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The Great White Mope: How White America’s Declining Status Gave Rise to the Latest Surge in Populism

September 19, 2016
by Ben Christopher

White America seems to be in a funk these days. The economy may be growing, the unemployment rate may be down, the Bureau of Labor Statistics may assure us—no, really, disbelieve your lyin’ eyes—that the recession is long over, but according to the 2015 American Values Survey conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute, less than half of white Americans believe that the country’s best days lie ahead. Most blacks and Hispanics, noting a marked improvement in the nation’s culture since the 1950s, do not share this pessimism. The despondency is race specific.

That may go a long way to explaining the populist insurgencies on both sides of the political divide, as exemplified by Donald Trump’s capture of his party’s nomination, and Bernie Sanders’s earlier challenge to Hillary Clinton’s seemingly inviolable position as the Democratic nominee. Trump and Sanders supporters may not share much beyond a mutual despondency and pervasive whiteness (American National Election Studies data shows 91 percent of Trump’s early supporters and 75 percent of Sanders’s were Caucasian), but the disproportionate racial makeup of the populist vote is telling, says Henry Brady, dean at UC Berkeley’s Goldman School of Public Policy.

“From the perspective of many folks out there who are Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump supporters, basically the society has passed them by,” Brady says. “What’s interesting is that historically, that’s a group that has been treated pretty well in America and now … it’s really a gap between what they knew and what they’re now getting—the worker who used to work in a steel mill for $40 per hour now has trouble getting a job at minimum wage.”

That gap has grown wider for some segments of white America than for others. Last fall, Nobel laureate Angus Deaton, and his wife and fellow economist Anne Case, published research showing that morbidity and mortality rates for middle-aged white Americans have been on the rise in the past two decades, bucking a long trend of gradually improving health and longevity for all Americans. The spike was most pronounced among those with little education, and the list of chief causes tells a grim story: “drug and alcohol poisonings, suicide, and chronic liver diseases and cirrhosis.”

Some members of the conservative commentariat have diagnosed the problem as a moral one. In 2012, Charles Murray bemoaned the birth of a “new lower class” which, having abandoned the nation’s “founding virtues” of industriousness, marriage, honesty, and religion, now finds itself living at the economic, cultural, and spiritual margins of American society. Mustering all of Murray’s condescension and none of his subtlety, National Review’s Kevin Williamson came to a similar conclusion last March when he sneered at the impoverished and benighted knuckle-draggers that make up Trump’s base, as members of a “vicious, selfish culture whose main products are misery and used heroin needles.” Trumplandia, Williamson nobly concluded, is made of “dysfunctional, downscale communities … [that] deserve to die.”

Commenters on the left have been more inclined to view Trump supporters and other populists of 2016 as globalization’s discontents. This was one of the reigning interpretations of the Brexit vote last June, when English voters chose to unceremoniously leave the EU. Writing on the day that the results were announced, English political economist Will Davies tried to make sense of the self-destructive decision of so many lower- and middle-income Brits to wrench their country from one of the largest economic and cultural engines in the world. “Amongst people who have utterly given up on the future, political movements don’t need to promise any desirable and realistic change,” he wrote. “If anything, they are more comforting and trustworthy if predicated on the notion that the future is beyond rescue, for that chimes more closely with people’s private experiences.”

Most of the world is now richer, but the “biggest losers” of the 21st-century economy include the working classes of rich countries, whose incomes have stagnated or actually fallen.

Along similar lines, many American journalists have paired the Deaton and Case findings with the work of CUNY economist Branko Milanovic in trying to make sense of this year’s election. “This may be the most important chart for understanding politics today,” was the title of a piece Matt O’Brien wrote in The Washington Post last January. In it, he explains one of Milanovic’s graphs, which shows how various segments of the world population have seen their incomes rise (or not) since the end of the Cold War. The takeaway: Most of the world is now richer, but the “biggest losers” of the 21st-century economy include the working classes of rich countries, whose incomes have stagnated or actually fallen.

That so many of these “losers” are now voting ought to teach us a lesson, says Berkeley’s Brady: “Elites have to come to grips with the fact that all the stuff that’s going on in the new economy—with free trade, with global expansion, and so forth—that there’s a group that really gets hurt by that.”

