It’s the question of the year – why Donald Trump? Why him? Why now? All other questions about this year’s presidential election are subsets of that question. Lifelong Republicans are beside themselves. Where did he come from? This was going to be Jeb Bush’s year – or Scott Walker’s year. There was Marco Rubio. There were available credible Republicans, but now their nominee is the rude and crude billionaire (perhaps) who never before had been a Republican, and who knows nothing about government, much less governing. He owns golf resorts. He’s run scam after scam. He had his own rather absurd reality show. He came out of nowhere. Their panic is real.
Democrats are fine with Donald Trump. He’s rude and crude and says absurd things, and no candidate has ever been more reviled in the history of polling – but of course they also know that he could win in November. Hillary Clinton isn’t that strong of a candidate and Trump, with a campaign that is in perpetual disarray and flat broke, is close enough in the polls to make them worry. How does he do that? What else can he do?
Something is going on here. Something has changed in America, and Harold Meyerson thinks he knows what that is. We’re having our first post-Middle-Class election:
Two years ago, a pollster for Democratic candidates told me he’d begun advising his clients to cease emphasizing “the middle class” when speaking of those Americans whose interests they were defending. Many Americans who once thought of themselves as middle-class, he argued, no longer did.
Last year, a Pew Research Center survey confirmed those Americans’ assessment. The share of income going to middle-class Americans declined from 62 percent in 1970 to 43 percent in 2014, while the share going to upper-income households rose from 29 percent to 49 percent.
The Middle Class up and disappeared pretty much all at once:
The erosion of middle-class America has been afoot for 40 years, but it was the financial crisis of 2008 and the tepid recovery that followed it that have shaken American politics to its foundations. Post-collapse, the debt that millions of families amassed to maintain their living standards was called in. Working Americans over 50 who lost their jobs found few comparable opportunities available while younger Americans found that making a living – one that enabled them to move out of mom and pop’s place – was no easy task.
Economic upheavals shake up nations’ politics. So does demographic change – racial, religious, cultural. While the crash came in 2008, it’s only in the years since that we’ve grasped just how profound are its ensuing economic dislocations. Our understanding of its political implications has lagged even further behind. Virtually no one foresaw that Donald Trump would win the Republican nomination for president, or that Bernie Sanders, the one and only democratic socialist even visible in contemporary politics, would win more than 40 percent of the Democratic primary vote.
What explains this collective failure to understand that the 2008 crash and its aftermath might have an effect similar to that of the 1929 crash and its aftermath, both in the United States and Europe? To be sure, neither the economics nor politics of the 1930s have re-emerged full-blown today: In 2009, unlike 1929, governments did just enough to keep the world economy from toppling into the abyss. But the disruptions and dashed expectations that followed the collapse were deep enough to push both the Democratic and Republican Parties into uncharted waters. As in the 1930s, a new generation of Democrats moved their party leftward, challenging many of the practices and some of the tenets of capitalism. For their part, Republicans who had faithfully served the interests of big business while stoking the ire of their white working-class constituents against minorities and immigrants discovered that those downwardly mobile working-class whites had had it with the catering to big business. Instead, they harkened to the one candidate who voiced their rage at the multiracial nation they saw supplanting white America.
And now our political system faces the real problem:
With their conventions approaching, both parties now confront definitional – perhaps even existential – challenges. Will the Democrats, as they did between 1928 and 1936, and again in 1964 and 1965, redefine their fundamental mission? Will the Republicans become, overtly and primarily, a white nationalist party?
That seems to be the overriding question, and Meyerson says this about the Democrats:
One way to gauge the future of a political party is to watch the ways in which its leading political figures change their positions in the course of an intra-party campaign. This year, Hillary Clinton clearly moved left on a range of economic issues: Reversing her support for the Trans-Pacific Partnership and her earlier positive stance toward the Keystone XL Pipeline; moving from a position of limiting the increase of Social Security benefits to supporting their expansion (an evolution she shares with President Obama); and backing a higher standard for the federal minimum wage (also in tandem with Obama). She also put forth a range of financial regulations that go beyond those in Dodd-Frank, although – as with all these moves leftward – they don’t go as far as those proposed by Sanders.
Sanders, by contrast, looked at first glance to be the immovable object of American politics. His analysis of, proposals for and rhetoric about our economic and political system stayed the same throughout his campaign. On closer examination, however, the class warrior from nearly all-white Vermont increasingly zeroed in on racial as well as economic inequality. By the California primary, he even peppered his speeches with moving evocations of the pain that our official hostility to immigrants brings to divided families on the US-Mexican border, recounting how he’d seen family members reach through the fence to touch loved ones on the other side.
