It is widely agreed that Trump’s electoral college victory drew critically on a revolt of the white working class (generally defined as whites lacking a college education), especially in rural America. Working class whites evidently have come to the conclusion that the Washington establishment (also known as “the elites”) is either ignoring them or actively working against them, instead serving the “special interests” that populate the Washington swamp that Trump has promised to drain.   Do I need to point out that these perceptions are entirely reasonable? American politics in recent decades has become increasingly plutocratic. People in the lower half of the income hierarchy have no influence to speak of on what happens in Washington. Among those in the upper half, influence is skewed sharply toward the top. So, the question isn’t why the white working class sees things the way it does; the question is why these perceptions resulted in an inflated turnout for the pseudo-populist Donald Trump.

Three possible explanations for Trump’s triumph come to mind: racism, economic distress, and what I will call for want of a better term anti-political disgust.

Racial resentment is a very large part of the explanation for the transformation of the American partisan landscape over the past half century. The white working class, which for decades was majority Democrat, has become majority Republican. The once solid Democratic South became the nearly as solid Republican South. There is no question that a lingering suspicion that the Democratic Party is the party that coddles “those people” underlies the voting behavior of a great many whites, not exclusively working class.   And yet, Barak Obama was twice elected president. Even in 2012 he carried dozens of heavily white working class counties that went to Trump four years later. Racism, in and of itself, cannot explain the switch.

A second explanation for the switch is economic distress. The eight Obama years have seen a gradual recovery from the financial meltdown that helped put him in the White House. But despite low unemployment numbers, millions of Americans remain no better off than they were eight years ago, or for that matter 25 years ago. Men (yes, mostly men) who were making union wages in manufacturing 25 years ago are in service jobs at a fraction of the pay. Two thirds of working class white voters  say it’s gotten harder for people like them to find good jobs, and narrow majorities of both say the government isn’t doing enough to help “people like you.” The main streets of hundreds of rustbelt communities are largely shuttered. The hope and change that Obama signaled hasn’t ignited much change, or lasting hope, in the American industrial heartland. The desire for change remains, and Trump seemed better to understand that desire, or at least how to exploit it, than did his opponent, who personified continuity.

A lot of Americans are disgusted at what appears to be a dysfunctional government in Washington. They see gridlock and unresponsiveness, a lot of politicians feuding unproductively.   What they don’t see is that the great bulk of responsibility for the gridlock and inaction lies with just one of the two political parties—the one that has repeatedly shown a disdain for the norms that have traditionally kept conflict from paralyzing American government. The party that routinized the use of the filibuster to prevent majority rule in the senate. The party that has repeatedly threatened to shut down the federal government or to sabotage the world economy by not increasing the limit on the US national debt. Yes, it’s Trump’s party, but the sad and outrageous fact is that the Republicans’ strategy has succeeded. They have “proved” that government doesn’t work.  People are disgusted with all the squabbling in Washington, and the responsibility for the squabbling is obscure, veiled by procedural arcana.  Hence the conclusion that what is needed is not a change in party (“they’re all the same”) but an anti-political strong man who will bust things up and clean up the mess.

The failure to correctly attribute responsibility for Washington’s dysfunction is also at the root of confusion over the two parties’ respective responsibilities for the state of the economy. The post-2008 economic recovery would have been more robust if the administration hadn’t felt the need to trim its economic stimulus to Republican tastes, including an over-heavy component of tax cuts. The president and congressional Democrats at different times proposed additional stimulus measures that would have injected added life into the recovery, but such proposals never had a chance of getting past unflinching GOP opposition. As I observed in an earlier post, Hillary Clinton downplayed partisanship in the hope of winning wavering Republican voters away from Donald Trump. That strategy clearly failed. She might or might not have succeeded with a more aggressively partisan economic message, but it looks like that’s what she needed to try.

