Working-Class Conservatism

June 5, 2017

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Like so many others who have been closely following current events, I can easily be caught up in the outrage over President Trump’s latest tweet or poorly thought-out policy proposal. Nevertheless, I do try to stay focused on issues that transcend any one personality, no matter how–um–large. Even if Donald Trump were to be impeached, the wave of popular anger that helped elect him would not entirely subside. The fact that so many of his supporters keep sticking by him, almost without regard to what he does, indicates that he has tapped into a strong current of public opinion that will continue to shape our politics. The country will have to come to grips with what Trump represents to people, even if his own presidency is a colossal failure.

In some of my earlier posts, such as “A Leap into the Dark” just after the election, I acknowledged Trump’s general appeal to conservative voters (using that term rather broadly), but questioned his authenticity as a champion of the working class. He did, in the end, get the support of most Republicans across the socioeconomic spectrum, and much of what he is trying to do has the support of the Republican establishment. Now however, having recently read Michael Lind’s article on “The New Class War,” I want to ask if there is a distinctly working-class brand of conservatism, even if Donald Trump represents it rather inconsistently. I want to explore how the interests of working-class Trump supporters and establishment Republicans may diverge on certain issues, even as they converge on others. An angrier and more outspoken working-class conservatism could be helping the G.O.P. win elections, but it could also prove to be a divisive force that could weaken the party and create opportunities for Democrats.

Convergent interests

Climate change is a good example of an issue where the interests of many blue-collar workers seem to converge with those of the Republican establishment. Even as the scientific consensus on climate change  grows stronger, and more and more Democrats support action to control carbon emissions, most Republican leaders support President Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris Accord and his renunciation of President Obama’s Clean Power Plan. In this respect, the Republican establishment most represents the interests of fossil-fuel industry executives and shareholders. Led by Americans for Prosperity, a group financed by the Koch brothers, the industry has poured millions of dollars into the effort to influence–perhaps I should say mislead–public opinion, support its political allies, and defeat its political opponents.

Almost by definition, the main concern of working-class conservatives is saving jobs in those established industries. For Republican leaders like Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, constituent pressures combine with fundraising incentives to motivate conservative environmental policy. Of course, those leaders almost always frame the issue as opposing “job-killing” regulation, not preserving corporate profits.

Continuing to do what one has always done, whether or not it makes sense to do it, is a simple conservative impulse that cuts across class lines. Conservative columnist Ross Douthat, who has voiced skepticism about climate change, now admits that “in actual right wing politics no serious assessment of the science and the risks is taking place….Instead there’s just a mix of business-class and blue-collar self-interest and a trollish, ‘If liberals are for it, we’re against it’ anti-intellectualism.”

Without sacrificing their environmental concerns, Democrats who wish to appeal to working-class voters need to emphasize the ways that government can promote job creation in clean-energy industries, as well as facilitate the retraining of displaced workers for new jobs. Just talking about the potential dire consequences of future climate change may not impress someone trying to make ends meet right now.

Divergent interests

Global trade and immigration are issues where working-class interests diverge in many ways from the traditional positions of the Republican establishment. In the recent past, Republicans have been the biggest advocates for free trade, consistent with the belief that unrestricted markets can best create wealth for all. They have been less united on immigration, but advocates of global free markets often welcome the flow of labor across borders to supply the labor needs of expanding industries. Cultural conservatives may worry about the threat to American culture from “alien” ideas or practices, worries enhanced by the threat of terrorism. Donald Trump’s proposals to build a wall between the U.S. and Mexico and ban travel from Muslim countries appeal especially to cultural conservatives.

If there is a distinctly working-class position on globalism, it is based again on concerns about jobs and incomes. The free flow of capital and labor across borders has enabled corporations to profit by seeking out cheaper labor, but a lot of that has come at the expense of  workers born in the United States. That is one reason why labor’s share of national income growth has been falling. (Another is replacement of human labor through automation.) This strengthens the anti-trade, anti-immigrant sentiment within the Republican Party. It is a kind of conservatism, but not the pro-capital kind that has dominated the party in the Reagan-Bush era.

The G.O.P. is unlikely to renounce its support for globalism anytime soon. Although the United States is now a debtor nation with an embarrassingly large trade deficit, trade is still a two-way street. American companies want foreign buyers and American consumers like inexpensive foreign goods. Powerful retailers like Walmart oppose new taxes on imports.

Some new policies might benefit American workers, but Democrats are at least as likely to propose them as Republicans. International trade agreements could include stronger protections for workers. Displaced workers could have more opportunities for education or retraining. American industries could compete globally on the basis of quality–more like the Germans do–rather than on cost-cutting.

Another area in which working-class interests diverge from Republican establishment interests is taxation and spending. Wealthy Republicans have the most to gain from tax cuts and the least to lose from cuts in social spending. Working-class people have less to gain from tax cuts, since they are taxed at a lower rate already, and more to lose from cuts in social programs on which they increasingly rely.

