California is a blue state. There are no more Republicans out here, really. Jerry Brown is doing just fine in his second time around as governor – he was governor long ago when he was a young man, dating Linda Ronstadt and whatnot – and this time around the budget is finally balanced. There’s even a bit of a surplus. Schools are fully funded. Potholes are filled. Everything works, more or less. The now-old man pulled it off.
We learned. Arnold Schwarzenegger had been a bad idea. Voters decided that Republicans had been a bad idea. Democrats now have their supermajority in the state legislature and no Republican holds any statewide office – and things work just fine. Businesses have not fled to Texas, in spite of Rick Perry coming here again and again, talking up the wonders of the Lone Star State – low taxes and no environmental regulation at all. No one took the bait. We pay our somewhat higher taxes and get something for that. And thus America resents California – we got the palm trees and Hollywood and surfers, and the thriving businesses and the jobs, and reasonable state services – and the pretty people with good tans. They got nothing. It’s just not fair.
Donald Trump may have ridden that sort of resentment to the presidency. The smart pretty people on the coasts, all multicultural and smug, were not the real America. Urban hipsters are not America. Hollywood celebrities endorsed Hillary Clinton. That backfired. They were all from California.
That led to a rather odd column by Michael Barone, arguing that the Electoral College is important because it prevents California from exercising “colonial rule” over the rest of the country:
White middle class families have been pretty well priced out of the state by high taxes and housing costs, and the Hispanic and Asian immigrants who have replaced them vote far more Democratic…
California’s 21st century veer to the left makes the Electoral College a live issue again. In a popular vote system, the voters of this geographically distant and culturally distinct state, whose contempt for heartland Christians resembles imperial London’s disdain for the “lesser breeds” it governed, could impose something like colonial rule over the rest of the nation. Sounds exactly like what the Framers strove to prevent.
And it worked this time around. Trump won. There’s talk of secession out here, mostly as a bit of a joke – but voters in this state did reject everything Trump argued for. We’ve been doing just fine for years, going the other way, accepting multicultural life and gays and pot and all the rest, and accepting somewhat higher taxes for a civil society that works. We could go it alone. We have the fifth largest economy in the world. We’d be fine – but the rules don’t allow us to leave. Trump might just kick us out now – but there’s no mechanism for that either. The rest of America will just have to resent us.
That’s fine. It’s an old and nasty argument. Obama found that out in San Francisco in April 2008:
Senator Barack Obama fought back Saturday against accusations from his rivals that he had displayed a profound misunderstanding of small-town values, in a flare-up that left him on the defensive before a series of primaries that could test his ability to win over white voters in economically distressed communities.
For a second day, Mr. Obama sought to explain his remarks at a recent San Francisco fund-raiser that small-town Pennsylvania voters, bitter over their economic circumstances, “cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them” as a way to explain their frustrations.
Acknowledging Saturday that “I didn’t say it as well as I should have,” he explained his remarks by focusing on his characterization of those voters’ economic woes. He meant, he said, that voters in places that had been losing jobs for years expressed their anxiety at the polls by focusing on cultural and social issues like gun laws and immigration.
Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton activated her entire campaign apparatus to portray Mr. Obama’s remarks as reflective of an elitist view of faith and community. His comments, she said, were “not reflective of the values and beliefs of Americans.”
That may be true. Obama was the young urban hipster at the time. White voters in economically distressed communities weren’t supposed to like young urban hipsters. And Obama was also multicultural – his mother was white. This should have sunk him, but he seemed like a fine fellow in spite of that, smart as whip and courteous and thoughtful. No one else was. Hillary was shrill. McCain was angry and often befuddled. The young urban hipster would do, but those white voters in economically distressed communities were still out there lurking. Trump captured them this time.
California, however, was still a problem. The resentment is still there:
Some conservative publications have taken to arguing this week that the President-elect did much better on Election Day than his nearly 3 million-vote deficit suggests – if only certain liberal cities and states were completely discounted from the popular vote total.
