Labor Day weekend is an appropriate time to talk about the Democrats’ problem with the white working class (WWC). The problem, simply stated, is that the WWC, once strongly inclined to vote Democratic, now mostly votes Republican. The problem has been in the making for decades: the WWC flip from Democratic to Republican started in the 1960s, accelerated in the 1980s and culminated in Trump’s triumph last year. The last Democratic presidential candidate who carried the WWC (narrowly) was Bill Clinton. In 1996, there were 334 counties in the US that were below the median income and at least 85% white. Clinton carried about half of them. In 2016, there were 660 such counties. Hillary Clinton carried two of them. If Democrats are to recover from their 2016 disaster–most importantly, if they are to oust the current incumbent from the White House—they need somehow to at least begin to reverse this long-term trend. How?
To try to answer this question, let’s start with 2016. Trump won because a large number of voters who had voted Democratic as recently as 2012 switched their presidential vote to the GOP. It is clear that the WWC accounted for a very large portion of these switchers. (For a graphic illustration of this point, see Figures 1 & 2 in this analysis.) If a Democratic candidate in 2020 could just win back these switchers, he/she would win the presidency. So, again: how?
If the Democrats are to win back the switchers, they need to know what motivated them to switch. There are three broad explanations for why white working class voters switched from Obama in 2012 to Trump in 2016. I’ll call them racial grievance, economic distress, and political alienation. These three explanations are closely intertwined.
Racial grievance: White racism has been an important factor in Republican electoral success for the past half-century. It largely accounts for the transformation of the American South from a Democratic to a Republican bastion and for the similar flip in the allegiance of the WWC. But it might seem like an improbable explanation of our “switchers”: people who voted for Obama and then Trump. How can people who voted for the first African American president have been motivated by racism in 2016? The simple answer is that people’s voting decisions are motivated by multiple considerations: we know from various studies that lots of whites voted for Obama despite being at least somewhat prejudiced against black people. And we also know that negative attitudes towards blacks, muslims and immigrants became more salient in 2016 and were strongly associated with support for Trump. Trump came closer to explicitly racist appeals than any other major party candidate in US history. It worked. A dismaying number of white Americans admired him for “telling it like it is,” i.e., saying aloud what others only hinted at, legitimating their prejudices.
Economic distress: Despite the acceleration of the economic recovery late in the Obama administration, large sections of the country remained mired in relatively high rates of un- and especially under-employment, with poor prospects for the future. Early analyses of November 2016 voting patterns revealed that Trump’s gains came disproportionately in counties that had above average unemployment, lagging job growth and below-average earnings. Many of these counties, heavily concentrated in the rust belt, have seen a growth of pathologies associated with economic distress—opioid addiction, unmarried childrearing and upwardly spiraling divorce rates. For residents of such communities, the Democrats’ 2016 message that the economy was recovering just wasn’t very compelling. Trump seemed to feel their pain; Hillary, not so much.
Political Alienation: For decades, public opinion polling has revealed a pervasive American cynicism toward government. Americans today don’t expect government to work effectively in the common interest. Government, they think, serves special interests, especially the interests of the people in charge, the politicians. Trump, the iconoclastic, angry outsider, the non-politician, knew instinctively how to tap into this anti-political mood. A vote for Trump was a way of extending a middle finger to Washington. As one Montana bar-owner put it: “Trump’ll [discomfort] all those politicians who are out for themselves and not for the country.”
These three sets of factors interact and mutually reinforce each other. Various studies have linked economic distress in the US and other countries to the scapegoating of racial and ethnic minorities. The long-term decline in manufacturing and the good “men’s jobs” jobs it provided, together with the changing racial composition of country, suggest a new world in which the white male breadwinner can longer feel like the pillar of family and community. Racial resentment in turn is linked to anti-government attitudes, which reflect perceptions that government programs mainly help “them”–the poor in general and minorities in particular–rather than the neglected middle class.
So, how are Democrats to overcome the issue trifecta of racial grievance, economic distress and political alienation? That’s a big question, and I’ve already written a lot, so I’m going to save my attempt at an answer for a future post. In the mean time, thoughts from readers are as always more than welcome.