But while economic hardship certainly helps to explain the appeal of the democratic socialist from Vermont, it’s harder to see how it engenders support for a race-baiting, maybe-billionaire from New York. Some liberals argue that the white working class simply fails to comprehend its own economic interest. But when Trump supporters cheer loudest for his proposed wall (and not, say, his tax plan), we should take the response at face value.

Matt Grossmann, a Berkeley Ph.D., is now director of the Institute for Public Policy and Social Research, an associate professor at Michigan State University, and the author of Asymmetric Politics: Ideological Republicans and Group Interest Democrats. Grossman does not see economics at the heart of the success of either the Trump or the Sanders campaign—based, for one thing, on the primary results. Despite National Review’s caricature of the pill-popping hillbillies living in squalor, the typical Trump voter’s household income appears to be over $70,000, nearly $20,000 over the national average. Sanders’s supporters were a bit poorer, but they were also younger and not yet at their full earning potential.

Furthermore, says Grossmann, although both Trump and Sanders may play to a widespread economic anxiety and an “undifferentiated anger” directed at political elites, the similarities stop there. In fact, the supporters of the two candidates are demographic mirror images of one another: Whereas Sanders supporters typically “have a lot of education, but not the income to go with it,” Trump supporters “have more income than their education level would normally be associated with.” In broad strokes, then, these are upwardly aspiring college grads versus aging blue-collar workers who got a slice of the American Dream before that particular pie was reduced to crumbs. While the latter may fear that theirs is the last generation to make it to the middle class without academic credentials, the former fear that even those expensive credentials may not be enough.

Then again, says Grossmann, the populist movement may have little to do with economic aspirations at all. Looking at the polling data that he and his MSU colleagues collected earlier this year, he says he found no evidence “to support the story that it was the downtrodden or the communities that were losing economically to trade” who voted for Trump and Sanders. Rather, their politics were driven more by culture and ideology: The people who seem to care about income inequality and to distrust political elites voted for Bernie, while “the factor that most differentiated Trump supporters from others was nativist or racially conservative attitudes.”

Grossmann finds one statistic particularly telling. The communities most likely to have voted for The Donald in the Michigan primary were not the ones most ravaged by international commerce, but a disproportionate number of them were the same districts that supported segregationist George Wallace in 1972.

The Wallace connection is no coincidence, says Lawrence Rosenthal, chair of Berkeley’s Center for Right-Wing Studies. Trump, he says, is only the latest modern American politician to stir up resentment against cultural elites, minority groups perceived to be favored by the state, and a too-rapidly-changing country. Appealing to the latter-day Hard Hat rioters and anti-bussing protesters, channeling the tell-it-like-it-is bravado of Archie Bunker and Merle Haggard, conjuring up dark-skinned bogeymen like Willie Horton and the Welfare Queen, “not only does Trump reflect that kind of urban populism, but he also is conversant in it.”

Occupying a nebulous economic position between poor and professional, evoking neither the sympathy of the welfare state nor the respect of the liberal establishment, “they do not live in abject, swinish poverty, nor in safe, remote suburban comfort.”

If you are looking for a primer on the Donald Trump presidential campaign, you could do worse than “The Revolt of the White Lower Middle Class.” The article, written by journalist Pete Hamill, prodigal son of blue-collar Irish immigrants, introduces New York magazine’s egghead readership to the gruff, industrious, white men who work, live, and quietly see the unseen across the five boroughs of the city.

Occupying a nebulous economic position between poor and professional, evoking neither the sympathy of the welfare state nor the respect of the liberal establishment, “they do not live in abject, swinish poverty, nor in safe, remote suburban comfort.” In off-color, casually bigoted language, they complain about frayed race relations, about burdensome taxes, about ineffectual politicians and effete intellectuals, and about the rising cost of damn near everything. Most worrisome to these men, “A large reason for the growing alienation of the white working class is their belief that they are not respected,” he writes. They feel “trapped and, even worse, in a society that purports to be democratic, ignored.”

Never mind that Hamill was writing in 1969. In most respects, his assessment feels fresh. He was describing Trump’s people.