That’s the definitional challenge:
In a sense, Clinton was inching toward where the Democratic Party needs to go, while Sanders was catching up with where the party has been. Since the mid-1960s – almost since the day Sanders attended the 1963 March on Washington – the Democrats have been the party of America’s out-groups: initially, racial minorities and women; more recently, immigrants, gays, lesbians and transgender people. Since the 2008 crash and its aftermath, however, the party has moved left on economic issues. Last November, 56 percent of Democrats (including 52 percent of Hillary Clinton supporters) told New York Times pollsters that they had a favorable view of socialism, while Gallup has documented that the share of Democrats who call themselves liberal increased from 29 percent in 2000 to 45 percent in 2015.
The Democrats’ left turn on matters economic has been particularly pronounced among the young. A Harvard Institute of Politics poll of millennials this spring revealed that a narrow majority didn’t support capitalism. It also showed a clear generational preference for Sanders.
Indeed, in no previous election that I know of has age been so determinative of candidate preference.
That’s odd, or maybe not so odd:
Why this huge generation gap? The likely answer is that the experience of millennials in the wake of the 2008 crash has been as distinct and defining as that of the young people who went through the Great Depression and thereafter formed the base of the New Deal coalition. Consider, for instance, the recent Pew survey that found that the percentage of Americans ages 18 to 34 who live with their parents (32.1 percent) exceeds for the first time in recorded history (the Census Bureau started measuring this in 1880) the percentage who live with a partner or spouse (31.6 percent) or with friends or by themselves. Consider the recent finding by economists Lawrence Katz and Alan Krueger that the number of traditional full-time employee positions created since the recovery began has actually declined, even as the total number of nontraditional jobs – contingent, subcontracted, temp, independent contractor (whether correctly labeled or not), on-demand, gig – has increased. Those are the jobs, or gigs, whose levels of pay and security have left record numbers of millennials living with their parents. Many of those who have managed to escape still struggle under the burden of student debt.
From this perspective, it shouldn’t be surprising that Sanders’s call for public funding for tuition at state colleges and universities resonated with the young. Millennials’ antipathy to a capitalist system that fails to offer them the opportunities it once afforded boomers shouldn’t be a surprise, either. Their preference for Sanders over Clinton is due in part to the fact that he confronts the system head-on in his critique – even if his remedies are 97 parts Franklin Roosevelt to three parts Karl Marx.
That leaves only one question for Democrats:
How far, if at all, will they distance themselves from current-day capitalism, with its heightened rewards for investors at the expense of workers and its greater risks of economic collapse?
In a post-Middle-Class world that’s a good question, and then there are the Republicans:
What Donald Trump has done to the Republican Party this year may best be described as outing. He has stripped off its thinning veneer of respectability – what he refers to as “political correctness” – and revealed it to be the party of xenophobic white nationalism, its decades of simmering racism now adjusted to full boil. Well before the thought that Trump could become the party’s presidential nominee had occurred to any but Trump himself, Republicans had demonized minorities, stranded more than ten million immigrants in legal limbo, and done their damnedest to suppress minority voting.
That, however, was inevitable:
As in the 1930s, when many in the middle class saw their hitherto secure existences thrown into turmoil, so the economic dislocations of recent decades, and particularly since 2008, have driven millions of older, working-class whites into either lower-paying jobs or an uneasy early retirement. In the 1930s, fascist demagogues preyed on these people’s anxieties and biases by demonizing presumably alien “others” – with more success in Europe than in the United States. (Father Coughlin is a footnote today; Adolf Hitler is not.) In the US, the Depression struck at a time when immigration had already been shut down, and Southern Democrats compelled Roosevelt to craft the New Deal’s new rights and benefits so they largely didn’t apply to blacks. That didn’t leave much of a target for far-right rabble-rousers.
This time around, the nationalist right has found more congenial ground. The downward mobility of working-class whites, coupled with the inattention to their legitimate economic concerns by elites of both parties, has created a sense of abandonment that registers in all manner of social indices, including rising death rates. As was not the case in the 1930s, this downward mobility has taken place in a period of widespread immigration by racial minorities, even though that immigrant wave has greatly subsided since the crash of 2008. Displaced from their role at the center of a once-thriving economy, and from their role as the dominant constituency in the American electorate (working-class whites constituted 65 percent of the electorate in 1980; they constitute just 36 percent today), a sizable segment of the white working class and middle class has displaced its rage onto the nation’s growing nonwhite population, and its African American president.