The current debate over repealing and replacing Obamacare has dramatized this difference. Establishment Republicans have long advocated repeal, while giving little thought to replacement. Their main aim was to eliminate the new taxes on the wealthy that financed the new insurance subsidies. Trump supporters apparently believed him when he promised better health insurance coverage at lower cost. Then he double-crossed them by endorsing a House Republican bill that accomplished no such thing.  Similarly, the President’s tax “reform” bill turns out to be mainly a huge tax cut for the rich. His budget proposal includes not only that tax cut, but extreme cuts in programs that benefit many of his own supporters.

Working-class attitudes toward social spending are a little complicated, however. The American Dream is having a good enough job so that you don’t have to rely on any government programs. You want to get good health benefits at work, so you don’t need to obtain insurance from a government exchange or an expansion of Medicaid. Working-class conservatism often takes the form of anger that so many Americans do rely on Medicaid, or food stamps, or housing subsidies. In many ways, a vote for the Republican Party is a vote for a mythical America in which everybody is successful and nobody needs such things. Just as a vote against a clean energy policy is a vote for a mythical planet where human activity has little impact on the weather.

That gives the Democratic Party the opportunity and the challenge of presenting itself as the party of the real America. That’s the America where rapid economic change creates the need for a stronger safety net, since working-class incomes have become less reliable. It’s the America where enhanced threats from foreign competition and automation force us to create new and better jobs by investing more in the talents of our own people.

In short, the Democratic Party does not have to become the party of some “liberal elite” consisting of upper-middle-class professionals. It does not have to cede working-class voters to the more conservative party, where their interests are often overshadowed by those of the wealthy. Donald Trump may have gotten a lot of their votes this time, but they are very much up for grabs if he and his party let them down.

The complexities of race and class

In many of the discussions about how the Democratic Party is losing the middle class, it’s the white working class that is the focus. That raises the question of whether the attitudes of working-class voters have a racial–or even racist–component that attracts those voters to the more conservative party. That’s true to a degree, but any such conclusion has to be carefully qualified.

Much has been written about how the Republican Party–the party of Lincoln and in many respects the liberal party of the nineteenth century–became the more conservative party on racial issues. To make a long story short, the Democratic Party outraged much of its base in the “Solid South” by aligning itself with the Civil Rights Movement from the 1940s on. Then the conservative movement that captured the Republican Party in the 1960s and 70s built its majority largely by relying on a “Southern strategy.”

As with the immigration issue, establishment Republicans often take a free-market position on race. That view treats racial discrimination as an anachronism that free-market competition and equal opportunity should eliminate. Rational employers have an interest in hiring the best person for the job, and workers can succeed if they do the right things, like work hard, stay in school, and avoid having children before getting married (without the help of Planned Parenthood, of course!). The G.O.P. is also home to some cultural conservatives who believe, deep in their hearts, in a predominantly white, Christian society. But most Republicans just tend to minimize the problem of racial discrimination and prefer to solve it more by individual changes of attitudes than by government mandates.

White working-class attitudes about race tend to be conservative for at least two reasons. First, less educated people tend to be less enlightened about race. They are less aware of how systematic and enduring racial discrimination has been in American history. They are more likely to attribute the present condition of Black Americans to defects of character like lack of will power. But in addition, they do not have the greater economic security that comes with solid job credentials. Whites who cannot claim high status on the basis of educational attainment or income may take pride in being white, just as lower-achieving men may take pride in being real men, whatever they think that is. Putting down non-whites or women is one way of bolstering one’s own status. People who feel that way, whether they consciously articulate it or not, are more likely to be drawn to the political party that is less associated with movements for racial or gender equality, and less supportive of government assistance to the “undeserving” poor.

That, however, is not an unmixed blessing for the Republican Party. Racial and gender attitudes have changed so much in this country that no major party wants to be known as the party of white or male supremacy. The party establishment has to walk a fine line, tolerating some unenlightened attitudes without fully embracing them. The Democrats, on the other hand, will remain–and should remain–the party identified with the struggle for equality. Their best hope for winning over working-class voters is to try to alleviate the causes of working-class status anxiety. Again, promote investments in education and job creation, so that working people of all races and ethnicities can get ahead without having to be afraid of one another.

Although I thought that Donald Trump was going to lose the election because of his own failings, I did not agree with Hillary Clinton’s campaign strategy of attacking him and his followers instead of focusing primarily on economic issues. I thought it was a big mistake to describe his followers as “deplorable” racists and other kinds of bigots. Racial attitudes are now too complex and subtle for such a large segment of the population to be characterized that way. Economic insecurity and class tensions are no doubt complicated by the country’s unfortunate racial history. But I think that the best course for the more liberal party is to address the economic concerns that working families of all races have in common. Reject outright bigotry where it does exist, for sure, but do your best to convince people that a flourishing society has no need for it.


Why Trump Won: Economic and Racial Interpretations

December 5, 2016

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Following an annual tradition, strategists from the Trump and Clinton campaigns met at Harvard’s Institute of Politics to analyze the election campaign and its results. This year, the discussion quickly degenerated into a shouting match, as each campaign promoted its preferred account of how Trump won.

