In The New Yorker’s “The Unconnected: Hillary Clinton and the Populist Revolt,” George Packer presents an extremely important analysis of the Presidential campaign. It’s very long, so I present extensive excerpts here and make some comments at the end.
The subtitle is: “The Democrats lost the white working class. The Republicans exploited them. Can Hillary Clinton win them back?”
I think we Democrats have not provided as clear a message about how we see the economy as we need to….
We have come to heavily favor the financial markets over the otherwise productive markets….
But right now an awful lot of people feel there is less and less respect for the work they do. And less respect for them, period. Democrats, we are the party of working people, but we haven’t done a good enough job showing we get what you’re going through….
“We have been fighting out elections in general on a lot of noneconomic issues over the past thirty years,” [Clinton] said—social issues, welfare, crime, war. “Sometimes we win, sometimes we lose, but we haven’t had a coherent, compelling economic case that needs to be made in order to lay down a foundation on which to both conduct politics and do policy.”…
“Working class,” meanwhile, has become a euphemism. It once suggested productivity and sturdiness. Now it means downwardly mobile, poor, even pathological. A significant part of the W.W.C. [white working class] has succumbed to the ills that used to be associated with the black urban “underclass”….
Americans like Mark Frisbie have no foundation to stand on; they’re unorganized, unheard, unspoken for. They sink alone….
Most of his critics are too reasonable to fathom his fury-driven campaign. Many don’t know a single Trump supporter. But to fight Trump you have to understand his appeal….
Trump’s core voters are revealed by poll after poll to be members of the W.W.C. His campaign has made them a self-conscious identity group. They’re one among many factions in the country today—their mutual suspicions flaring, the boundaries between them hardening. A disaster on this scale belongs to no single set of Americans, and it will play out long after the November election, regardless of the outcome. Trump represents the whole country’s failure….
In Thomas Frank’s recent book, “Listen, Liberal,” he describes the result: “The McGovern Commission reforms seemed to be populist, but their effect was to replace one group of party insiders with another—in this case, to replace leaders of workers’ organizations with affluent professionals.”…
In 1971, Fred Dutton, a member of the McGovern Commission, published a book called “Changing Sources of Power,” which hailed young college-educated idealists as the future of the Party. Pocketbook issues would give way to concerns about quality of life. Called the New Politics, this set of priorities emphasized personal morality over class interest…. Instead of speaking for the working class, the Clintons spoke about equipping workers to rise into the professional class. Their presumption was that all Americans could be like them….
Many union members, feeling devalued by the Party, voted for Nixon, contributing to his landslide victory….
The McGovern rout left its young foot soldiers with two options: restore the Party’s working-class identity or move on to a future where educated professionals might compose a Democratic majority. Hart and Clinton followed the second path….
Clinton turned sharply toward deregulation, embracing the free-market ideas of his Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin and the chairman of the Federal Reserve Alan Greenspan….
Economic conflict was obsolete. Education was the answer to all problems of social class….
In our conversation, Hillary Clinton spoke of the limits of an “educationalist” mind-set, which she called a “peculiar form of élitism.” Educationalists, she noted, say they “want to lift everybody up”—they “don’t want to tell anybody that they can’t go as high as their ambition will take them.” The problem was that “we’re going to have a lot of jobs in this economy” that require blue-collar skills, not B.A.s. “We need to do something that is really important, and this is to just go right after the denigration of jobs and skills that are not college-connected.”…
The phenomenal productivity of the New Economy was powered by the goods and services created by the rising young professional class—I.T. engineers, bankers, financial analysts, lawyers, designers, management consultants…. The spirit of the time was a heady concoction of high purpose and self-congratulation—a secular brand of Calvinism, with the state of inward grace revealed outwardly by an Ivy League degree, Silicon Valley stock options, and a White House invitation. Meritocracy had become the creed of Clinton’s party….
In 1999, Thomas Friedman published “The Lexus and the Olive Tree: Understanding Globalization.”… The book’s heroes were entrepreneurs, financiers, and technologists, hopping airports between New York, San Francisco, London, Hong Kong. “The Lexus and the Olive Tree” was “Das Kapital” for meritocrats….
