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.