Andrew Cherlin had a great op-ed piece in the New York Times recently. Cherlin asks:
"Why did white working-class voters shift toward Donald Trump in the 2016 election? Was it about money or culture — their struggles in the new economy or their prejudices?"
Cherlin notes that there is a bit of a cottage industry of studies these days that purport to show that economics/economic change had nothing to do with this phenomenon--it was all racism, pure and simple.
Cherlin believes, as do I, that the conclusions of these studies are not warranted. As he puts it:
"These conclusions, faithful as they may be to the survey data that underlie them, exemplify a misguided debate about whether culture or economics was the driving force in Mr. Trump’s win. To be sure, racism is a corrosive part of American culture and politics. Nevertheless, those who try to distinguish between the explanatory power of stagnant wages and a declining industrial base on the one hand, and anxieties about the ascent of minority groups on the other, miss the point: These are not two different factors but two sides of the same coin.
College-educated Americans speak about the economic problems of the working class in terms of trends that can be seen in tables and graphs. Those on the left criticize the federal minimum wage as being too low, while those on the right bemoan the erosion of work incentives. But the people who are experiencing these adverse economic trends express themselves differently, using a moral language that is often rooted in attitudes about work and race.
This was first noted by the sociologist Michèle Lamont in her book “The Dignity of Working Men.” She found that white working-class men often define their self-worth through their ability to lead disciplined, responsible lives. They take pride in going to work every day to support their families. Many of them view African-Americans as not wanting to work hard. They rarely consider that their own advantages rest on the privileged position of whites in the labor market.
In this way, they construct a positive sense of self despite the limits of their economic class. Perched precariously above the poor, they talk not about their modest incomes but rather about their superior work discipline. In prosperous times, they can take pride in their success compared with minorities.
But when that prosperity is threatened, they complain about blacks or immigrants who are, in their minds, usurping their place in the economy. In a 2017 survey, 24 percent of whites without college degrees responded that they had been personally discriminated against in applying for jobs because they were white — although strong evidence exists that it is actually blacks who are discriminated against.
The economic distress of the white working class has been building since the 1970s. What was new in 2016 was a candidate, Mr. Trump, who spoke about that distress not in the language of a college graduate but as a working-class person might. He exploited voters’ feeling that they were being left behind by a Democratic Party that seemingly favored blacks and immigrants.
In addition, when white working-class individuals do talk about their standard of living, it’s not necessarily those with the lowest incomes who speak the loudest. More important than how much they earn is their sense of how they are doing compared with the standard of living of their parents’ generation. Those who see themselves as downwardly mobile are the unhappiest.
Working-class whites with steady employment may nevertheless consider themselves worse off because their parents made high, unionized wages that are mostly out of reach today. Those with lower incomes may not have expected as much. In other words, what matters is not the size of your paycheck but whether it allows for the standard of living you think you are entitled to."
Exactly. And it is important that such a nuanced understanding informs our view of Obama-Trump voters and, more generally, white working class support for Trump. This is because the political and policy implications of Trumpian populism depend to some extent on how one weights the different explanations that have been advanced for right populism. If the cultural/racial explanation is heavily favored that might lead one, not to any particular policy focus—there is no economic problem to “fix”—but rather to simply denounce nativism and racism and those that hold such beliefs. If a purely economic explanation is favored that might lead one away from denouncing nativism and racism and toward various programs that might improve the economic lot of, for example, less educated whites. If the complex interaction explanation is favored—which we believe is most consistent with the data summarized here-- that might lead one to join opposition to nativism and racism with general programs to improve the cross-racial upward mobility of the middle and working classes. This latter approach would probably also appeal to left populists who typically are not nativist or racist and are most concerned with mitigating economic inequalities and the tilt of the system toward the wealthy.
Could the effects of Trumpian become more dire in the future? To the extent one privileges the cultural/racial explanation, this would appear to be a distinct possibility. After all, if Trumpism is really just an expression of white status anxiety in a diversifying country, then, since we know that whites are going to continue to decline as a share of the population and minorities will continue their inexorable march toward overall majority status, we would expect whites, particularly less educated whites, to become even more anxious over time. Put another way, if less educated whites’ status anxiety has nothing to do with how well or poorly they are faring in any economic sense and simply reflects their declining influence and societal weight, these individuals will become more, not less, attracted to Trumpism and similar movements over time. This presumably would increase the toxic nature of today’s right populism.
