Michelle Obama attempts to remedy Democrats' historic unpopularity with white rural populations
With the 2020 U.S. presidential election being less than a month away, the candidates from both majority political parties have ramped up their media campaigns in a last-minute attempt to sway the majority of Americans to vote in their favor. It is almost impossible to avoid the Trump-funded commercial that displays a decades-old recording of Joe Biden endorsing cuts for Medicare and Medicaid. On the other hand, videos that highlight the current president’s ineffectiveness at mitigating the impacts of COVID-19 and racial inequity have also been widely circulated. American media has been undeniably ambushed by these two politicians vying for the title of the most powerful person in American government.
Additionally, the campaigns focus on the most noteworthy campaign promises of the candidates. For Donald Trump, this includes standing by his plans to continue building a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border and repealing the Affordable Care Act. In the case of Joe Biden, this means speaking on his promise to safely lead the country out of the pandemic, restoring lost jobs in the process. While this approach gives viewers an idea of the priorities of their potential president, the efficacy of this method in helping either candidate gain a captivating lead is questionable.
Each major party is associated with a set list of ideologies, social issues, and social identities. Within the last 65 years, the Republican party has been associated with fiscal and social conservativeness. And as far as demographics are concerned, this party is usually connected to white people who are either a part of affluent communities or rural areas, though there are certain groups of color that have been known to support Republican candidates. As for the Democratic party, the associations are more with social liberalism and with a higher consideration for the needs of racial and ethnic minorities. With these associations being heavily ingrained into American culture and therefore into the psyche of many Americans, being intentional about winning over demographics that generally don’t vote in their favor is a large way for a candidate to gain new supporters. One of the few major attempts by one of the major-party candidates to connect with those who don’t usually support their party is Donald Trump’s claims that he has done more for African-Americans than any other president other than Abraham Lincoln, a claim that has been repeatedly scrutinized and refuted. This void within media campaigning is what makes Michelle Obama’s most recent campaign video especially important.
Obama’s 24-minute call to action starts the same way most campaign videos do. She doesn’t hesitate to make known the undeniable flaws in Trump’s handling of this year’s most prominent public health crises: COVID-19 and structural racism. In reference to the pandemic, she starts off by stating how the current administration has handled the pandemic in a way that is not conducive to the health of the nation She calls him out for downplaying the severity of the virus, reopening schools without a concrete safety plan, and hosting mass gatherings without enforcing public health guidelines. When it comes to racial issues, she points out the way in which he has criticized the Black Lives Matter movement, deeming it and its supporters “violent,” despite the fact that an overwhelming majority of the actions done in association with the organization have been peaceful. This image of the current president is then contrasted with the presidential plan of Biden, which, in the former first lady’s words, is to fight for racial equity, create millions more jobs, lower the costs of medical care and to pick a Supreme Court justice whose judgments match those of Ruth Bader Ginsberg. The video starts off as any other campaign video, only delivered in the serious yet calming tone that Obama is known for. However, this quickly changes.
Thirteen minutes into the video, she tells a detailed yet hypothetical anecdote:
“We must empathize with those who might not look like us or vote like us,” Obama said. “We have got to put ourselves in one another’s shoes. Think about it. You’ve worked hard all your life, and for too long you’ve watched the rich get richer. You’ve lost your farms and your livelihoods to corporate greed. You’ve seen your beloved towns shattered by joblessness. You’ve watched families destroyed by drug addiction and mental health challenges. All of this, long before this virus hit. And it is frustrating to hear some folks say that you’ve been the beneficiary of privilege. That the color of your skin gives you a head start. That is the reality for far too many hard-working decent Americans.”
Though she did not mention them by name, the owning of farms - and therefore the loss of them - is something that is mostly exclusive to rural populations. Additionally, there has been controversy in recent years over the validity of the concept of white privilege due to accounts of low-income white Americans not believing there is such a thing due to the economic struggles that they have endured. Many members of this group have rationalized that if their skin color granted them any social privilege, their livelihood wouldn’t consist of a lack of stable access to basic necessities. It is this reality, which, when analyzed without considering intersectionality, contradicts the concept of white privilege. Since this concept is connected to the Democratic Party, this misalignment between the lived experiences of low-income white people and the most basic definition of white privilege is a possible cause of disconnect between the Democrat Party and this group. It is a disconnect that becomes very apparent in the polls. Reports show that, other than the wealthy elite, Donald Trump’s main supporters are working class white Americans, mostly from rural areas. With this being the case, Michelle Obama’s direct acknowledgement of this group isn’t just a simple act of empathy. It is also a way to ensure that Joe Biden’s campaign is inclusive of those who have likely written off the Democratic Party as being inconsiderate to their struggles and needs. Because of this, it seems that, with this line, Obama is trying to reach out to a population that Joe Biden needs to win over in order to guarantee himself a presidential term.
Obama continues by delving deeper into the frustrations of Trump’s main supporters. “The president and his allies are trying to tap into that frustration, and distract from his breathtaking failures, by giving folks someone to blame other than them.” She then adds that the Trump administration is trying to get people to believe that the aforementioned challenges that Trump supporters endure - such as substance abuse and jobs/economic stability - were due to the recent peaceful demonstrations that were led by Black and brown people. This is coupled by her saying that these aspects of American life were already failing under Trump’s rule before the virus hit. In saying this, Michelle Obama makes her attacks on Trump revolve around the needs of the group she is trying to win over. By insinuating that the candidate they are expected to support is actually to blame for their specific concerns, she has opened up the door for likely Trump-supporters to consider voting a different way.
The only question now is whether or not this tactic will work. The polarizing nature of the media in present times complicates any effort to reach across the aisle and appeal to demographics that have strong ties to the other major political party. With the existence of social media algorithms that tailor your explore page and advertisements to only show content that reflects the posts that one already favors, the Internet only helps to re-expose people to perspectives that they were already in agreement with. The same result is often attained with traditional outlets. With many television news channels having a clear political leaning, it is easier than ever for people to simply only pay attention to the sources that match their preconceived understandings of a candidate or political issue. In a culture where people have the option of only hearing reflections of their own opinions, it is necessary to wonder whether Michelle Obama’s acknowledgement of a Republican-leaning group even be heard by the intended, let alone be powerful to earn their votes. Only time will tell.