Trump simply said that directly:
Before Trump came along, Republicans sought to channel this rage in “respectable” ways – stoking it to the point that voters would keep sending them back to Congress to ward off immigration reform and block any programs that might help minorities, but shunning the kind of bigoted outbursts at which talk-radio shock jocks excelled. Trump has won his party’s nomination not only by demonstrating the authenticity of his rage through shock-jock talk, but also by displaying a Manichean white-nationalist worldview his supporters could appreciate. In Trump’s world, there’s a good welfare state (Social Security and Medicare, which reward elderly whites for their work) and a bad one (Obamacare, welfare and other programs, which presumably are targeted to minorities). The economic elites who devised the trade deals that hollowed out the economy are the enemy, too.
That’s our post-Middle-Class political world. Meyerson offers much more detail, but that’s the essence of it – everyone’s screwed. But Peter Birkenhead has a message for Democrats – the white working class isn’t voting for you so stop pandering to them:
Well, it’s that time of the year again, folks, when the talkers on the teevee warn us about “condescending” to working-class voters. As the election nears, pundits are once again wagging fingers at anyone attributing racist actions to, you know, racism, and scolding us for not understanding the amorphous, long-standing, “very real concerns” driving those racists to do their racist things.
The thesis underlying these admonitions is that, when voters support a racist like Donald Trump, they are doing so out of economic insecurity. When a similar cohort in Britain votes to leave the European Union and tells pollsters that their main reason for doing so is immigration, they’re actually doing it because they feel left out of a globalizing economy.
Birkenhead calls bullshit on that:
This sort of economic determinism is the big “given” of our political media complex, even though it causes otherwise smart and sane people to believe stupid, crazy things.
One of those things is that working-class voters are motivated to vote for demagogues out of fear for their future. This requires believing that American voters all receive one set of facts, which they are equally adept at processing, when of course a sizable minority of voters is undereducated and gets its “facts” from pretend news sources that make things up. But the rules of modern politics, and political reporting, require avoiding words like “undereducated” at all costs, and always underestimating the role that propaganda plays in the consciousness of the electorate. These rules require an assumption that all voters are ultimately making considered choices based on what they think is good for them. Choices we must respect.
Except – and here’s the really important part – except when voters are not quite understanding things the way they should. See, the “working-class” voter is the salt of the Earth. He’s a hard-working, lunch pail kinda guy, a decent, honorable relic of another time, who nonetheless might just be a little slow on the uptake when it comes to figurin’ and such. Shut up he’s not a racist. He’s a good man, who’s got plenty o’ smarts, just not the kind city folk might have. All he needs is Chris Hayes or Bernie Sanders to walk him through a few things, do a little wonksplaining about TPP or Dodd-Frank, and then he’ll get it. Then he’ll understand that what he’s actually mad about is late-stage capitalism, not the thugs and leeches next door.
That’s not going to work:
Here’s the thing about white working-class voters: they have been fearful and reactionary for a long time – since before Brexit, or the recession, or NAFTA – hell, since before the Lost Cause. And liberals have been coddling their tender sensitivities for just as long. Yet they always vote for the other guys. And they’ve never needed an economic crisis or a failure of institutions to feel that way! Weird, I know!
There’s been a serious liberal misunderstanding here:
The same economic determinists who see the calling out of racism as condescending feel no compunction when it comes to lecturing the proles about where their real economic interests lie. They’re forever reframing the debate as a problem of messaging, of getting the right information to voters and helping them understand the sources of their deprivation and potential rescue. More importantly, they are forever centering the “concerns” of the white working class despite their relatively unimportant role in the electorate.
White working-class men and their supposed rage at institutions are always the “defining story” of an election. The fact that, in this election season, the economy is doing very well, that it’s been adding jobs for the longest sustained period since World War II, that unemployment is below 5 percent, the deficit has been cut in half in the last seven years, that Obamacare is more successful that we had a right to expect, that the President’s approval ratings are the highest they’ve been since early 2009, and that the presidential candidate representing a continuation of his policies is outpolling her paranoid opponent by large and sometimes huge margins among every demographic group except white men… all these things mean nothing. The real story is now and forever Hard Times in the Heartland, Where They’re Not Racist, But.
This just in, from science: by definition, paranoia is not “caused” by anything. It’s an unreasonable, irrational fear. Economic insecurity is sometimes an ingredient in the stew from which it emanates. It is not a necessary one.
Isn’t it possible that cultural, social, and even neurological factors play as big a part in creating working-class paranoia as do stagnant wages? That sometimes a feeling of economic insecurity grows from the soil of racism and not the other way around?