A particular bone of contention was the role of Stephen Bannon of Breitbart News in the Trump campaign. When David Bossie, Trump’s deputy campaign manager, called Bannon a “brilliant strategist,” Jennifer Palmieri, Clinton’s director of communications, replied, “If providing a platform for white supremacists makes me a brilliant tactician, I am more proud to have lost.” Kellyanne Conway, Trump’s campaign manager, rejected the suggestion that the campaign had appealed to white supremacy and shifted the discussion to Hillary Clinton’s weaknesses. “Do you think you could have just had a decent message for the white working-class voters? How about it’s Hillary Clinton, she doesn’t connect with people? How about they had nothing in common with her? How about you had no economic message?”

As Clinton herself charged during the campaign, Clinton’s team felt that Trump won by appealing to such ignoble sentiments as racism, misogyny and xenophobia. Not surprisingly, Trump supporters preferred a narrative emphasizing Trump’s economic appeal to struggling working-class families. Each narrative contains an element of truth, but they leave us with an explanation that is both incomplete and misleading.

Win, lose or draw?

First, a note of caution. Because this election was so close, commentators need to resist the urge to over-interpret it. Sweeping statements about what the American people are saying or assertions of popular mandates to take the country in a particular direction are likely to overstate the facts. Does the election of Donald Trump mean that most Americans want to build a wall on the Mexican border? Well no; exit polling found 41% for that, but 54% against it. Does it mean that they want to deport immigrants working illegally in the U.S.? No, only 25% are for deportation, and 70% are for offering some form of legal status. And in spite of the fact that both candidates expressed concerns about job losses due to trade deals, voters are quite split on the issue, with almost as many saying that international trade creates U.S. jobs as saying it takes away jobs.

This election even tells us less than usual about what people think of the winner. According to the exit polls, fewer voters had a favorable view of Trump than Clinton (38% vs. 43%); fewer viewed him as honest and trustworthy (33% vs. 36%); fewer regarded him as qualified to be president (38% vs. 52%); and fewer felt he had the temperament to be president (35% vs. 55%). With regard to Kellyanne Conway’s contention that Clinton doesn’t connect with people, Clinton beat Trump by a margin of 23 points among voters who said that the quality mattering most to them was that the candidate “cares about me.” She won by even bigger margins with voters who placed the highest value on having good judgment or the right experience.

All this makes one wonder how Donald Trump could win the election at all. A flippant answer is that he didn’t, at least not the popular vote, which Clinton won by 2.8 million votes and about 2 percentage points. Another answer is that voters overlooked Trump’s deficiencies because of something else they liked about him. He won by a 68-point margin among voters who were looking most for a candidate who could “bring change.” Among voters who regarded Trump as unqualified to be president, 17% voted for him anyway! That probably means they were more interested in rocking the boat than steering it in a sensible direction.

A few other findings from the exit polls indicate why the election was so close. Trump won white voters by a 20-point margin, men by 9 points, voters 45 and over by 8 points, non-college graduates by 7, Evangelical Christians by 64, veterans by 36, rural voters by 27 and suburban voters by 4. Clinton won black voters by an 81-point margin, Latinos by 38, Asians by 38, women by 13, voters under 45 by 14, Jews by 48, voters professing no religion by 42, union households by 9, gay lesbian bisexual or transgender voters by 63, and urban voters by 26. Demographically speaking, Trump represented more of what the country used to be, and Clinton represented more of what it is becoming.

The economic interpretation

Trump’s narrow victory in the so-called “rust-belt” states has led many commentators to imagine the typical Trump voter as a downwardly mobile worker, especially someone who has lost a manufacturing job. Trump beat Clinton by a wide margin (56 points) among voters who described their financial situation as worse than it was four years ago, but only 27% of voters were in that category. Slightly more voters felt that their situation had gotten better, and Clinton won by a 49-point margin there. I do think that Clinton could have done a better job addressing the concerns of the downwardly mobile. But I also respect her refusal to lie to the people of West Virginia by claiming she could bring back their lost coal mining jobs. Her opponent had no such inhibitions. (Coal jobs are being lost to automation and competition from cheap natural gas, not just Obama energy policy.)

Income data do not support the generalization that Trump supporters were especially economically distressed. Based on a crude classification by current income, they were not worse off than Clinton voters. The median income category for both Trump and Clinton voters was $50,000 to $99,000, although less than a third of voters were in that range. A higher percentage of Clinton voters than Trump voters had incomes below $50,000 (39% vs. 32%), while a slightly higher percentage of Trump voters than Clinton voters had incomes of $100,000 and up (36% vs. 33%).

Other data call into question the idea that Clinton lost by failing to address economic distress. Clinton led Trump by 11 points among voters who cited the economy as the most important issue facing the country. Trump led among those who cited immigration as the most important issue (by 31 points) or terrorism (by 17 points). Trump’s tough talk on immigration and terrorism may have done him more good than his promise to save manufacturing jobs. Without denying that certain voters supported him for purely economic reasons, there are other elephants in the room, especially Republican ones.