But there are some grounds for optimism. The first stems from the very demographic trends just alluded to. In that sense, the right populist movement may be riding on demographic borrowed time. Typically, the greatest strength of these parties comes from the votes of less-educated aging whites. But to a greater or lesser degree, the population weight of these voters is declining across countries. In the US, the white non-college-educated share of voters declined by 21 percentage points just between the 1988 and 2016 Presidential elections. Projections indicate that this group’s share of voters should continue to decline by 2-3 points every Presidential election for decades.
The flip side is the rising share of society composed of groups for whom right populist cultural attitudes are anathema (e.g., the Millennial generation, racial and ethnic minorities). As these groups continue to grow, their values too will be in the ascendancy, crowding out the space for right populism and perhaps increasing the space for left populism, since that is where many of their sympathies lie.
But if a better future is possible, how can we get to it? Those wishing to defuse the threat of insurgent populism typically approach this project in one of two ways—by arguing for more economic populism or for more identity-based politics. However, it seems unlikely, based on the data summarized here, that either of these approaches alone will end the threat from right-wing nationalism or decisively reduce the class and racial antagonisms roiling society today.
It is hard to argue that issues such as inequality, declining wages, corporate power, and diminishing social mobility should not be tackled and that solutions to these problems are not of critical importance. But better trade policies or higher taxes on the wealthy, as desirable as they may be, are unlikely, by themselves, to solve the issue of rising white nationalism and widening racial resentments. Mainstream conservative forces have spent years honing racial backlash politics, and now nationalist and xenophobic forces are pursuing much more open and harsh racial politics focused on stoking white fear and victimization narratives.
The worst elements and leaders in these parties should be aggressively challenged and their ideas and policies defeated. Those opposed to Trumpism and right populism more generally should strongly defend equality, tolerance, and economic opportunity for all people against forces that seek to marginalize and punish racial and ethnic minorities, migrants, and vulnerable communities of all kinds. The movement toward full inclusion in society, equal rights, and self-determination for all people is central to social progress and should never be pushed to the side simply because the politics are thorny.
At the same time, other dimensions of white anxiety—distinct from overt racism based on beliefs about the inferiority of racial and ethnic minorities—need to be better understood and acknowledged if opponents of right populism are to develop viable strategies for bringing more working-class whites into cross-racial and ethnic alliances for economic and social justice. Voters who may have questions about the policy impacts of migration, global trade, and the free movement of people are not all proponents of white nationalism, state-sponsored attacks on minority rights, or harsh treatment of refugees. Opponents of reactionary populism would be foolish to simply leave these voters open to the nativist appeals of Donald Trump and other right-wing nationalists.
To put it bluntly: an approach that simply dismisses these voters as racists and xenophobes only serves to further fuel populist disdain of mainstream politicians and drive greater support for right-wing leaders. A sincere and active attempt to respond to the real, everyday problems of these voters is clearly in order.
This certainly includes fighting for better jobs, wages, and social benefits overall, plus, critically, targeted efforts to redevelop industrial and rural areas hardest hit by globalization. Economic “anxiety” today is often more about fears of declining social mobility than about direct economic distress for many voters attracted to the right. This is particularly true for middle-income parents looking at the diminished life chances of their children and grandchildren and the devastating effects of low wages and reduced wealth-building opportunities on their families and communities.
In the current political environment, small-bore education and training initiatives and slightly better benefits are not likely to produce the level of economic change necessary to actually help people in these communities. Instead, there is a need to develop more regional and local-level development plans that focus on investments in transportation, technological infrastructure, and expanded access to college-level education or apprentice jobs, plus a range of tax and regulatory incentives and partnerships, to bring in new businesses and industries to overlooked regions and towns.
Such an approach is bound to be more effective than writing off Trump's white working class supporters as "racist". In fact, I guarantee it.