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Midterm Elections Exposed Deep Divides In American Society


Well, like the 2016 elections, last night's midterm results have again exposed divides in American society. For example, in suburban House races across the country, voters rejected the Republican Party. But in Senate races in more conservative states, it was the Republican Party that prevailed. Well, to probe these divides and what they mean, we have invited NPR senior editor and correspondent Ron Elving to stop by the studio. Hi, Ron.

RON ELVING, BYLINE: Hello, Mary Louise.

KELLY: I've got to say, you look remarkably well-rested for a guy who was up till 3 a.m...


KELLY: ...Probing the polls and results. Congratulations.

ELVING: It's an illusion.

KELLY: Speaking of illusions, we are used to looking at election results on these maps, you know, the big red and blue illuminated across the country. But you've got a theory, I gather, that these color divisions are not quite what they seem. Explain.

ELVING: Not because they are whole states, great big boxes of red or blue as though everyone in that state thought the same way. It would make more sense if we're going to do this kind of mapping to get a little more granule and look at metropolitan areas, the urban inner city and the suburban populations together and contrast that to the outer rims of the exurbs and to the rural and small-town parts of each state. That's really where the red-blue divide is more visible. If you will, it's the 21st-century update of the classic urban versus rural divide that's been part of our national life since the very beginning.

KELLY: All right, so keep the map metaphor going. I mean, if we're not a divided red-and-blue country in quite the same way that that map would seem to indicate, where are the fault lines?

ELVING: It's not so much even the traditional partisanship of Republicans and Democrats, although that's where our red-and-blue scheme comes from. It's not even a simple pro-Trump and anti-Trump divide. It's more complicated polarization. Some are calling it tribalism. We're organized now by some old categories of political loyalty and by geography conflict that I've mentioned but also by all of our contemporary issues of identity.

KELLY: Sure, race, whether you're an immigrant, whether you are - what age you are, whether you're LGBTQ - all of these things.

ELVING: That's right. Race is as important as ever. Gender is more of a divide than ever in our voting. We have income inequality, educational inequality, opportunity inequality. All of these elements of our identities as groups and as individuals add up to what some people call diversity. And the pushback to valuing diversity is sometimes summed up in the word nationalism.

KELLY: You're making me think of this moment in the press conference that the president just held today, actually. There was this flashpoint. He was asked a question by a reporter for PBS, Yamiche Alcindor. I can actually play you a little bit of that.


YAMICHE ALCINDOR: On the campaign trail, you called yourself a nationalist. Some people saw that as emboldening white nationalists. Now people are also saying that the...

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I don't know why you'd say that. That's such a racist question.

ALCINDOR: There are some people that say that now the Republican Party is seen as supporting white nationalists because of your rhetoric.

TRUMP: Oh, I don't believe that. I don't believe that.

ALCINDOR: What do you make of that?

TRUMP: I don't believe that. I just - well, I don't know. Why do I have my highest poll numbers ever with African-Americans?

KELLY: Ron, what did you make of that as you were listening?

ELVING: Good question by the president there. The president took the question as an accusation, as though he had been called a racist and threw it back at the reporter, saying it had to be a racist question to even raise this question. And, of course, throughout his campaign in a number of the states that tilted slightly to the Republicans in statewide races in places he had won in 2016, he had some success bringing out his characteristic rallies and really stoking the crowd with a number of dog whistles - if you want to call them that or even car horns if you want to call them that - that many people regarded as emphasizing his opposition to the diversity issues I was just mentioning.

KELLY: I mean, the question this leaves me with is there's tribalism, there are divides no question, but what does all that mean when it comes to governing, particularly now that we're in a Washington which is no longer under the control of a single party?

ELVING: Indeed. Those things can be a challenge to the kind of leaders who want to bridge them or, if you will, compose them. And they can also be an opportunity for political figures who see them as a means to power.

KELLY: Ron Elving, NPR senior editor and correspondent, thanks so much.

ELVING: Thank you, Mary Louise.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE METERS' "CISSY STRUT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ron Elving is Senior Editor and Correspondent on the Washington Desk for NPR News, where he is frequently heard as a news analyst and writes regularly for NPR.org.