One Week Later: Working Class Whites and the Way Forward

Last Tuesday night was a terrible night, and I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t still shaken at the results of the presidential election. My heart breaks especially for all the people of color, all the women, all the people without papers, all the Muslims, all the sexual minorities now living with heightened fear and dread. Whatever comes in the weeks and months ahead, we must find ways to express our solidarity with those likely to bear the brunt of a Donald Trump administration. This will require doing things many of us might not be accustomed to: marching, protesting, organizing, even civil disobedience. Trump will enable—he has enabled—dark forces in our national life. We must resist those forces however we can, and do so with creativity and resolve.

Election results are overdetermined, but we must understand what went wrong. There will be the temptation, one I admittedly feel, to interpret Hillary Clinton’s defeat through the lens of our own ideological priors and preoccupations. Postmortems on how nearly every reputable poll missed the mark already have been written. The Clinton campaign has been dissected, their strategy and message, such as they were, second-guessed and excoriated—and not unreasonably. And we will continue to ponder the character of the American people, our willingness to elect a man so manifestly unfit to be president, a man whose bigotry, misogyny, and incompetence are staggering to contemplate.

What seems clear even now is that a significant reason Trump won was because he exceeded expectations with white voters in small towns and rural areas, especially those in the Rust Belt and the Midwest. If the exit polls are accurate, they indicate Trump won those who rate the condition of our economy as “poor” by 79 to 15 percent, and those who say their family’s financial situation is “worse today” than four years ago by 78 to 19 percent. And while—as expected for a Republican—Trump won the votes of those in upper income brackets, he did worse than Romney with those making over $100 thousand per year, beating Hillary by just one point. More tellingly, Trump saw a 16 point swing his way, compared to Romney, among those making less than $30,000 per year. His victory came by way of taking states like Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, and Wisconsin, all of which Barack Obama won twice. In 2012 Obama won both “no college degree” and “some college” voters; this year, Trump handily won both demographics—including a massive 67 to 28 percent advantage among whites without college degrees. Indeed, as the New York Times’s Nate Cohn argued, “this election was decided by people who voted for Obama in 2012”—that is, significant numbers of working- and middle-class whites who voted for Obama turned out for Trump this time.

However much we might want to resist such a conclusion, these facts make it difficult to pin the entire Trump victory on racism and bigotry. Was it sheer prejudice that moved these particular white voters to embrace the African-American Obama but repelled them from supporting the white Democrat who aimed to be his successor? It seems unlikely that this is the entire story. While not “proving” these voters aren’t motivated by racism, the fact they voted for Obama suggests that their political decisions admit of a measure of complexity, and that it was not inevitable that these voters would break for Trump. And of course there’s more to being a racist and a bigot than being anti-black: Trump stoked prejudices against Mexicans and Muslims, too, and routinely deployed misogynistic rhetoric against Hillary. A significant number of Trump supporters find him appealing because of that. There can be no ignoring or downplaying the place of bigotry in this election, and the longstanding role of white supremacy in our national life. But the results cannot be reduced to bigotry. Such a simplification tends to absolve the Democratic Party and Hillary Clinton of their complacency, and offer a false excuse for their inability to come to terms with the anger coursing through large swaths of the country.

The Republican agenda—the policies of Speaker of the House Paul Ryan to which the vacuous Trump will largely accede—will do nothing to help working Americans. But it’s also true that the Democrats have long ceased to be a true party for working people: since the 1970s, they have “lost their populist soul” and become a party of neoliberalism, rather than (an updated) New Deal liberalism. One of the simmering debates on the center-left during the primaries and then general election was whether or not this was a good thing, and if the Democratic Party should do more specifically to win over workers, including working-class whites. Most Democratic elites and liberal journalists seemed to reject such a strategy—these whites simply were too racist and too backward to fit into the “rising” Democratic coalition. Any working-class front would break down because of racial animosity, so it was not worth trying to appeal to the material interests shared by white, black, and brown workers. (For some reason the racially fraught history of populism in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was taken as dispositive proof of this.) And, anyway, Democratic economic policies would do more for those struggling than any proposals from the plutocratic GOP, even if those policies didn’t really constitute a “working-class agenda.” If that’s not clear to white workers, such thinking went, that’s their loss, not the Democratic Party’s. The problem with this self-satisfied reasoning is that around 60 percent of the working class is white, making them one of the most formidable voting demographics in the country. These people were largely ceded to Trump and the GOP, and the consequences of that are now with us.