To Democratic policymakers, poverty was foreign or it was black. As for displaced white workers in the Rust Belt, Summers said, “their problems weren’t heavily on our radar screen, and they were mad that their problems weren’t.”…
In…2004, the political scientist Samuel Huntington published his final book, “Who Are We? The Challenges to America’s National Identity.” He used the term “cosmopolitan élites” to describe Americans who are at home in the fluid world of transnational corporations, dual citizenship, blended identities, and multicultural education. Such people dominate our universities, tech companies, publishers, nonprofits, entertainment studios, and news media. They congregate in cities and on the coasts. Lately, they have become particularly obsessed with the food they eat…. The line between social consciousness and self-gratification disappears….
“The energy coming out of the new lower class really only needed a voice, because they are so pissed off at people like you and me,” he said. “We so obviously despise them, we so obviously condescend to them—‘flyover country.’ The only slur you can use at a dinner party and get away with is to call somebody a redneck—that won’t give you any problems in Manhattan. And you can also talk about evangelical Christians in the most disparaging terms—you will get no pushback from that. They’re aware of this kind of condescension. And they also haven’t been doing real well.”…
The moral superiority of élites comes cheap. Recently, Murray has done demographic research on “Super Zips”—the Zip Codes of the most privileged residents of New York, Washington, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. “Super Zips are integrated in only one way—Asians,” he said. “Blacks and Latinos are about as scarce in the Super Zips as they were in the nineteen-fifties.” Multiethnic America, with its tensions and resentments, poses no problem for élites, who can buy their way out….
The Hamilton who distrusted popular democracy is now overlooked or accepted—after all, today’s cosmopolitan élites similarly distrust the passions of their less educated compatriots….
“We have to talk about black folks,” [Nelini] Stamp told me. “Class will always be at the center of my politics, but if I’m not centering black folks at the same time then I’m not going to get free. We’re not going to change things. We can have this populist argument all we want, but if we don’t repair the sins of the past—we could have a bunch of reforms, but if we’re still being killed it’s going to become white economic populism if we don’t have the race stuff together.”
Her ideal, she said, would be to see “white working-class people standing beside black folks, saying, ‘Your struggle is my struggle.’ That’s my dream!”…
Coates’s writing in “Between the World and Me” has a stance and a rhetorical sweep that make the give-and-take of politics seem almost impossible. Somewhere between this jeremiad and the naïve idea of inevitable progress lies the complicated truth….
If racial injustice is considered to be monolithic and unchanging—omitting the context of individual actions, white and black—the political response tends to be equally rigid: genuflection or rejection. Clinton’s constituency surely includes many voters who would welcome a nuanced discussion of race—one that addresses, for example, both drug-sentencing reform and urban crime. But identity politics breaks down the distinction between an idea and the person articulating it, so that before speaking up one has to ask: Does my identity give me the right to say this? Could my identity be the focus of a Twitter backlash? This atmosphere makes honest conversation very hard, and gives a demagogue like Trump the aura of being a truthteller. The “authenticity” that his followers so admire is factually wrong and morally repulsive. But when people of good will are afraid to air legitimate arguments the illegitimate kind gains power….
For Democrats, the politics of race and class are fraught. If you focus insistently on class, as Bernie Sanders did at the start of the campaign, you risk seeming to be concerned only with whites. Focus insistently on race, and the Party risks being seen as a factional coalition without universal appeal—the fate of the Democratic Party in the seventies and eighties. The new racial politics puts Democrats like Clinton in the middle of this dilemma….