By far, the most popular target for wholesale disenfranchisement in these thought-experiments is California. Clinton won the state’s popular vote by more than 4.2 million, according to a tally by the Cook Political Report, which is an even larger margin than her nationwide popular vote lead, which was nearly 2.9 million.
The Daily Mail headlined an article which was later featured on the Drudge Report Wednesday: “Final tally shows Trump lost popular vote by 2.8 million – but he BEAT Clinton by 3 million votes outside of California and New York.”
California is the nation’s most populous state (New York is fourth) and is home to more than one in eight Americans who voted for president in 2016, per the Cook Political Report.
That didn’t matter:
Other outlets took a similar tack: “It’s Official: Clinton’s Popular Vote Win Came Entirely from California,” Investors Business Daily declared on Saturday…
World Net Daily echoed that IBD claim, as did The Federalist Papers, TownHall, InfoWars and others.
Just a week after the election, Breitbart News blared that Trump won a “7.5 Million Popular Vote Landslide in Heartland.” The “Heartland,” by Breitbart’s definition, was the tally of “3,084 of the country’s 3,141 counties or county equivalents” that voted in larger numbers for Trump, thereby excluding most of America’s most populous areas.
That was a declaration that the smart pretty people on the coasts, all multicultural and smug, were not the real America. Eight years had changed nothing, as Philip Bump reports here:
At the core of the debate about the role of the Electoral College is whose needs should be at the center of American politics. In an unexpected monologue Tuesday night, Fox News Channel’s Bill O’Reilly made that point clearly, although probably not in the way he intended.
One moment from O’Reilly’s argument gained traction on social media after the show aired.
“Summing up,” he said, “left wants power taken away from the white establishment. They want a profound change in the way America is run.”
The phrase “white establishment” is what has drawn most of the attention, suggesting that O’Reilly’s argument for the Electoral College is an explicit defense of the political power of white people – which, in the broader context of the segment, it was.
Yes, he went there:
O’Reilly points out that Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton’s margin of victory in the popular vote was a function of how heavily she won California. He suggests that Democrats want to abolish the Electoral College so that candidates would then be forced to campaign in densely populated areas – areas that are more heavily nonwhite.
“Very few commentators will tell you that the heart of liberalism in America today is based on race,” O’Reilly said. “It permeates almost every issue. That white men have set up a system of oppression. … So-called white privilege bad. Diversity good.”
Bump is not impressed:
California plays a special role in the nation’s political imagination – a majority-minority state that’s home to hippie-dippy San Francisco and Berkeley. O’Reilly’s dismissal of its votes is not unique; it has been a common refrain in the wake of the election. Often, race and ethnicity overlap with that argument, with any number of people suggesting that Clinton’s big win in the state was a function of ballots cast by hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants (that is, Mexicans). This isn’t the case, of course. Trump’s rhetoric simply didn’t fly in the state. Along with the lefty Bay Area there’s the more conservative southern part of the state – and Trump even lost conservative Orange County, making him the first Republican to do so since 1936.
In Tuesday’s broadcast, O’Reilly was specifically arguing that places in which fewer people live should have disproportionate political power so that presidential candidates are forced to campaign in those places in order to win. In other words, he’s suggesting that the power of the popular vote should be muted to give more power to the minority of Americans who live outside of cities. Eighty percent of the country lives in an urban area and those who live in rural areas are disproportionately white. O’Reilly is suggesting that those rural voters deserve a special privilege – more weighted electoral votes – and he’s reinforcing that argument by pointing out that it will benefit whites. Privilege for whites. White privilege.
But they already have that:
Congress is overwhelmingly white – more heavily white than the population as a whole. The Senate is even whiter than the House; nearly as many Kennedys have been elected to the Senate as have black people. Not coincidentally, the Senate also gives disproportionate power to less-populated and often whiter states. (You’ve heard it before: Wyoming and California get the same number of senators.)