Many of these arguments about the direction of the Democratic Party and its relationship to the white working class come down to whether most Trump supporters should be understood as simple racists or as responding to “economic anxiety”—a phrase that became an in-joke among elite journalists, who thought it was great fun to find an obviously bigoted Trump supporter at a rally and make a sarcastic crack about his supposed financial distress. These jokes served an ideological purpose. It was necessary to exclude the economic dimension of Trump’s support to justify a Democratic agenda of neoliberalism mingled with cultural and racial progressivism. Faithful adherence to the latter was used to fend off doubts about the former. If the economic dimension to Trump’s appeal were admitted, these white workers would suddenly seem like voters the Democrats could win—at least a Democratic candidate not aligned with, enriched by, and concerned to defend the financialization of the American economy. And that would have meant asking too many hard questions about the drift of the party in recent decades and the decision of Democratic elites and liberal writers to coalesce around Clinton before a single primary vote was cast.

But I’ve never understood why those trying to grasp the possible causes for Trump’s support had to choose between the two options of racism and economic anxiety. It seems obvious to me that there should be a complex interaction among such forces, that an economic downturn like the Great Recession would amp up suspicion of the Other, increase tribalism, and generate a backlash to cosmopolitan liberalism—especially given the entrenched racism that has existed in this country much longer than the decline of manufacturing jobs has. We know that scarcity and poverty can lead to self-defeating behavior, distorting our view of the world and the way we make decisions. It’s a lamentable but unsurprising fact that times of distress and uncertainty are not marked by generosity and openness.

We must straightforwardly acknowledge that some white Trump voters are suffering—or have family members or neighbors who are. It was just a year ago that the New York Times reported on a study by two Princeton University economists on the rising death rates of middle-aged whites. The Times described such trends as “being driven not by the big killers like heart disease and diabetes but by an epidemic of suicides and afflictions stemming from substance abuse: alcoholic liver disease and overdoses of heroin and prescription opioids.” These effects were concentrated among whites with a high-school degree or less, surely overlapping with the white voters Trump won by nearly forty points. That at least seems to have been the case in the crucial Rust Belt swing states that gave him the presidency. As rural sociologist and demographer Shannon Monnat pointed out, in Rust Belt states Trump picked up his largest vote shares—that is, he overperformed Romney—in counties with higher drug, alcohol, and suicide mortality rates.

Another way of thinking about this comes from the close analysis of Trump primary voters NBC News published after he had secured the nomination. The study broke down the primary race into two phases—which allowed them to tease out and focus on Trump’s earliest and most loyal supporters. Once Trump had emerged as the frontrunner, he started winning more votes in more economically and geographically diverse places—changing the profile of the “average” Trump voter into something closer to a typical Republican. But it’s worth noting who responded to Trump first and most enthusiastically, who seemed especially drawn to his message:

According to our county analysis, one of the most dramatic predictors of [Trump’s] success early in the race was how much a county’s average pay had grown (or hadn’t grown) from 2004 to 2014. Another major predictor was the percentage of whites who participate in the labor force. Still another was whether residents were more or less likely to hold at least a high school degree.

The authors go on to show that Trump’s most ardent early supporters in the primary “were more likely to live in places where they were exposed to rougher economic conditions.” It’s vital to understand what this suggests: that proximity to economic decline and social breakdown can be nearly as important as one’s income bracket. During the primaries many liberal journalists latched onto figures showing that Trump supporters had higher incomes than the stereotype of gritty blue-collar workers would suggest—with the implication that economic anxiety couldn’t be what’s motivating them. This was a mistake. Most of all, as Michael Brendan Dougherty persuasively argued, showing “the household income of Trump supporters without describing the age and number of the earners and dependents tells us not much at all.” But even putting that aside, you do not need to be the wretched of the earth to fear losing what you have, especially if the neighborhoods and communities around you are collapsing. The very term “economic anxiety” suggests you have modest comforts to lose, not that you’re destitute. Much of the liberal rhetoric on this matter made it seem as though only people of Dickensian poverty had a right to discontent and anger.

It’s also clear that Trump is part of a broader trend, a wave that includes the Brexit results in Great Britain and the rise of populist parties, right and left, in Europe. These movements are clearly linked to the Great Recession and its aftermath, even if other issues—Muslim immigration especially—are also involved. (For more on this, see John Judis’s compelling new book, The Populist Explosion: How the Great Recession Transformed American and European Politics.)

