Inequitable Partisanship in Pennsylvania: A Case Study in the 2020 Election

This op-ed is part of Signal, an editorial project trying to talk about the Presidential elections in the USA while avoiding informational noise, presenting sharp points of view and taking into account geographical differences across States. While some of the facts authors mentioned might need further investigation, the goal of the project is to read and listen unflitered electoral preferences. J.T. Herwald writes from Pennsylvania.

The first election I can remember was the 2004 Presidential Election between Republican incumbent George W. Bush and Democratic challenger John F. Kerry. This election gave me my first taste of partisanship and its effects on society during an election. Some of my fondest memories early on in that election season were the TV ads portraying Kerry as a “hippie” who had no business being commander in chief of the armed forces.
2020 has marked a critical boiling point in asymmetrical political polarization in western Pennsylvania as the Presidential election grows closer. This divide has created tension among Pennsylvanians which has perhaps had far reaching effects beyond the polls. As Pennsylvanians in election season, we see the often one-sided extremes of this political polarization, most notably from the right. Donald Trump has gained an almost “cult” like following in many rural counties almost to the extent of David Koresh or Shoko Asahara. But in a stark contrast, as you move closer to the city and other urban areas, you see a more progressive and left leaning support for Democratic challenger, Joseph Biden. However, it is very clear that it is not the same level of cult-like support that it is for Trump.

As Pennsylvanians, we hold deep roots in blue collar work from the coal mines of Greene county, to the steel mills of Pittsburgh. This heritage is often congruent with an anti-Democratic rhetoric synonymous with natural gas extraction and manufacturing which makes up a large part of the Pennsylvania economy. From a young age, many rural Pennsylvanians are indoctrinated to believe the notion that a vote for the Democratic party is a vote against your career, family and your lifestyle. This strong “Red” vote in many rural counties additionally solidifies this belief and only serves to amplify the repressed anger amid a pandemic and civil unrest this summer. While this phenomenon is not unique solely to Pennsylvania, previous elections have shown that Pennsylvania is a key state to win which can often create close contestsspecifically in some counties, sometimes giving Pennsylvania the capacity to swing the electoral vote in either direction.

The 2020 election season has revealed a strong, loyal and most importantly solidified support for the Trump campaign in many of these rural areas of western Pennsylvania, especially Westmoreland county, where I grew up. Donald Trump’s campaign has made particular use of Joe Biden’s somewhat inconclusive support for renewable energy. The Trump campaign takes advantage of this to incite false claims in his recent rallies claiming that Biden: “Hates fracking”. These claims likely stem from Biden’s seemingly intended support for reduced carbon emission through the use of increased regulation of the fossil fuel industry and improved carbon emission standards. This has become a major subject of controversy in western Pennsylvania, as many in fracking see this as a direct threat to the industry itself, thus further gaining support for Trump who openly supports fracking and natural gas extraction. The Trump campaign is able to further capitalize on this through use of aggressive ad’s claiming that Biden will “end fracking” altogether. Many of these recent assertions regarding fracking stem from the Trump campaign’s desperate attempts to win over voters in swing states such as Pennsylvania where fossil fuel extraction makes up a large part of the economy and accounts for almost a million jobs statewide.

In recent months, the Trump campaign has stepped up their attempts to appeal to young, white males in response to protests of racial injustice in policing. Driven by chauvinism and xenophobia, Trump’s policies offer political and social safety for white men in a society that is becoming more cognizant of racial injustice committed against minorities by both unfair policing practices and systemic racism. The Trump narrative reinforces the so-called “Patriotic Education” movement which has rallied the additional support against what is often referred to as radical, un-American indoctrination by the “radical left”. It can be argued that this is an attempt to erase history and a refusal to recognize American wrongdoings. This use of fear mongering in campaign ads utilizing over-exaggeration and use of Joe Biden’s ongoing support for reform of police and criminal justice policy has spread further into the Trump fanbase of Westmoreland county particularly, where false claims are often incited claiming that “Biden hates cops” or “supports rioters”. My hometown of Lower Burrell was the site of a recent “caravan for Trump” in which supporters fly Trump and “Thin Blue Line” flags in support of the Republican campaign. Often, these Trump signs contain vulgarity aimed at inciting a type of reaction or to instill fear upon what many Trump supporters refer to as “snowflakes” or “antifa”.  Without a doubt, this appears to be an attempt to incite extreme behavior and provoke non-supporters. This disturbing trend among Trump gatherings has only further fueled a movement on the left to increase voter participation aimed among undecided voters, thus not necessarily generating the reactionary action that the right wing had possibly hoped for.

Among other controversial subjects among the Trump fanbase, common denouncement of COVID-19 mitigation efforts and conspiracy theories such as the idea that “COVID is a hoax” have become a vehicle to further gain support for both Republicans and Trump himself. Many of these ridiculous theories and additionally Trump’s failure to condemn them only fuel the intense opinions that accompany them leading many to question the ethicality of the administration’s campaign strategy of targeting rural voters in Pennsylvania. The Trump campaign has taken advantage of these theories, further gaining support for Republican long-standing agendas such as the repeal of the Affordable Care Act, which will face the supreme court later this month.
This hits home in Westmoreland county where COVID-19 struck particularly hard in rural communities since the beginning of the pandemic earlier this year. Regarded as one of the most important counties for Republicans to win in the commonwealth of Pennsylvania, Westmoreland county seems to bolster a blissful ignorance among the right in regard to COVID-19 and public health in general. Mask mandates have been a strong subject of controversy among Westmoreland Republicans who often ignore State and CDC guidelines for mask wearing in public spaces. I have seen this denouncement of public health outcry in the form of many passionate arguments between service employees and customers who refuse to wear a mask on the grounds that the business “can’t refuse them service”.  The narrative in western Pennsylvania surrounding this stems from a right-wing denouncement of Governor Tom Wolf’s so-called “unconstitutional” mask mandates and occupancy restrictions claiming that he is “implementing socialist policies” aimed at stripping Pennsylvanians of their first amendment rights. This obviously couldn’t be further from the truth however it hasn’t stopped the momentum of anti-maskers. Trump has only aimed to further fuel these actions by the intense rhetoric in his campaign speeches claiming recently that: “Pennsylvania has been shut down long enough! Get your governor to open up Pennsylvania!”. This only supports the theories regarding how the Trump campaign is only aiming to stir up additional anger among his supporters and drive more people to ignore guidelines aimed at mitigating the spread of COVID-19. Westmoreland county is likely a mimic of other battleground states where there is strong support for the Trump campaign, and thus a strong, collective objection to CDC guidelines in arguably one of the most critical times in American public health where easy access to healthcare is at stake for many Pennsylvanians. Republican strategy of commonly denouncing CDC and state health guidelines amid arguably the most destructive pandemics in history has found its way into the lives of almost every Pennsylvanian, and only fuels the aggressive partisanship among residents.

Aggressive campaigning that takes advantage of civil unrest, pandemic fallout and a fossil fuel dependent economy have all served as the catalysts for the massive amounts of Republican aggression and polarization in Pennsylvania. The Trump campaign has shown countless times in Pennsylvania rallies that they are willing to use any means necessary to gain support reelection, even if that means creating a tense and volatile political climate in many Westmoreland communities. From my personal observations over the course of the last several months, I can fully argue that 2020 has become the most unevenly polarized election season that I can remember and I wholeheartedly believe that this is solely the product of an intense reelection effort by the Trump campaign in a very critical state.

J.T. Herwald

[cover pic: NPR]

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