I recently spoke with the social scientist Glenn Loury, who teaches at Brown University. As he sees it, if race becomes an irreducible category in politics, rather than being incorporated into universal claims of justice, it’s a weapon that can be picked up and used by anyone. “Better watch out,” he said. “I don’t know how you live by the identity-politics sword and don’t die by it.” Its logic lumps everyone—including soon-to-be-minority whites—into an interest group. One person’s nationalism intensifies tribal feelings in others, in what feels like a zero-sum game. “I really don’t know how you ask white people not to be white in the world we’re creating,” Loury said. “How are there not white interests in a world where there are these other interests?” He continued, “My answer is that we not lose sight of the goal of racially transcendent humanism being the American bedrock. It’s the abandonment of this goal that I’m objecting to.”…
It was important to speak to people’s anxieties about identity, to address “systemic racism,” Clinton said. “But it’s also the case that a vast group of Americans have economic anxiety, and if they think we are only talking about issues that they are not personally connected to, then it’s understandable that they would say, ‘There’s nothing there for me.’ ”
Clinton pounced on Obama’s speech [about clinging to guns and religion], calling it “élitist.”
She was right. Obama was expressing a widespread liberal attitude toward Republican-voting workers—that is, he didn’t take them seriously….
It was a fateful marriage. The new conservative populism did not possess an “orderly heart.” It was riven with destructive impulses….
During the Great Recession, I visited many hard-hit small towns, exurbs, rural areas, and old industrial cities, and kept meeting Americans who didn’t match the red-blue scheme…. They believed that the game was rigged for the powerful and the connected, and that they and their children were screwed.
The left-versus-right division wasn’t entirely mistaken, but one could draw a new chart that explained things differently and perhaps more accurately: up versus down. Looked at this way, the élites on each side of the partisan divide have more in common with one another than they do with voters down below…. As Thomas Frank put it, “The leadership of the two parties represents two classes. The G.O.P. is a business élite; Democrats are a status élite, the professional class. They fight over sectors important for the national future—Wall Street, Big Pharma, energy, Silicon Valley. That is the contested terrain of American politics. What about the vast majority of people?”
The political upheaval of the past year has clarified that there are class divides in both parties. …
Indefatigable and protean, Clinton read the disaffected landscape and adapted in her characteristic style—with a policy agenda….
The internal class divide is less severe on the Democratic side. Even Lawrence Summers embraces government activism to reverse inequality, including infrastructure spending and progressive reform of the tax code. But Democrats can no longer really claim to be the party of working people—not white ones, anyway. Those voters, especially men, have become the Republican base, and the Republican Party has experienced the 2016 election as an agonizing schism, a hostile takeover by its own rank and file….
The great truth was that large numbers of Republican voters,… actually wanted government to do more things that benefitted them (as opposed to benefitting people they saw as undeserving)….
The ebbing tide of the white working and middle classes in America joins its counterpart in [Europe, Russia, and India]….Even the radical nostalgia of Islamists around the Muslim world bears more than a passing resemblance to the longing of Trump supporters for an America purified and restored to an imagined glory. One way or another, they all represent a reaction against modernity, with its ceaseless anxiety and churn….
There’s an ongoing battle among Trump’s opponents to define his supporters. Are they having a hard time economically, or are they just racists? Do they need to be listened to, or should they be condemned and written off?… All three politicians thought that they were speaking among friends—that is, in front of wealthy donors, the only setting on the campaign trail where truth comes out….
The Gallup poll doesn’t indicate how many Trump supporters are racists. Of course, there’s no way to disentangle economic and cultural motives, to draw a clear map of the stresses and resentments that animate the psyches of tens of millions of people. Some Americans have shown themselves to be implacably bigoted, but bias is not a fixed quality in most of us; it’s subject to manipulation, and it can wax and wane with circumstances. A sense of isolation and siege is unlikely to make anyone more tolerant….
If nearly half of your compatriots feel deeply at odds with the drift of things, it’s a matter of self-interest to try to understand why…. people are not wrong to want to live in cohesive communities, to ask new arrivals to become part of the melting pot, and to crave a degree of stability in a moral order based on values other than just diversity and efficiency. A world of heirloom tomatoes and self-driving cars isn’t the true and only Heaven….
Obama told Keenan that, during his final year in office, he wanted to make an argument for American progress in the twenty-first century. He called it “an ode to reason, rationality, humility, and delayed gratification.” Throughout the year, in a kind of extended farewell address, Obama has been speaking around the country about tolerance, compromise, and our common humanity. He never states his theme directly, but it’s the values of liberal democracy….