The racial interpretation

A very disturbing development in this election was the embrace of Donald Trump by white supremacist groups. However, focusing too much on overt racism can distract attention from the much subtler role that race plays in today’s politics. In particular, I want to call attention to the racial implications of the small-government conservatism that motivated so many of Trump’s supporters.

Trump did not only win the white vote by a 20-point margin. He won even more handily among voters who described themselves as conservatives (a 65-point margin), who disapproved of President Obama (83 points), who believed that Obamacare “went too far” (69 points) and who said that in general, government is “doing too much” (50 points). These views are very widely held, and they account for a larger share of the Trump vote than the specifically economic factors. They are especially widespread in the South. Yes, Trump won Michigan, but by less than one percentage point. He won Alabama by 28 points.

I had a good reminder last week of the connection between race and small-government conservatism, when I attended a lecture by Nancy MacLean, Professor of History and Public Policy at Duke University. She pointed out that the first manifesto in favor of school privatization and vouchers was published by economist Milton Friedman in 1955. Instead of running a public school system, the government should just give each family a certain amount of money and let them buy education in the marketplace. Coming just one year after the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education, Friedman’s proposal found its most enthusiastic audience among Southerners who wanted to close public schools rather than desegregate them. Friedman defended himself against charges of racism by saying that he personally regarded integrated schools as preferable, but that the government couldn’t impose them without infringing on freedom of choice. This kind of opposition to “Big Government” has become a key argument in defense of traditional privileges and injustices that only government may have the power to fight.

As the Democratic Party gained support among minorities and women by advocating strong government measures to combat discrimination, Republicans discovered that they could gain the allegiance of white males, especially Southern white males, by placing limits on those efforts. In the name of freedom and limited government, Republicans became the party of resistance to such measures as affirmative action, the Equal Rights Amendment, and most recently, key enforcement provisions of the Voting Rights Act. In the latter case, racism and political gamesmanship are hard to distinguish, since Republicans in states like North Carolina have so much to gain by putting obstacles in the way of black voting.

Donald Trump defeated Hillary Clinton among white men by a 62% to 31% margin. True, many white men, especially the less educated, have suffered losses of jobs and income, and a few even crossed party lines to vote for Trump. But white men as a group remain the country’s top earners, although women and minorities have been gaining on them. And as a group, they have been reliably Republican for some time. Only 8% of Democrats or Republicans crossed party lines in their vote for president. The core of Trump’s support came from the white men who usually vote Republican, not because they are worse off than minorities or women, but because the Republican Party is more respectful of existing privileges. It is less likely to upset existing race/gender hierarchies. Trump won college-educated white men by a 14-point margin, and non-college-educated white men by a 48-point margin. The economic distress interpretation has some validity, especially in the less educated group. However, sociologists have long argued that status as a white man may be especially important to a man who lacks other sources of status, such as education. He may vote for the party that appeals to him as a white man, overlooking that party’s failure to address his needs as a working man.

When Democrats try to address issues of racial or gender discrimination, conservatives can accuse them of ignoring economic issues to pursue “identity politics.” Critics like Kellyanne Conway can claim that Democrats lose because they don’t have “a decent message for the white working-class voters.” Without denying that Democrats need to strengthen their economic message, this does not have to be an either-or. Democrats shouldn’t have to abandon their commitment to racial and gender equality in order to support a stronger economy. Many Democratic proposals, such as universal health insurance and affordable college education, are intended to help people of all races and genders. Yes, Democrats need to appeal to working-class white men, but those men must be willing to reach across racial lines to make common cause with minorities and women in similar circumstances. The mentality that forces politicians to choose between “us” and “them” just perpetuates racism and sexism.

Reconciling conservatism and change

How do Trump voters reconcile their conservative belief that government is “doing too much” already, with their desire for a president who will “bring change”? How can any president strengthen the economy, if government isn’t supposed to do very much? Voters may be managing this in several ways, either within Republican orthodoxy or outside of it.

Within Republican orthodoxy, they can fall back on the classic Reagan position that government is the problem, and not having government do certain things is the needed change. If government will just stop taxing and regulating so much, the economy will thrive. Whether that’s what most of the voters want or not, that will probably be the guiding philosophy of the Republican Congress, supported in most respects by the new president.

Beyond Republican orthodoxy, voters can make an exception to their anti-government position in the case of jobs programs. Government spending is okay as long as it puts people to work rather than helping people who aren’t working. Similarly, obtaining health insurance through your job is okay, but having to obtain it through a government exchange is socialism. However, public works programs are hard to pay for if you exempt too much of the country’s wealth from taxation.