The neoliberal economic policies embraced by both major parties in the United States and across Europe during the past thirty years have failed tens of millions of people, and those people are now in revolt. The ground has shifted under their feet, economic inequality has reached staggering levels, and well-paying industrial jobs have been “replaced” with low-paying service work—all while elites have taken care of their own with bailouts and as the economic “recovery” mostly benefitted the very wealthy. Many Americans lost their homes during the recession. Many are weighed down by debt and subject to the endless creative destruction of global capitalism. It is a system that has worked for the well-educated and well-off but left many others behind. The left-behind have been assured that this is all worth it because of cheap consumer goods, “efficiency,” and the benefits to workers abroad. The losers of global capitalism had been struggling for decades; the global financial crisis only furthered their immiseration. We should not be shocked if demagogues exploit such a situation.

We must grasp that many of the populist stirrings of recent decades are a response to the implementation of these neoliberal economic policies: the turn toward “market solutions,” privatization, welfare “reform,” and the prioritization of financial markets over industry. As a result, people are ever more subject to capitalism’s churn and the experience of precarity—ever more insecure, deprived of the steadiness of traditional ways of life while being excluded from modernity’s bounty. If, as Mark Lilla observes in The Shipwrecked Mind, reactionary movements are responses to revolutions, then we shouldn’t be surprised to be living in an age of populist reaction. What is late capitalism but a permanent revolution? “All that is solid melts into air.” To live in a time of capitalism triumphant is to live with reaction always lurking.

One of the distinguishing features of reactionary populism—a populism of the right, rather than the left—is that, as Judis and others have described, it is “triadic” and not “dyadic.” It punches up and down: it goes after the elites and plutocrats “above” them, but also goes after minorities and out groups “below” them. Rightwing populism is therefore akin to its own form of identity politics, defining “the people” more narrowly than leftwing populists who might speak more inclusively of, say, the 99 percent. This means that populisms of the right typically express both concerns about the fairness of a country’s economic life and ugly strains of ethno-nationalism. This isn’t a matter of opinion. Both are present in these movements. The economic dimension of these movements should never lead us to paper over their bigotry; their bigotry, likewise, should not blind us to their economic complaints.

All this might seem like an apology for Trump supporters. It is not. One of the least helpful responses to Trump’s win would be to conflate understanding Trump voters with excusing them. The former is a prerequisite for moving forward constructively. People’s anger and frustrations can be understandable, at least in part, even if what they do with that anger is alarming. There is no need to psychoanalyze Trump voters too deeply in any of this: it’s only necessary to imagine why some would take an opportunity to reject the status quo.

There can be no denying the central moral fact of Trump’s ascendancy: a man who appealed to white nationalism will be in the White House. If we lament the ways so many have been left behind economically, we must never indulge their racism, or their support for a racist candidate. A renewed working class-centered Democratic Party must be uncompromisingly a party of racial justice. In a decade or two, the working class will be about half comprised of people of color. Any working-class movement that is not multiracial and does not connect economic injustice to other forms of oppression deserves to fail.

It wouldn’t have taken many working-class white votes for Hillary Clinton to be our president-elect. A few hundred thousand in a handful of Rust Belt states would have tipped the election her way. Think of it as a wager: that offering a populist alternative to the economic status quo—which is the right thing to do anyway—can energize workers of all races; that it might blunt at least some of the appeal of white nationalist demagoguery; and that, for some voters, the promise of a better life can outweigh their racial resentments. As a bet, it surely is no worse than the last one the party made.

After the election, John Judis argued in the Washington Post that “Democrats can’t win elections simply by appealing to the identity groups of the rising American electorate. These groups don’t add up to a sure majority unless one assumes the Democrat wins near-unanimity among them and the Republican only bare majorities or less among Republican-trending groups.” He goes on to note that whites without college degrees and with four-year degrees made up about 60 percent of the electorate, with that rising to between 75 and 80 percent in Ohio and Wisconsin. Democrats need to peel off at least some of them to avoid future calamities.

There will be arguments, strategic and tactical, about how to fight back against Trump. Our priorities must be to protect the vulnerable however we can. But we also must acknowledge that the struggle for racial justice and a more decent society depends on a renewed Democratic Party: the consequences of elections have never been more apparent. If there is a way forward without winning at least some of the white voters who tilted toward Trump, at least in terms of the near future, I don’t see it.

Matthew Sitman is an associate editor of Commonweal. You can follow him on Twitter.

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