Monthly Archives: January 2017
Are white workers the base of the Trump reaction?
Lance Selfa wrote a prescient article with that title in Socialist Worker over a year ago (1-13-16). The following is an abridged and slightly edited version:
“Writing in the conservative-leaning Real Clear Politics, political scientists David Brady and Douglas Rivers described Trump’s supporters as: ‘a bit older, less educated and earning less than the average Republican. Slightly over half are women. About half are between 45 and 64 years of age, with another 34% over 65 years old and less than 2% younger than 30. One half of his voters have a high school education or less, compared to 19% with a college or post-graduate degree. Slightly over a third of his supporters earn less than $50,000 per year, while 11% earn over $100,000 per year.’
It appears that white people are doing what they’ve often done when times are tough: blame brown people. Trump’s happy to fan those flames if it keeps his circus rolling another day or two. Conservatives also win over some members of the working class with conservative positions on abortion and gay rights and concerns about Muslim terrorism.
Is the ‘white working class’ really the main base of reaction in this country?
For pundits and scholars alike, the most common definition of the ‘white working class’ is whites who didn’t obtain a bachelor’s degree or higher. While education level is certainly related to the types of jobs people do, the main reason for adopting education level as a proxy for class is one of convenience, according to Andrew Levison in his The White Working Class Today. It’s far easier to capture education level than occupation on surveys. By this definition, ‘working class whites’ make up about 44% of the 18-and-over U.S. population.
Exit polls from the 2012 presidential election showed no difference among whites possessing a bachelor’s degree or less in terms of voting for Barack Obama – all groups came in around 37-38%. Only whites holding more advanced degrees than a bachelor’s voted in their majority (52%) for Obama.
Princeton political scientist Larry Bartels notes that non-college-educated whites in the lowest third of income distribution have been more likely to vote Democratic over the past few decades. Bartels concludes that most of the shift to Republicans that did take place among non-college-educated whites took place in the South, which was also true among those in the middle and upper ends of the income spectrum.
The non-college-degreed part of the population also overlaps more heavily with older people, who tend to be more culturally traditional.
Beltway pundits talk about all white working class people as the conservative ‘base,’ with all the gun-toting, Rush Limbaugh-listening stereotypes that image implies. But when you look beyond the caricature, you find a more varied reality.
Just as there are liberal billionaires like George Soros, there are workers who identify as conservatives. Even in the heyday of Democratic Party liberalism, a solid 35-40% of workers, including unionized workers, supported Republicans in election after election. What’s more, the Republicans’ ‘Southern strategy’ of using coded appeals to racism, pioneered in the late 1960s and ’70s, was aimed at least in part in winning layers of white workers to support the Republican opposition to government spending on the undeserving (black) poor.
Non-college whites not identifying as Hispanic or Latino amount to more than 104 million people 18 years old and older, according to U.S. Census figures from 2014. The group includes the full range of occupational experiences. According to Levison’s calculations, half of white non-college men work in blue-collar jobs, while the other half work in white-collar jobs. For white women without a bachelor’s degree, the split is about 3-to-1 in favor of white collar jobs. And, adds Levison: ‘Many workers are now also small businessmen. In large cities one can still walk by large construction sites where hundreds of unionized hard-hat workers are employed, but in single-family-home and small commercial construction, you’ll see instead a collection of pickup trucks and vans with the signs of independent contractors stenciled on their sides.’
Such occupational distinctions within the broad category of ‘non-Hispanic whites without a bachelor’s degree’ means that significant numbers of people in this group may see political issues not from the perspective of a worker, but from that of a small businessperson. Even given that, however, as Levison writes in analyzing research on this group’s attitudes towards religion, immigration, and military intervention, attitudes are sharply polarized between an intolerant and militaristic minority numbering 25% or less and a much more tolerant and open-minded majority.
Working America, the AFL-CIO’s community outreach arm, regularly canvases working-class Americans on political and social issues. According to one of its internal memos, quoted by Levison, ‘One-third of the people we talk to are with us. One-third will never be with us. The challenge is to reach the middle third.’ In 2016 terms, the one-third ‘with us’ are likely to be supporters of candidates like Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton, while the one-third that will ‘never be with us’ might be part of the GOP base, with the middle third being up for grabs.
So the ‘white working class’ has a greater diversity of political opinions than the standard media stereotypes allow. But it’s nevertheless true that at least a section of that group has apparently gravitated towards Trump’s reactionary and xenophobic candidacy. Why would working-class voters support a blowhard billionaire and a party whose economic policies are crafted to serve Corporate America and the very rich? To many liberals, this phenomenon is either unfathomable or another piece of evidence to confirm their suspicion that much of the American electorate is easily duped.