For other conservatives calling for change, change can mean changing things back to the way they used to be. This is one way that economic nationalism fits in. Government can try to reverse the trend of manufacturing jobs flowing out or immigrants flowing in. That appeals especially to people who have lost faith in the economy’s ability to create new jobs. I suggest that economic nationalism is a form of conservatism that flourishes when more mainstream conservatism has failed to produce the promised growth in jobs and incomes, and when economic progressives have not yet come up with a convincing alternative.

In many respects, the Trump coalition is just a familiar Republican coalition, with enough extra votes in a few key states to win the election. To the extent that the Trump phenomenon is different, it may be an expression of a conservatism gone sour, a hostility not only to Big Government but to global forces that threaten the economic supremacy of the United States and other wealthy nations. It thrives among the downwardly mobile, but appeals to enough other people to fuel a revival of right-wing nationalism.

Why Trump won

The simplest generalizations about Trump voters–that they were downwardly mobile blue-collar workers or deplorable racists–do not stand up very well. Here are a few statements about why Trump won that I think the evidence will support:

  • Although Trump lost the popular vote, he won the electoral college vote by winning battleground states by small margins. Clinton won the most urbanized states by unnecessarily big margins.
  • Although Trump voters were not as a group economically worse off than Clinton voters, he did especially well among voters who said they were worse off than they were four years ago. That may have made the difference in states with big losses of manufacturing jobs. Overall, however, voters who cited the economy as their #1 issue favored Clinton.
  • Most of Trump’s support came from the groups that usually vote Republican, especially white males. This has little to do with any Republican policies favoring the working class, and much more to do with the party’s resistance to government activism, especially activism on behalf of women and minorities.
  • In addition to standard Republican hostility to Big Government, Trump appealed to voters who blame America’s problems on immigrants or foreign trade. This is not a majority view, but an increasingly popular one in troubled Western economies.

President Trump will have his hands full trying to meet the expectations of his various constituencies: traditional small-government Republicans who are interested primarily in tax cuts, deregulation and privatization; economic nationalists who want to deport immigrants and erect trade barriers; and unemployed or underemployed workers who want jobs programs.

 

 

 


The Trump “Style” and Its Appeal

September 13, 2016

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A number of political commentators are starting to suggest that Hillary Clinton could win the upcoming political debates on substance, but lose them on style. No one seems to doubt that Clinton is far more knowledgeable on policy issues and has more detailed policy positions. The latest issue of The Week reports that “Donald Trump’s campaign has seven policy proposals listed on his website, totaling 9,000 words. Hillary Clinton’s campaign has 65 policy fact sheets, with detailed proposals totaling 112,735 words.” Clinton and her running mate, Tim Kaine, have also just released a book describing their proposals, Stronger Together: A Blueprint for America’s Future. Nevertheless, although most commentators regard Donald Trump’s ideas as more simplistic, ill-informed and even dangerous, they have to admit that he continues to appeal to a large portion of the electorate. One explanation is that people just like his style, and style trumps substance in U.S. elections.

What is it about this style that is so appealing? A few adjectives come to mind: loud, combative, self-aggrandizing, politically incorrect, and autocratic.

When I say “loud,” I mean more than the volume of Trump’s voice. He has a way of drowning out other voices in the room by seizing the media spotlight for himself. He provides a steady stream of colorful remarks to resonate in the media echo chamber. He commands attention and attracts a following.

Americans love physical and verbal combat, at least as a spectator sport, and Trump’s combative style appeals to those who feel he is fighting for them. He rallies supporters by portraying America as an embattled nation, threatened primarily by foreigners, immigrants and terrorists. His enemies list also includes anyone who criticizes him or sees the world differently, such as political liberals and most journalists.

Trump is probably the most blatantly self-aggrandizing candidate we’ve ever seen. He claims to have the answer for everything, whether it is inner-city poverty or terrorism. On domestic policy, he knows more than the policy experts who’ve worked on the problems for years, and on military policy he “knows more than the generals.” He rarely reveals his policy plans, of course, but trust him, he has them and they are amazing. This oversize confidence appeals to those who would rather put their faith in a strong father-figure rather than deal with the complexities of the issues.

Trump also boasts of his “political incorrectness.” This rather odd term is a product of the debates over racism and sexism since the 1960s. I think it is a respectable way of saying that one is resisting calls from women and minorities to change attitudes and behavior. For example, women have argued that if they are to be equals in workplaces, universities, the military and other spheres of achievement, they cannot be subjected to unwanted sexual attention. This can be confusing to men, who need to develop the sensitivity to discern when sexual advances are welcome and when they are not. Some men just don’t get it, and claim not to know what all the fuss is about. And some disparage the whole attempt to discourage sexist or racist behavior as an exercise in “political correctness,” a needless infringement on their freedom of thought, speech and action. Boasting about one’s political incorrectness is a way of standing up for the privilege to say and do what one pleases, whether it is offensive to others or not. The fact that Donald Trump rushed to defend Roger Ailes when he was accused of sexual harassment, even before the facts were in, and then brought him into his campaign as an informal adviser after he was fired by Fox News, is an indication of what Trump’s political incorrectness can mean. It is a code word for white male resistance to the new assertiveness of women and minorities.