As the son of a New York real estate developer who spent much of his childhood around construction workers, contractors, and landlords, says Rosenthal, Trump learned to speak the language of whites for whom anxiety about their place in society runs deeper than anxiety over their pocketbooks. “What he understood was that toward the very far right—what you might call the American populist right—in 2016, immigration was not only the key issue … They regarded it as kind of an existential question,” he says. “The immigration question was tied to the loss of the America they knew.”

To be sure, “the America they knew” is no more. According to the Census Bureau, the majority of babies and toddlers in the United States are now nonwhite. We are reminded of the changing face and shifting norms of America every time we switch on the TV, open a newspaper, or go online: A black man occupies the Oval Office, gay marriage is a constitutional right, Harriet Tubman will replace Andrew Jackson on the $20 bill, and new terms like “white privilege,” “transgender,” and “Black Lives Matter” have elbowed their way into the lexicon. Certainly the American economy has also changed, but stagnating wages is but one way in which the once-secure status of white Americans is now being called into question.

This kind of status anxiety can be a powerful motivator. Rachel Wetts, a Ph.D. student in Berkeley’s Department of Sociology, and Stanford sociologist Robb Willer have been examining the ways in which white Americans respond to the changing times.

The results were consistent: White respondents who were presented with evidence of declining white status—demographically or financially—were more likely to take a much more conservative line on welfare.

In studies, Wetts and Willer divided research participants into two groups and presented them with differing visions of America’s demographic and economic future. In one study, the first group was shown a population forecast depicting a persistent white majority, while a second group was shown a projection in which white America becomes a minority within a few decades. In a second study, Wetts took the same approach, but instead presented participants with dueling depictions of how white Americans fared relative to other racial and ethnic groups in the aftermath of the recession. Had the income gap between the races narrowed or expanded since 2008? After being primed accordingly, the groups were then asked for their feelings on federal welfare spending. The results were consistent: White respondents who were presented with evidence of declining white status—demographically or financially—were more likely to take a much more conservative line on welfare.

For Wetts, the findings suggest what may seem an obvious truth: Economic, political, and racial anxieties are not entirely independent things. We each entertain certain expectations about the position we occupy on the social ladder, and when those expectations are violated—be it by recession or by the election of a black president—we are more likely to kick down. “If your kid is having a hard time going to school and paying their debts, you think that’s not how life should be, even though, as a white middle-class American, there are groups that are doing much, much worse than you.” The more people are “feeling all of this anxiety for large invisible, structural reasons,” Wetts speculates, “the more tempting it is to project that anxiety onto an out group that is below you in status. These things amplify each other.”

This is not a new phenomenon. In a recent interview on NPR, President Obama noted the way in which racial bias advanced the interests of landowners in the post-Reconstruction South by preventing white and black sharecroppers from finding common ground. “That’s one of the oldest stories in American politics,” he said. Much to the chagrin of politicians such as Bernie Sanders, racial divisions in the United States are often too wide to be bridged by class solidarity.

Class and race are the climactic forces that shape our politics, but a third, more immediate factor explains the weird weather we’re having in 2016: our dysfunctional

But why should all this populist sentiment come to the fore now? On paper, the recession has been over since 2009. For decades now the shuttered factories of the Rust Belt have symbolized the casualties of ever freer global trade, and anxieties over race and racial identity have been with us since the country’s inception. Class and race are the climactic forces that shape our politics, but a third, more immediate factor explains the weird weather we’re having in 2016: our dysfunctional politics.

That is the view of Thomas E. Mann. A resident scholar at Berkeley’s Institute of Governmental Studies and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, Mann is coauthor of It’s Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided with the New Politics of Extremism. He views the current politics of extremism as partly self-inflicted by the political establishment, particularly on the right.

“In addition to the broader forces that are operating across the globe, it really reflects choices made by the Republican party and what they have become,” he says. Beyond the race baiting and dog whistling that critics on the left have long put at the feet of the Grand Old Party, Mann points to what he sees as a cynical manipulation of the public’s expectations. Starting in 2010, he says, the rhetoric coming out of the House leadership took a turn towards the bombastic: They said “‘We can use the debt ceiling as a lever to get what we want, and we can repeal Obamacare and we can do this and we can do that!’ when they knew good and well that they couldn’t do any of it.” This created a constituency of frustrated voters, says Mann, in search of a candidate who could finally keep those impossible promises.

