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How the 2020 election revealed 2 Americas, divided by wealth and opportunity

  • The 2020 election confirmed a divide between rural America and urban America.
  • Big cities and dense suburbs went for Biden, and less-populated areas went for Trump, or to put it another way, wealthier regions were blue and less wealthy were red.
  • A Brookings report estimated that Biden counties accounted for a whopping 70% of GDP, up from 64% for Clinton counties in 2016.
  • Simply put, the wealthier and less wealthy parts of the country have totally different visions of political leadership.
  • It implies nothing less than a divide in the American Dream.
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

The 2020 presidential election results split along several lines: Democrat vs. Republican, educated vs. working class, and town vs. country. By and large, though, the surprisingly close final vote tally broke down along social class: the wealthiest parts of the country overwhelmingly voted for Biden and the poorest overwhelmingly for Trump. 

After an election run-up featuring polls projecting a clear lead, maybe even a landslide for Biden, the reveal was anything but a consensus, instead a deep divide in American views on how to move forward from 2020, perhaps in the American Dream itself. 

The American Dream has taken on various meanings since the phrase first appeared in James Truslow Adams' "The Epic of America" in 1931, but it typically means freedom of opportunity and the promise that anyone can be a success if they work hard enough. The election of 2020 proved as never before that the more and less economically successful regions of the US look at the concept differently.

Understanding these divergent views requires understanding how party votes mirror population density patterns, how America's elite class continues to pull away from the rest, and how large-scale patterns of wealth in America swung the 2020 election. 

The rural divide

Rural America has supported Trump since he took office, praising him for cutting taxes, tackling overregulation, and pushing back against China's trade practices to protect American jobs.

This perception of Trump as a man of the working class is significant in America, where elections often boil down to geography. The 477 counties that Biden won comprise 70% of America's GDP, according to a Brookings report, whereas the 2,497 counties that voted for Trump comprise 29%. This is a greater disparity than 2016, when Hillary Clinton counties comprised about 64% of GDP. (These stats reflect unofficial results from 96% of counties.)

Mark Muro, senior fellow and policy director of Brookings' Metropolitan Program and one of the report's authors, told Business Insider that this result "leaves us with two economic parties that really reside in different economic worlds talking past each other." 

This economic divide has been sharpening since the 2000 election before accelerating in the past decade peaking in 2020, Muro added, leaving America with an unproductive state of affairs. He said he doesn't see the fundamental trends driving this intensified division changing anytime soon.

But there's another angle to this division that has to do with density.

Will Wilkinson, vice president of research at the the moderate-leaning think tank Niskanen Center, who authored research on the correlation between population density and party vote share, tweeted the day after the election that he was "embarrassed" he hadn't taken his own research "seriously enough." In 2020, he didn't see Biden's slim victory in many states coming, but his 2019 paper almost predicted it.

Wilkinson told Business Insider that his research shows the densest part of a city or metro area is primarily Democratic, and this trend drops as you move out toward the country. The inner and outer suburbs then become split along party lines, with Republicans starting to take on the majority the farther out you drive as the population becomes less dense.

To be sure, Trump has many wealthy supporters and Biden has many working-class ones, but the 2020 election revealed that the rank-and-file voter in the wealthier part of the country is pro-Biden, and the reverse is true of Trump. 

Wilkinson cited the example of a car dealership owner in a poorer, rural area, where "there's kind of a sense of malaise," so despite making a decent living, the sense that things are "kind of falling apart" leads to a vote for Republicans, especially Trump, whose "Make America Great Again" slogan harkens back to that exact sense of reversing decline. 

Whither the American Dream?

Trump's actual economic plan for his rural voters hasn't been as clear as his sloganeering, though. 

Promises to boost rural America were central planks of his 2016 campaign, but not all came to fruition. In 2017, for instance, he and the Wisconsin GDP made a deal with manufacturing company Foxconn to revive manufacturing in the state's southeastern region, but the factory doesn't exist today. And while Trump has promised to revive the coal industry, coal production is declining at a faster rate than it did under Obama, reported The Wall Street Journal in September.

Biden has offered a detailed economic plan, targeted directly at improving opportunities for the working class in many ways. Trump hasn't been as specific, preferring instead to tout the performance of the economy until the pandemic hit American shores, although Trump's economy was largely similar to the one from Barack Obama's second term.

As Muro points out, Trump's agenda didn't include a lot of specific proposals. "If Trump promised something about reviving American factories and manufacturing and so on, I think it was for a stylistic appeal to an anti-system, a brash and resentful view of those big cities," he said.  

Trump voters bought into this strategy, Wilkinson said, and thus didn't blame him for the pandemic-led downturn. "How well you think the economy is performing depends on who is in power," he said. If a Democrat is in the White House, Democrats will think the economy is doing better than Republicans, and vice versa. This dynamic has worsened with the election, he said.

America in the age of 'elite overproduction'

An unorthodox social scientist has created a dark theory that may explain this divide between a party with a plan and another with a sort of anti-plan: "elite overproduction." The University of Connecticut's Peter Turchin, a "cultural evolution scientist," coined this term, arising out of his use of data to chart how societies rise and decline.

At the stage America finds itself in now, Turchin explained to The Atlantic's Graeme Wood in a recent article, the growth of its elite class has exceeded the growth of jobs for members of that class. Turchin told Wood it's "too late" for America to correct this, likening its current trajectory to a ship sailing toward an iceberg.

The "elites" who voted for Biden by Turchin's definition — or residents of the dense America in Wilkinson's — seem to acknowledge that the their best bet for the future is betting on the economies of dense, rich places which may not have quite enough jobs to go around. Turchin defines the Trump administration as a "counter-elite movement," which appeals to the less wealthy in society while seeking revenge on the traditional elite class.

Some argue that the polarization isn't about wealth or economics, but about culture. Elissa Slotkin, a Michigan Democratic congresswoman who barely won re-election in 2020, argued to Tim Alberta in Politico that the defining divide is between half of the country with a conceited view of its own enlightenment, and another half that resents that attitude.

However, Slotkin also implicitly supported Wilkinson's density theory, saying the biggest difference she notices in politicians is between those who are in competitive districts and those who aren't — the most competitive districts are the ones that straddle the line between dense and rural.

Muro said economics, wealth, and culture shouldn't be discussed separately. "It's very clear there are divisions in the economic base inflaming cultural or racial animosity. Economies really matter and shape identity and culture."

The unbridgeable gap

What's clear is that while Joe Biden may have won the 2020 election, the economic and political divide that separates the wealthy, dense America from the other one isn't going anywhere. 

Joe Biden counties may account for around 70% of GDP and Trump counties only around 30%, but their popular vote totals represent 51% and 47% of the country, respectively. More than 73 million Americans voted for Trump, the second-highest total for any candidate ever, behind only Biden's total of more than 78 million. 

The land of the wealthy sees a clear solution to what ails America, and the land of the left behind sees the opposite. How Joe Biden can tie together this maybe unbridgeable gap is likely to be the defining issue of his presidency — and a question for wealth and opportunity in the United States for much longer.

[This article has been updated with regard to when President Trump took office.]

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