Does that mean that Trump and his followers are sexists and racists? Obviously that is a very contentious and contested notion. They can easily protest: “We’re not racists; we just want to stop Mexicans and other foreigners from taking our jobs. We just want to stop potential terrorists from entering the country. We just support “law and order” and the right of police to defend themselves against dangerous suspects.” Trump’s critics can point out the racial subtext lying just beneath the surface of these positions. “Law and order,” a favorite phrase of racists from Adolf Hitler to George Wallace, can mean defending the white-supremacist social order by keeping minorities in their place. And what is the racial subtext of the “birther” movement previously led by Donald Trump? He no longer talks about it publicly himself. But a recent poll found that 59% of voters who approve of Trump believe that Barack Obama was not born in the United States and is therefore not qualified to be president. Isn’t the real message that Obama cannot be a legitimate American leader because of the color of his skin?

As a practical matter, calling people sexist or racist is usually counterproductive. I believe that the most prejudiced people have defense mechanisms that allow them to deny their own prejudices. The most we can hope for is to get them to question certain positions by calling attention to their prejudicial implications. For example, if you believe, as many of my students have liked to think, that the playing field is already level and blacks have been given every opportunity, then you may conclude that only laziness or stupidity can account for their higher rates of poverty. Some may be willing to question their assumptions, but only if they are questioned respectfully and not just insulted. Besides, Trump and his supporters have gotten very good at answering such accusations by attacking their attackers. “Call us racists? That’s what you Democrats always do, play the race card when you don’t want to discuss ideas.” (That’s almost an exact quote from a Trump surrogate.) So Trump and his supporters claim the moral high ground while accusing Clinton of being the real bigot, prejudiced against the white working class. Her calling his more extreme supporters “deplorable” only plays into that narrative.

Trump’s political incorrectness walks a fine line, flirting enough with sexism and racism to attract a core following of angry white men, but trying not to be so obvious that moderate Republicans are too shocked to vote for him. So he makes a show of reaching out to African Americans, but in a way that demonstrates little racial understanding or even curiosity. By describing black communities as nothing but cesspools of poverty and crime, he insults the group he claims to want to help. (The black poverty rate is higher than the white rate, but most African Americans are not in poverty.)

Donald Trump’s autocratic tendencies have been on display in his admiration of Vladimir Putin. He may be right that Putin is more popular with Russians than Obama is with Americans, although Obama’s approval rating is much higher than Trump’s. Russians, of course, have a long history of autocratic leadership. Putin has sustained his support by projecting military power abroad (especially by taking Crimea and supporting the Assad dictatorship in Syria), by rigidly controlling the media, and apparently by having some of his opponents eliminated. For now, he is maintaining his popularity despite the downturn in the Russian economy. Trump is impressed with Putin’s strength, without considering whether it is the type of strength appropriate for a more democratic leader. Former world chess champion Garry Kasparov says, “Vladimir Putin is a strong leader in the same way that arsenic is a strong drink.” The New York Times described Putin as “a seductive figure for Western politicians and electors, who often pine for decisive action and a more secure world, free from the uncertainties created by immigration, insecurity and economic globalization.”

Personal style or social movement?

I have characterized the Trump style as loud, combative, self-aggrandizing, politically incorrect and autocratic. Others will no doubt want to add their own adjectives, some less polite than mine. But is that really what the Trump phenomenon is about, or is it a lot more than that?

Some media observers have started to use the term “Trumpism” to distinguish the Donald’s brand of politics from mainstream conservatism. Without denying the need to make such a distinction, I’m not sure that’s the best thing to call it. That may give the impression that the Trump phenomenon is nothing but a personal style of politics that will fade from the scene if Trump loses. Although we may never see another Donald Trump, we have seen this kind of belligerent politics before. It is the kind of political stance that appeals to people who feel that somebody is taking something away from them, and they see no alternative but to fight to take it back. It is what we see when social change threatens to leave people behind. They become susceptible to the appeal of some tough-talking strong man who promises to restore them to their former position. That’s the real message of “make America great again.”

In theory, a changing economy has the potential to create as well as destroy, to create new jobs and new skills to replace those that are in decline. How exactly to do that in today’s globalizing, automating economy is a problem that has many experts scratching their heads. People can be forgiven for wanting to hold onto what they have or get back what they have lost. They want to hear that we can bring the coal mining jobs back, not that they are gone forever. We could be having a national conversation about how government could help facilitate postindustrial development. Instead, Trump has us fixated on walling ourselves off from the rest of the world.

People in other countries have their own reasons for supporting reactionary politics. Millions of ordinary Muslims have gotten little or no benefit from the limited modernization of their countries and the development of their oil resources. Angry Muslims who blame America (the largest oil consumer) for their problems are not so different from the anti-Muslim Americans who want to “bomb the hell out of them.” Neither group sees a positive way forward toward peace and prosperity in the world as a whole or the Middle East in particular. Both sides just cling to their traditions, dream of restoring lost greatness, and wish that the other side would disappear.

