 percent) said the customers drove their decisions and nearly one-third (36 percent) said that shareholders played a role. Corporations, it seems, are indeed people. 

In other words, even big companies who have a very politically diverse customer base (Republicans and Democrats watch baseball, fly on airplanes etc.), also have an employee base that's primarily centered in blue metros. And that employee base expects its employer to live up to these blue metro values. So, while Minority Leader Mitch McConnell would like to see corporations stay in their lane ("from election law to environmentalism to radical social agendas to the Second Amendment, parts of the private sector keep dabbling in behaving like a woke parallel government," McConnell said the other day in a statement), the reality of our geographically polarized country makes this increasingly unlikely to happen anytime soon.