And so on and so forth – there’s no way to win over these folks. Meyerson notes that the Democrats have been the party of America’s out-groups – initially, racial minorities and women, and more recently immigrants, gays, lesbians and transgender people. The other side has been told, and seems to believe, that all of them are threats. Democrats, give it a rest. This is about something else.
Nancy Isenberg, a professor of history at Louisiana State University, says it’s about this:
The 2016 election is about class. “For the first time in a generation, the working class is front and center in an election cycle,” one MarketWatch writer proclaimed. Commentators fret that Hillary Clinton has “lost” the working class and that Donald Trump has risen to prominence on the backs of “white trash.” (Never mind that Trump voters are, on average, wealthier than Clinton’s constituency.) Bernie Sanders even calls himself the working class candidate. This demonstrates just how fuzzy this category is – though Sanders advocates for the working class, he has spent his career in politics, not manual or wage labor.
It really is time to clear up some things, as the working class is not white and male:
Trump is often credited with engaging the working class. He “won with the working class voters the GOP forgot,” blared one Breitbart column. Meanwhile, “Hillary is losing white working Joes,” proclaimed the Toronto Star. Even Sanders argued that Democrats had allowed Republicans “to capture the votes of the majority of working people in this country.”
Of course, that’s true only if you ignore Asians, Latinos and African Americans. “Factor them into the population of ‘working people,’ ” Slate’s Jamelle Bouie writes, “and Democrats win that group, handily.”
This gets at something important: America has never housed some monolithic entity called the “working class.” As early as 1791, Alexander Hamilton argued that those best suited for factory work were women and children, which became the norm in textile mills until child labor laws were passed in the 20th century. Chinese workers built the Transcontinental Railroad; immigrants labored in the Ohio steel industry; whites and blacks toiled side by side in 20th-century Louisiana sawmills.
Today’s working class is even more diverse. A recent study found that more than half of all Hispanics and African Americans identify as working class. Additionally, about 50 percent of women see themselves as working class. Another report predicted that people of color will make up the majority of the American working class by 2032.
And by the way, most Americans do notice class differences:
When surveyed, the vast majority of Americans say they are either middle class or working class. Indeed, political scientist Charles Murray found that Americans have traditionally refused to call themselves rich or poor. This, he wrote in his book “Coming Apart,” “reflected a national conceit that had prevailed from the beginning of the nation: America didn’t have classes, or, to the extent that it did, Americans should act as if we didn’t.” The desire to erase class divisions goes all the way back to Benjamin Franklin, who believed that the North American continent would flatten classes into a “happy mediocrity.”
In truth, though, the United States has always been a stratified country. In Franklin’s time, people were sorted into three classes: “better,” “middling” and “meaner.” The people at the bottom were seen as coarse, vulgar, unfinished – composed of baser materials. Thomas Jefferson described the upper echelon of the Virginia planter class as pure-blood aristocrats; those who married beneath their station produced children who were “half-breeds.”
In the 19th century, Alabama lawyer and author Daniel Hundley defined class in ancestral terms, laying out seven different options. At the top, he placed an inherited aristocracy, descendants of royal Cavalier blood. At the bottom was “white trash,” heirs of the wretched poor dumped in the American colonies.
Today, record inequality divides the rich and the poor. Our country’s wealthy “1 percent” takes home 20 percent of all pretax income, double their 1980 share. For most middle-class and lower-income families, income has either stagnated or fallen. In short, Americans have not escaped class hierarchies, but reinvented them generation by generation.
And class oppression is just as signiﬁcant as racial oppression:
This is a common trope. As Sanders said at a debate this spring, “When you’re white, you don’t know what it’s like to be living in a ghetto. You don’t know what it’s like to be poor.” Other commentators have said that black middle-class families are worse off than poor white ones.
They’re dead wrong. Americans have a long history of making life harder for the poor, no matter their race. Jim Crow’s infamous poll tax divested poor whites as well as poor blacks of the right to vote. During the New Deal, Southern politicians (except Huey Long) refused to extend Social Security to farm laborers, discriminating against blacks and whites alike. Even our current tax policies penalize the poor. In 2009, the top 1 percent of earners paid 5.2 percent of their income in state and local taxes, while the poorest 20 percent paid 10.9 percent.
On this, she quotes Lyndon Johnson – “If you can convince the lowest white man he’s better than the best colored man, he won’t notice you’re picking his pocket. Hell, give him somebody to look down on, and he’ll empty his pockets for you.”