Moreover, there’s a direct overlap between race and partisanship… The Republican Party is a mostly white party; the Democratic Party is more diverse. (The overwhelming majority of the nonwhite members of the House are Democrats.) O’Reilly notes that white men have gravitated to the GOP, which is accurate and which makes the racial split more stark.
Well, it was stark:
O’Reilly’s comments predictably enraged liberals, Democrats, and minorities, but also left many shocked by his nerve.
“When I was listening to O’Reilly do that rant tonight, I was thinking about South Africa,” said MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell later on his eponymous show. “Talking about protecting the white establishment?”
“O’Reilly and the folks at Fox News are always yelling at the left and others for putting things in racial terms. I can’t think of anything more racial than saying that people are protecting or trying to attack a white establishment,” agreed Mother Jones’s David Corn, who was O’Donnell’s guest. “It sounds like he was defending apartheid.”
He was, and those white voters in economically distressed communities are still out there lurking, and they don’t vote for Democrats now. They voted for FDR during the Great Depression. They voted for Obama in the Great Recession. Republicans screw up, voters turn on them, but no longer.
Actually, no one knows which way they’ll go. At Vox, Sean Illing interviews Justin Gest, a professor of public policy at George Mason University, the author of The New Minority: White Working Class Politics in an Age of Immigration and Inequality – the product of six months of fieldwork, mostly in Ohio. Gest says that the white working class doesn’t fit neatly into either party. Republicans don’t like their protectionism and Democrats don’t like their nativism, and this feeds their sense of marginalization:
Gest’s thesis is that white working-class voters have been radicalized by a sense of loss. Suspended “between the vestiges” of their power “and its perceived loss,” poor whites are alienated from a system that previously advantaged them but now is seen as “overcompensating” for its historical missteps.
The ascendant nativism, on Gest’s account, is the result of lower-class whites seeing themselves as victims. If they’re angry at ethnic minorities, he claims, it’s not so much due to racism but rather to a belief, a perception, really, that those minorities are afforded social advantages at the expense of the white underclass. Gest doesn’t discount the role of racial animus in white working-class politics (it’s real and no doubt a factor), but he does contend that it’s only a part of the broader story.
And in the interview, Gest is clear that neither party knows how to deal with that:
For several decades, the mainstream political parties in the US and the UK really treated white working-class people with enormous caution. From the left’s perspective, they’re cool with white working-class people’s protectionism, but their nativism causes big problems for their desire to build a broad coalition. From the right’s perspective, they were fine with nativism, but they had problems with the protectionism, and that undermined the coalition they wanted to build.
White working-class people were left, not necessarily dismissed, but they’ve received a lot of lip service from both political parties over the years that were never truly prepared to go all in on the things they most cared about. But perhaps even more importantly, neither party did much to symbolically represent white working-class people in terms of the candidates they selected and the language they used…
Politics is all about perceptions, and perceptions are so much more important than reality in terms of predicting voting behavior… If we’re trying to understand the political behavior of white working-class people, their sense of marginality and beleaguerment is real, and in their minds it’s meaningful – and that’s what matters in terms of our efforts to make sense of it.
Obama was working on making sense of that in April 2008, and now Kevin Drum adds this:
This raises a question that’s poked at me for years. Let’s just agree that the way we talk is important. Liberals certainly agree that it’s important when it comes to marginalized groups like women, blacks, Muslims, and so forth. They want dignity and respect, and you can’t use language that demeans them if you’re trying to win their votes.
Okay, don’t talk like you’re from sunny wonderful California, and turn down those celebrity endorsements – the word from Hollywood is the kiss of death – but do talk about something:
At some point you also need some substance. Eric Holder fought back against the gutting of the Voting Rights Act. Democrats passed – and Obama signed – the Lilly Ledbetter Act. Hillary Clinton supported an increase in the number of Syrian refugees we accepted even though it was politically dangerous.