Trump appeals to his supporters’ sense that the U.S. is in decline, and that the main culprits for this are immigrants, Muslims, the Chinese government, and those in the U.S. who aren’t ‘strong’ enough to stand up to these supposed villains. This narrative resonates with a large section of the U.S. population that’s endured several decades of stagnating or declining living standards and dashed expectations. Between 1970 and 2014, the aggregate income of households defined as middle-income has declined from 62% of total income to 43%, and the groups that have experienced the greatest downward mobility are all people without four-year college degrees. The occupations falling downward are traditionally thought of as ‘blue-collar’ or ‘pink-collar’ jobs that mostly require a high-school diploma or a two-year college degree: sales, administrative services, transportation, mechanics and repairers, operators, and transportation. Latinos and immigrants also struggled, which exposes the error of blaming them (instead of managers and executives, who made out like bandits) for declining working-class living standards.
On the eve of his inauguration as president in January 2009, Barack Obama’s popularity had reached 80%, and large numbers of Americans had high expectations for his administration. A majority of those surveyed by USA Today believed the new president would be able to achieve every one of 10 major campaign promises, from doubling the production of alternative energy to ensuring that all children have health insurance coverage. Two years later, the formerly discredited and out-of-touch Republicans scored a historic landslide victory in the 2010 midterm election. After Obama’s re-election in 2012 and another setback for the GOP, the Republicans increased their hold on Congress and statehouses again in 2014.
The Republican sweep has been so broad that the party won a wide majority of governors and the largest percentage of state legislative seats since 1928. From these positions, the GOP has been able to carry out a counter-revolution against union rights, reproductive rights, and aid to the poor at the state level. Meanwhile, Obama’s term in office will be remembered for policies that saved the economy from a Great Depression-like meltdown in a way that prioritized saving the banks, pushing an austerity agenda, and deepening neoliberal economic policies of the last 40 years. These methods have prevented living standards for the working-class majority from returning to pre-recession levels. Despite giving election-year lip service to trade union organization and calling income inequality ‘the challenge of our times,’ Obama and the Democrats have done little to change either one for the better.
It’s well documented that trade union households are much more likely to support liberal economic policies, and that union members are more likely to embrace solidarity across race and ethnic lines than non-union households. Thus, in key states like Ohio and Wisconsin in 2012, white trade union households went overwhelmingly for Obama, while non-union households voted for the Republican Mitt Romney. The long-term decline of unions – not just in terms of collective organization, but in labor’s inability to resist the neoliberal onslaught – has contributed to atomization among workers and a sense that ‘nothing can be done,’ which characters like Trump can exploit. And while the Democrats would seem to have an interest in promoting unions and policies (like single-payer health care) that reinforce a sense that ‘we’re all in this together,’ they’ve proven that they’d rather chase after Wall Street dollars.
Another clear piece of evidence of this: When the 2011 Occupy Wall Street movement injected into mass consciousness the powerful idea that the richest and most powerful ‘1%’ were the enemy of the ‘99%,’ the Obama administration didn’t embrace it. Instead, its Department of Homeland Security coordinated the effort to sweep it off the streets. This shouldn’t be any surprise. The Democrats are, after all, as former Republican strategist Kevin Phillips called them, ‘history’s second most enthusiastic capitalist party.’
For the left, the biggest challenge may not be that it’s losing the working class to the right, but that the Democrats’ bias to the status quo is encouraging more and more working people to conclude that since nothing will really change, it doesn’t matter what they do, in the voting booth or anywhere else. An analysis of voters and non-voters in the 2014 midterm elections showed that the poorest people, who support a social safety net, were more likely to be non-voters. People who were slightly better off – and more likely to agree with the conservative view that government gives benefits to the undeserving, with the obvious racial component involved in that view – were more likely to make it to the polls. This skew in the electorate is a much more compelling explanation for why states with poor populations have elected conservative political leaders and officeholders than the simple-minded liberal view that sees working-class people as fools who will now ‘get what they deserve.’
Bernie Sanders realizes that there’s a problem with Obama’s approach, and his frankly left-wing message is winning over millions of people. Unfortunately, he’s already promised to support whoever the Democrats nominate for president, and the odds are overwhelming that it will be the Obama-like neoliberal Hillary Clinton.
The Democrats may win the presidency, but if they continue to carry out policies that further hollow out living standards for millions of workers, and if the liberal organizations that mobilize support for the Democrats refuse to challenge those policies, the Trump phenomenon may be a signal of worse to come.”