Forget race. Peter Birkenhead is wrong. Race is only an overlay. Our new post-Middle-Class election is about class, or maybe not. William Davies, co-director of the Political Economy Research Centre at Goldsmiths, University of London, sees something else at play here:
It is a basic principle of economics that human beings choose things that benefit them. But last week, as the results of Britain’s referendum on membership in the European Union came in, it quickly became clear that this principle was being overturned. Not only had Britain as a whole voted for a course of action that would almost certainly make it collectively worse off, but individual regions had also voted against their apparent interests.
Regions such as Wales and Cornwall – relatively cut off from the prosperity of London and the Southeast – had voted strongly to leave, even though they receive more money from EU development funds than any other parts of Britain. Wales, for example, was due to receive nearly $3.2 billion between 2014 and 2020. Equally odd was the finding – spotted by researchers prior to the referendum – that regions that are most dependent on trade with the EU are also those that are most keen to leave.
From an economist’s perspective, this level of self-harm is sheer madness. But since the vote, certain cultural and psychological factors have come into view. Apart from the role of age in influencing voting behavior – with older voters more likely to choose Leave and younger voters to choose Remain – a darker shadow has fallen over the result due to fresh polling evidence. Put bluntly, many Leave voters suffer from a desperate lack of hope.
It may be that exact lack of hope and a desire to harm the system that brought it about that caused them to vote for the referendum. Strange as it may sound, every time pro-Europeans argued that leaving Europe would be economically disastrous, this could have increased the appeal of Brexit on an unconscious level for many people. And the same thing could be at play with voters backing Donald Trump in the US election.
This is about despair:
It may be that exact lack of hope and a desire to harm the system that brought it about that caused them to vote for the referendum. Strange as it may sound, every time pro-Europeans argued that leaving Europe would be economically disastrous, this could have increased the appeal of Brexit on an unconscious level for many people. And the same thing could be at play with voters backing Donald Trump in the U.S. election.
That means that this should sound familiar:
Journalists have discovered that some Leave voters did not even believe that exiting the EU would change anything, anyway. Some simply assumed that Britain would stay in regardless: Either the Remain side would win, or the referendum result would be ignored (still a possibility) or some conspiracy would prevent its exit. In fact, on the day of the vote, a hashtag #UsePens spread across Twitter, urging people not to vote in pencil in case their ballot paper was doctored. Studies of conspiracy theories in Britain show that a majority of people don’t believe that democracy has any influence on who holds power, and that the EU is trying to take over all British law-making powers.
Other studies have found another distinctive characteristic among Leave voters. They share a belief in harsh and even humiliating punishment for criminals, including support for the death penalty (outlawed in Britain in 1969) and public whipping of sex offenders.
Taking all of this together, a typical Leave voter has authoritarian beliefs, yet no faith in the political system to implement authoritarian policies or to improve society some other way. Under these circumstances, individuals display what sociologists call “negative solidarity,” a feeling that if they’re to suffer, then everyone should, too. Psychologically, it is perhaps easier to experience feelings of despair and powerlessness if they are collective conditions, rather than private ones.
We know all about that:
The apparent paradox of self-harming voting behavior has been a feature of American politics for some years, well before it showed up in Britain and shocked the establishment last week. Ever since the rise of “Reagan Democrats” (working-class white voters converting to the Republican Party in the 1980s), the GOP has strategically harnessed anger and alienation to win votes from people for whom its economic policies have little to offer. This phenomenon has survived for a number of decades, most notably explored by Thomas Frank in “What’s the Matter with Kansas.”
Even against this longer-standing backdrop, however, the rise of Trump seemed to defy all rational logic. It is one thing for working class white voters to vote for “free markets,” “enterprise” and “small government” – things which may at least be appealing and plausible, even if they never quite deliver the benefits promised. It is quite another to vote for things which are either utterly implausible (a wall across the Mexican desert), catastrophically dangerous (fighting the Islamic State with nuclear weapons, and possibly in Europe) or some combination of the two.
Could it be that, as with the British movement to leave the EU, Trump is channeling a more primal form of despair? Could the implausibility and danger associated with Trump be part of what makes him appealing, at least for people who no longer care about making realistic plans for a future they already see as beyond rescue?
That does make sense:
Like Leave voters, Trump supporters also tend to display authoritarian attitudes. They particularly value obedience and retribution, and have given up trusting politicians to enforce them. Support for Trump is less a statement of policy preferences, and more an expression of some dream of vengeance toward all and sundry.
Why him? Why now? Despair. That may be the best explanation. Our first post-Middle-Class election may be about no more than dreams of vengeance. Maybe it doesn’t matter that those never come true.