So if liberals want to appeal to the white working class, they need some substantive policies to go along with a change in attitude. But what would those be? This is where I keep coming up short.
That’s because the options for Democrats are few:
Stop negotiating trade deals? Okay, but we all know that this won’t really accomplish much – and has plenty of downsides.
Bring back the manufacturing jobs? There’s almost unanimous agreement that there’s no way to do this.
Increase unemployment benefits and other forms of social welfare? That’s not what they want. They want good jobs.
Childcare and maternity leave benefits? See above. Besides, Democrats already support this. Republicans are the roadblock.
Offer retraining and relocation benefits? I recommend you keep your distance when you suggest this. Most struggling working class folks (a) don’t want this and (b) have heard it a million times and don’t believe it.
Move lots of government agencies out of Washington DC and into the heartland? Maybe, but the overall impact would be small and would mostly provide middle-class service jobs anyway.
Bring unions back? That would be great, but Republicans will never let it happen.
Get tough on immigration? Rhetorically this worked pretty well for Trump, but the truth is that the white working class in the upper Midwest hasn’t actually lost many jobs to Mexican immigrants – maybe none at all. In the end, I doubt that Trump will reduce illegal immigration much, and even if he does it won’t have more than a minuscule impact on the white working class in Wisconsin.
Tax cuts? There aren’t a lot of taxes to cut for families at working-class income levels. Besides, from a purely political standpoint, Democrats will never out-tax-cut Republicans.
In short, there are no substantive policies to go along with a change in attitude:
The only real possibilities seem to be some mix of moving rightward on social issues and paying less attention to the concerns of people of color. Those are nonstarters, I hope.
So what’s the answer? These guys want us to bring back the 50s, and that’s not possible. Are we supposed to adopt a campaign of pure gasbaggery, like Trump, with no actual substance to go along with it? Or are there truly some simple, concrete, and highly effective policies we could adopt to help out the white working class?
That’s what the Democrats have to figure out. They haven’t done that yet, and Victor Tan Chen, an assistant professor of sociology at Virginia Commonwealth University and the author of Cut Loose: Jobless and Hopeless in an Unfair Economy – not a cheery read – explains the structural problem in America:
The modern economy privileges the well-educated and highly-skilled, while giving them an excuse to denigrate the people at the bottom (both white and nonwhite) as lazy, untalented, uneducated, and unsophisticated. In a society focused on meritocratic, materialistic success, many well-off Americans from across the political spectrum scorn the white working class in particular for holding onto religious superstitions and politically incorrect views, and pity them for working lousy jobs at dollar stores and fast-food restaurants that the better-off rarely set foot in. And when other sources of meaning are hard to come by those who struggle in the modern economy can lose their sense of self-worth.
This system of categorizing Americans – the logical extension of life in what can be called an extreme meritocracy – can be pernicious: The culture holds up those who succeed as examples, however anecdotal, that everyone can make it in America. Meanwhile, those who fail attract disdain and indifference from the better-off, their low status all the more painful because it is regarded as deserved. As research has shown, well-educated white-collar workers also sink into despair if they cannot find a new job, but among the working class, the shame of low status afflicts not just the unemployed, but also the underemployed. Their days are no longer filled with the dignified, if exhausting, work of making real things. Rather, the economy requires – as a white former factory worker I talked to described it – “throwing on a goofy hat,” dealing with surly customers who are themselves just scraping by, and enduring a precarious working life of arbitrary rules and dead-end prospects.
And the work people do (or don’t do) affects their self-esteem.
Donald Trump knew that, and could use that, and then there’s California – rich tech corporations up north, Hollywood down south, and young urban hipsters buying lunch at the gourmet taco truck, or the Vietnamese one parked next to it, because they can afford to do such things – and there’s surfing too. Donald Trump couldn’t possibly win California. He won that vote of those who resent such things. He’d make America great again.
A better idea would be to turn America into California. We walked away from Republicans. Others should try that. Good things happen.