Enter Donald Trump: a self-styled deal maker, a businessman, a guy who can get things done. And on the other side of the aisle: Bernie Sanders, with his promise to clear the logjam of governmental inactivity through the sheer force of his convictions and the purity of his intentions. No doubt the Sanders call to revolution appealed to citizens frustrated by the sense that Obama’s campaign promise of Change looked a lot like the status quo. Young liberals, who came of age in an era of impeachment hearings, filibusters, and debt ceiling negotiations, were only too willing to depart from the Democratic Party proper, says Mann, “because the politics has been so unpleasant and seemingly unproductive.”

Even so, Sanders lost his party’s nomination and Trump won his. And that, says Mann, tells us something. Though the cantankerous senator from Vermont was able to inspire millions of young voters, he did not make sufficient inroads with the rest of the party’s traditional base: older, African-American, Latino, Asian-American, and immigrant voters. As Lincoln Mitchell wrote in the New York Observer last April, many “African-American voters, particularly those of a certain age … see a candidate who implicitly sees race as important but secondary to broad economic problems, and who has not spent enough time working with and among African Americans.” Plus, says Mann, “Revolutions are really scary…. Many [nonwhite voters] have experienced those (directly or indirectly), and they’re really awful.”

Two days after the California Democratic primary signaled an end to Bernie Sanders’s presidential ambitions, Rolling Stone’s Matt Taibbi wrote an article called “Democrats Will Learn All the Wrong Lessons from Brush with Bernie.” This is the moment, wrote Taibbi, now that “the Republican party has collapsed under the weight of its own nativist lunacy … [that] the Democrats should feel free to become a real party of ordinary working people.” But they won’t, he said. The party, insular and motivated only by the horse race, has its head in the sand (Taibbi did not use the term “head in the sand”).

Henry Brady at the Goldman School says the GOP has likewise failed to learn the right lesson from this campaign; namely, that “a policy program that basically amounts to ‘we hate Obama and we’re going to cut taxes’ is not what these people want to hear.”

In the aftermath of an election that your side wins, it is often all too easy to ignore “what these people want to hear.” Following the California gubernatorial primary of 1974, in which soon-to-be Governor Moonbeam won the Democratic nomination and a host of liberals across the state were victorious, columnist Joseph Kraft in The Washington Post hailed “The End of Backlash Politics.” The nation’s conservative fever had broken, he wrote. “Given California’s record as political pacesetter for the nation, the primary here may be handwriting on the wall for right-wing populism elsewhere.” Six years later, right-wing populism helped deliver Reagan to the White House.

Barring scandal, calamity, or widespread public-opinion poll malfunction, Hillary Clinton will be elected president on November 8. Which means that the year of the political outsider, which saw both a Jewish democratic socialist and a political novice, reality-TV-show birther make honest runs at the Oval Office, will end with the election of a woman many nonetheless see as the consummate political insider.

But elections do more than crown victors. And this election in particular is poised to change the complexion of both parties. A post-Bernie Democratic party is one that is far more ambivalent about ’90s trade policy, one that no longer gets the word “socialism” stuck in its throat, and one in which the transactional politics that have long brought the party coalition together continue to be attacked by anti-establishment upstarts. A post-Trump Republican party is one that will be forced to finally take stock after losing the White House for the third time in a row and deliberately seek out a bigger tent for a 21st-century electorate. That, or it will reject the secular brutishness of Donald Trump in favor of a true conservative ideologue, such as Ted Cruz. Or maybe the legions of Trumpers will rend asunder the Reagan consensus of market, military, and religion and continue to drive the party in the direction of white nationalism.

As Joseph Kraft could have attested, political prognostication is a risky business. It’s not easy to read the “handwriting on the wall” this year, but doubtless, it does not spell the end of anything. 

Ben Christopher, MPP ’16, is a Bay Area-based journalist who is currently a staff writer for Priceonomics.

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