He told the graduating class, “We must expand our moral imaginations to understand and empathize with all people who are struggling, not just black folks who are struggling—the refugee, the immigrant, the rural poor, the transgender person, and, yes, the middle-aged white guy who you may think has all the advantages, but over the last several decades has seen his world upended by economic and cultural and technological change, and feels powerless to stop it. You got to get in his head, too.”…
Obama is summoning Americans to a sense of national community based on values that run deeper than race, class, and ideology. He’s urging them to affirm the possibility of gradual change, and to resist the mind-set of all or nothing, which runs especially hot this year. These speeches are, in part, a confession of failure. “I’ve seen how inadequate words can be in bringing about lasting change,” he said in Dallas. “I’ve seen how inadequate my own words have been.” After all, Obama has been saying things like this ever since he first attracted national attention, at the Democratic Convention in 2004….
As she ended our conversation in the hotel basement—she had to get to the evening’s fund-raiser—I asked how she could hope to prevail as President. She talked about reminding voters of “results,” and of repeating a “consistent story.” Then, as if she found her own words inadequate, she leaned forward and her voice grew intense. “If we don’t get this right, what we’re seeing with Trump now will just be the beginning,” she said. “Because when people feel that their government has failed them and the economy isn’t working for them, they are ripe for the kind of populist nationalist appeals that we’re hearing from Trump.” She went on, “Look, there will always be the naysayers and virulent haters on one side. And there will be the tone-deaf, unaware people”—she seemed to mean élitists—“on the other side. I get all that. But it really is important. And the Congress, I hope, will understand this. Because the games they have played on the Republican side brought them Donald Trump….
I concur completely with Nelini Stamp, a New Yorker in her twenties, of black and Latino parentage, who was an organizer at Occupy when she affirmed that her ideal is to see “white working-class people standing beside black folks, saying, ‘Your struggle is my struggle.’ That’s my dream!”
I also agree with Obama when he says, “We must expand our moral imaginations to understand and empathize with all people who are struggling… and, yes, the middle-aged white guy… You got to get in his head, too.”
In recent months, spurred by the fact that Trump is getting twice as much support among non-college whites, I’ve been trying to do that with posts such as “Urban Liberals, Listen Up,” in which I tried to speak from the perspective of some of those angry Trump supporters.
Simply dismissing Trump’s supporters as racists is insufficient. We need to understand: Why are racists racist? I’ve recently asked some of my taxi passengers that question. The most common response has been: fear.
I agree with Steven Shults, who argues in “Calling Out Racism, “I won’t look for common ground with someone who actively seeks to oppress and harm those they deem to be inferior.” I don’t want to waste my time with rabid bigots. At the same time, however, I recall Samantha Bee’s correspondent who asked some probing questions to Republican Convention delegates who at first appeared to be racist because they insisted on saying, “All Lives Matter.” As it turned out, they seemed to be genuinely concerned about avoiding offensive speech. And I believe we can form alliances with people who occasionally make offensive comments, while commenting constructively about those comments.
And I do agree with the thrust of Packer’s article that “identity politics” as it has been practiced has been problematic. The wikipedia defines that terms as “a tendency for people of a particular religion, race, social background, etc., to form exclusive political alliances, moving away from traditional broad-based party politics.” I particularly relate to Packer’s:
Identity politics breaks down the distinction between an idea and the person articulating it, so that before speaking up one has to ask: Does my identity give me the right to say this? …This atmosphere makes honest conversation very hard,…
When society labels people based on arbitrary traits and then oppresses those people, they often need to meet separately to fight back in a unified manner — and often help each other overcome the “internalized oppression” that results. However, as many victims of that kind of oppression have said, there generally comes a time when those victims choose to ally with others based on other identities, including the universal reality of shared humanity. I cannot tell any one individual when to do that. It’s a personal decision. But I do say, with Stamp, I would like to see more “white working-class people standing beside black folks, saying, ‘Your struggle is my struggle.’”
Beyond that, with Van Jones, I say, “The 99 Percent for the 100 Percent.”
The rub, however, will be: what kind of future economy will work? I was glad to hear Clinton criticize “educationalist” elitism. But her vision of more jobs “that require blue-collar skills” seems too limited.