Now that Trump is headed for the White House, Democrats seem widely agreed that they need to come up with a clear, sharp economic message.   Here’s incoming Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer:

Above all, our economic message was not sharp enough, was not bold enough, was not strong enough. All those blue collar voters who voted for Donald Trump, even many who had voted for Obama, they thought he was the change agent.”

What might that sharp, bold, strong economic message consist of?   Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren have paved the way to go: The Democrats have to make the argument that the American economy is rigged in multitudinous ways to the advantage of those who already enjoy disproportionate economic power; that the GOP is thoroughly complicit in the rigging and that only Democrats are seriously interested in challenging the plutocracy on behalf of the interests of ordinary people. That is an argument that Democrats at the national level have been loath to make. It reeks too much of class warfare. It would risk alienating members of the donor class that has come to be such an important part of the Democratic coalition. It might even turn off some of the affluent professionals who have been repelled by the GOP’s radicalism.  But the emphasis on what unites us, rather than what divides us (a trademark of the current president) hasn’t served the Democrats well. Can they be as honest and frank as billionaire Warren Buffet? Acknowledging the reality of class warfare in the United States, Buffett observed without satisfaction that his class was winning.

Democrats have to choose—they have to say which side they’re on.






  1. Jeremy Graham November 28, 2016 at 11:24 am

    I don’t think people changed. I think the anti-Hilary propaganda worked. In any case, this was a long time in coming. Maybe it comes to late that people will learn to beware of propaganda, and be aware of what is happening with other people, including those in other classes and other places.

  2. Frank November 28, 2016 at 3:00 pm

    Outstanding analysis. I am always baffled when people unwittingly vote against their own best interests. Sadly, if many hear something enough times, they go with the adage, “where there’s smoke, there’s fire.” And that is the strategy of some. Create smoke and keep fanning it, even if there’s no fire.

  3. Bill Anscher November 28, 2016 at 3:11 pm

    Is it also possible that Clinton lost some of those blue collar districts because fewer young and African-American voters within those districts came out to vote?

    • tonygreco November 28, 2016 at 7:34 pm

      My impression is that the answer to your question is probably mostly no, but I haven’t seen any analyses that would settle that issue. African-American turnout was certainly a problem for Clinton, but I don’t know if that would have made the difference in many of those districts. Millennial turnout was about the same as in 2012; the problem there was that Clinton got a smaller share of their votes, partly because of third party votes.

  4. Daniel December 1, 2016 at 7:19 pm

    I’m not so sure the sort of economic message you have in mind would’ve helped:

    This paragraph gives something of a summary:

    “Interestingly enough, in two of those crucial Midwestern states that flipped to Trump, Democratic Senate candidates campaigned on economically populist platforms — but they did notably worse than Hillary Clinton. Russ Feingold underperformed Clinton by 2.4 points in Wisconsin, and Ted Strickland underperformed her by 12.8 points in Ohio. Feingold amassed a populist record of challenging big money and special interests when he was in the Senate, and Strickland harshly condemned trade deals during his campaign against Rob Portman (who served as George W. Bush’s US trade representative).”

    • tonygreco December 2, 2016 at 10:24 am

      The article you cite does give some reason for skepticism that populism is the way to go, but as the author acknowledges, idiosyncratic factors were operating in all four instances he points to. It is completely unsurprising that centrists ran better than Hillary in the very red states of Indiana and Missouri. Somewhat more surprising, but still explainable by special factors discussed by the author, is Strickland’s worse showing in Ohio. The one real puzzle is Wisconsin, and I just don’t know enough about the specifics of that race to try to explain it.

  5. Jeffrey Herrmann December 2, 2016 at 4:50 am

    Two additional factors are worth mentioning:

    1. Voter suppression efforts aimed at likely Democratic voters in states controlled by the Repugnicans were effective.

    2. Americans have for decades demonstrated in standardised tests of personality traits that they are highly authoritarian, relative to the populations of other advanced countries. Trump posed as the “strong leader” that appeals to authoritarian personalities. He was the saviour who could rescue us from grave dangers.

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