After the protests…
The protests of today and tomorrow are mostly to psych ourselves up. When they’re done, we need to start the real work of opposing the new administration on whatever issues carry the most energy for us. They want to get rid of the Affordable Care Act? We want a single-payer, government-supported healthcare system — no need for a middleman, raking in undeserved profits. They want to make voting even harder than it already is? We not only want to make it easier, for all adults, we want to get rid of the Electoral College and initiate a new, more democratic primary system. Etc…
The biggest lesson of Trump’s election is that we need a more democratic electoral and legislative system on all levels of government. See my recent blogpost “How to move forward politically” for more on how this could be done. We don’t have the greatest, most democratic political system ever, as recent articles by international election monitors have demonstrated. It could be much improved. And, though it’s tantamount to heresy to suggest it, we don’t have to follow the Constitution (as sacred as the Bible to most Americans), which was written by the 1% of its day to protect their interests against “mob rule” (democracy). Proportional representation is not only a lot more democratic than the provincial, gerrymandered system we have, it puts the focus on issues rather than personalities. We don’t need any more personalities, especially show-business ones like Reagan and Trump. (We don’t need anymore dynasties either, à la Bush, Clinton, or Obama.) Winner-take-all’s a loser, too. I want my vote to count, even if my #1 choice doesn’t make it.
In short, there’s a lot of work to do, and we need to get started on it.
P.S. Let’s not get bogged down with either/or arguments about strategy and tactics, like “work on this issue in preference to this one,” or criticisms about each other like the ones I saw in my local paper this morning — letters to the editor criticizing the pussy hat phenomenon. We don’t all express ourselves the same way. That’s okay. Drop the judgment, especially when you’re thinking of directing it at someone who’s basically on your side.
Go get ’em, tigers!!
How to (possibly) avert disaster
Analyzing what’s happened and what’s happening as close to correctly as possible has always been essential to creating effective political strategies. Now, with our country teetering at the threshold of authoritarian fascism, it’s even more important than ever.
We can’t afford to waste our time and energy on propagandistic wild goose chases like the charge that Russia hacked the 2016 election. Donald Trump won the presidency and the Republicans gained control of Congress for many reasons, including an undemocratic political and electoral system that offers no good alternatives, profit-driven mainstream media that fails to keep the public informed, and voters who either stay home or vote for wild cards out of desperation. But one of the reasons for Trump’s victory over Hillary Clinton was that she was the wrong candidate for the occasion. People wanted change, not more of the same, and the Democratic Party’s current strategy of blaming the Russians rather than acknowledging their mistake leads us down a false trail.
Back Bernie Sanders’ efforts in Congress and elsewhere if you want to stay in the mainstream. Read my recent posts on how to improve the system, if you want to go further.
It’s critical that we do this work now, while we’re still at the crossroads. When supposedly democratic political systems fail to address the people’s needs, they have two main options: populist authoritarianism or populist revolution, with many permutations in each category. Juan Peron of Argentina, Adolf Hitler of Germany, and Benito Mussolini of Italy are various “flavors” in the first category. In the revolutionary category, change can be sought violently or non-violently, with the non-violent option tending to be more democratic in outcome, since the means are the way. Cuban leader Fidel Castro led a violent revolution with democratic goals, Ho Chi Minh of Vietnam started on the peaceful path and ended up having to use violence and dictatorial methods. Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez was a democratic populist who was also a typical Latin American “strongman” and at times a demagogue. The lines between all these “flavors” can be subtle, but the key questions to ask at every step are: Are people at the grassroots level well-represented? And does change come from the bottom up for the benefit of all equally?
Donald Trump fits the prototype of an authoritarian fascist leader. He’s a liar; a sexist; a racist, or at least a person willing to collude with racists; a nationalist at a time in our planet’s history when national borders should be obsolete, and at the same time a global businessman willing to put corporate interests above those of the nation. He’s a demagogue who threatens groups and individuals who disagree with or oppose him, and will soon have the power to use the greatest military, police, and judicial power on earth. He will also have the power, since the Democratic Party failed to oppose the Republicans’ illegal failure to approve an Obama-nominated Supreme Court Justice, to bring the third branch of government under his control.
This is a dangerous time, and we need to think clearly, outside the box, using reliable sources of information to create strategies to meet it.
You know what your values are. Hopefully, they’re similar to mine: preserving the vibrant life of Earth and all its life forms and protecting the right of every human man, woman, and child to clean air and water; basic nutrition, education, and health care; physical and emotional safety; and a say in every decision affecting their lives. The supposedly liberal Democratic regimes now behind us didn’t create or adequately safeguard these things, and the new Republican regime of Donald Trump actively threatens all of them. Act accordingly, without the need to respect the rule of unjust laws. But, most of all, base your actions on well-thought-out and researched analysis and strategy. I’ve given you some good sources in past blog posts, and there are book notes and other resources on my website www.wegotthenumbers.org. Start there, or forge your own path. Connect with others. Don’t waste time on false propaganda or too many feel-good actions that accomplish little else.
We may not be able to avert (further) disaster. But we can certainly give it our best shot.