Today’s global problems call for imagination, creativity and innovation. People need empowerment, to be sure, but they need constructive forms of power like the power of knowledge, organization, and cooperative uses of economic resources. The alternative is a pessimistic, reactionary politics where society is viewed as a zero-sum game and power is used to settle who wins and who loses. That’s where the Trump style fits right in. Don’t create anything new; just take back what seems rightfully yours. Take back manufacturing jobs by erecting trade barriers to foreign goods, but somehow make the rest of the world accept our exports. Take back jobs that have gone to immigrants by kicking them out and building a wall to keep them out. Keep the Middle Eastern oil flowing, and take over foreign oil fields if necessary to keep them out of enemy hands.

Who better to carry out such policies than a loud, combative, self-aggrandizing, politically incorrect autocrat? Donald Trump is that kind of guy, but he is not the only one. If one such leader fails, another will probably emerge, until more people see a better way forward. Reactionary populism is on the ascendancy in many countries, including countries like Germany and Austria that ought to know better. We have seen this before, during the Great Depression and World War II. It is bigger than any one man, and we should not underestimate the danger.


Brown Is the New White (part 2)

March 23, 2016

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Having shown how demographic changes are enabling Democrats to put together a coalition of progressive Whites, Blacks, Latinos, and Asian Americans, Steve Phillips discusses what this means for political strategy and policy. He believes that Democrats must acknowledge how much they have been “blinded by the White”: “Even at this time, when a racial demographic revolution has transformed the composition of the electorate and elected and reelected a Black president, much of the progressive movement and many progressive campaigns are still dominated by White leadership, fixated on White voters, and focused on policies preferred by White people.” Until that changes, the progressive movement cannot reach its full potential either in popular appeal or social impact.

Part of the argument for refocusing Democratic strategy and policy is practical. The Party has been concentrating too much of its attention on the small and shrinking proportion of White swing voters in the electorate, while failing to mobilize the growing segments of the population. When Democrats win the Presidency but then lose the next midterm election, the pundits assume that too many White voters shifted Republican, instead of noticing that too few people of color turned out to vote. The Democratic base is now large enough to win more elections just by motivating existing supporters to vote, even if support from White working-class voters remains under 50%. Money that is spent on campaign ads trying to sway undecided voters might be better spent on door-to-door voting drives targeting minority neighborhoods. But when 97% of the Party’s political consultants are White, outreach to minority communities may not get the attention it deserves.

As long as Democratic leaders believe that their success depends on appealing to White swing voters, they may fail to develop policies that excite progressives and bring them to the polls. President Obama developed a very moderate position on immigration reform, trying to bargain with conservatives by getting tough on border security and deportations in the hope of gaining their support for a path to citizenship. He wound up with neither Republican cooperation nor enthusiastic Latino support. Phillips feels that Democrats would have done better by taking a bolder position and turning out their base to vote for it.

Beyond the practical argument that Democrats ought to pay more attention to growing minorities, there is a deeper argument about social justice. “The New American Majority is inherently progressive because it is a direct outgrowth of centuries of exclusion and exploitation.” Americans who care about social justice should make common cause with historically marginalized and oppressed peoples. Phillips quotes sociologist Joe Feagin on the subject of racial inequality: “Social science research is clear that white-black inequalities today are substantially the result of a majority of whites socially inheriting unjust enrichments (money, land, home equities, social capital, etc.) from numerous previous white generations— the majority of whom benefited from the racialized slavery system and/or the de jure (Jim Crow) and de facto overt racial oppression that followed slavery for nearly a century, indeed until the late 1960s.” Social science research also documents the persistence of subtle forms of discrimination. For example, a recent study sent out job resumes with identical credentials but different names. “Those with more ‘Black-sounding’ names such as Lakisha and Jamal received 50 percent fewer callbacks for interviews than those with more ‘White-sounding’ names such as Emily and Greg.”

The country’s changing demographics create an opportunity to rectify such injustices, by reconsidering policies that impact most heavily on minority communities. For example, a majority of those who live within two miles of a toxic waste dump are people of color. Bill Clinton now acknowledges that the tougher federal sentencing guidelines he approved contributed to the over-incarceration of African Americans. And Phillips wants to change the narrative that we like to tell about poverty “from one in which poverty is seen as an individual failing to one that connects modern-day poverty to more than four hundred years of systemic, intentional injustice against people of color as a group.”

If one takes this quote and a few others too literally, they make it sound as if only people of color are poor, and only communities of color are victims of injustice. A close reading of the book reveals that this is not Phillips’ intention, since he also mentions social reforms that could benefit all groups, such as larger investments in public education and universal voter registration. Nevertheless, he seems most interested in “making major changes in priorities so that time, attention, and massive amounts of resources are directed toward the country’s communities of color.” He does not discuss the historical struggle of working-class White ethnic groups for decent wages and working conditions. He seems content to assemble his progressive majority without increasing White working-class support. Although that is mathematically possible, wouldn’t it be even better if the Democratic Party could appeal to more working-class people across the racial divide? Too many working-class Whites vote Republican because Democrats have not shown them how they would benefit from Democratic economic policies. Surely Democrats can do a better job in that department without sacrificing their progressivism.

Although Phillips sees a great potential for Democrats to benefit from the “New American Majority,” he warns that conservatives can also count. Republicans have been using two main strategies to counter the growing numbers of minorities: “suppression and seduction.” First, they pass restrictive voting measures that impact more heavily on the poor and minorities, many of whom lack government-issued IDs. Second, they seek out unusually conservative members of minority groups (that is, those who oppose progressive policies to combat inequality) and back them for public office. Some moderate Republicans are willing to entertain more authentic minority appeals. After President Obama’s reelection in 2012, the Republican Party’s “Growth and Opportunity Project,” popularly known as the “autopsy,” recommended more outreach to people of color and specifically endorsed comprehensive immigration reform. Phillips warns Democrats that they could miss an historical opportunity here, if Republicans nominate a moderate like Jeb Bush or Marco Rubio and get serious about appealing to Latinos. So far, the Republican base doesn’t seem to be getting the message, since their favorite presidential candidates are those with the most restrictive immigration policies. At this time, the prospects for a “New American Majority” to elect another Democratic president seem pretty bright.


Brown Is the New White

March 21, 2016

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Steve Phillips. Brown Is the New White: How the Demographic Revolution Has Created a New American Majority. New York: The New Press, 2015.

Steve Phillips makes the case that the United States already has a progressive majority, if the demographic growth and voting patterns of the nonwhite population are taken seriously. In 2012, President Obama won reelection with only 39% of the White vote, but with 93% of the Black vote, 71% of the Latino vote, and 73% of the Asian American vote. Other things being equal, this Democratic coalition should grow because of the rapid growth of the nonwhite population. “Each day, the size of the U.S. population increases by more than 8,000 people, and nearly 90 percent of that growth consists of people of color.”

This is not to say that progressive Whites are an insignificant part of the coalition. If only people of color voted reliably Democratic, then any significant political shift could not occur until around 2044, when the U.S. is expected to become a “majority minority” country. But looking at it that way assumes more white-nonwhite polarization than actually exists, and it “overlooks the equation that’s been hiding in plain sight.” Add progressive Whites to progressive people of color, and “this calculation reveals that America has a progressive, multiracial majority right now that has the power to elect presidents and reshape American politics, policies, and priorities for decades to come.”

Historically, the growing political significance of people of color goes back to two major legislative acts of 1965. The Voting Rights Act enabled African Americans to vote in many states where they had been prevented from doing so. The Immigration and Nationality Act got rid of the old quota system that had favored European immigrants, thus opening the door to more Asians, Latin Americans and Africans. Illegal immigration has changed the electorate too, since the children born here are citizens with voting rights even if their parents are not.

Consider the demographics of the various groups:

Non-Latino Whites are 63% of the population and 71% of the Citizen Voting Age Population. They are a much larger portion of the older population than the younger, however, and their overall proportion will continue to decline. On the average they have voted 40% Democratic since 1972.

African Americans are 13% of both the total population and the Citizen Voting Age Population. They have an exceptionally strong allegiance to the Democratic Party.

Latinos are now 17% of the population but only 10% of the Citizen Voting Age Population, since so many are undocumented or not old enough to vote. However, young Latinos are turning eighteen at a rate of about 800,000 a year. Latinos surpassed African Americans in population in 2001, but they have not surpassed them in voting population. They vote much more Democratic than Republican, but not as Democratic as Blacks.

Asian Americans are 6% of the population and 4% of the Citizen Voting Age Population. Their rate of growth in the population surpasses all the others. They also tend to vote Democratic.

Phillips sees a “New American Majority” that is now at 51% of the electorate and growing. He bases this on a simple calculation that multiplies each group’s percentage of the country’s eligible voters by the group’s support for Barack Obama in 2012. (One has to accept the latter as a decent indicator of progressive sentiment.) For example, Latinos are 10% of the country’s voters and voted 71% for Obama, so it follows that 7% of the electorate may be considered progressive Latinos. Similar calculations reveal an electorate that includes 28% progressive Whites, 12% progressive Blacks, 3% progressive Asians, and 1% other progressives. Total: 51 percent!

Phillips identifies 33 states where this new majority “has an outright or soon-to-be-outright mathematical majority of eligible voters.” That’s a total of 398 electoral votes, far more than the 270 required to win the presidency. The new majority is especially influential in big cities, while what might be called the old majority is more prominent in rural areas. This urban-rural split, along with some very effective Republican gerrymandering, accounts for the pattern of governance in states like Texas and North Carolina, where Republicans control the state government and the Congressional delegation while Democrats control many large cities.

The next post will discuss the implications of these changes for political strategy and policy. How can the Democratic Party best consolidate a progressive coalition?

Continued