Are white workers the base of Trump reaction?

The mainstream media in general, and liberal commentators in particular, seem to take it as a proven fact that Donald Trump is winning support from a working-class base. Are they right? Lance Selfa, author of The Democrats: A Critical History, goes beyond the impressionism to reveal a different picture.

Donald Trump speaking to supporters at a campaign rally (Darron Bergenheier)

EVERY FOUR years around this time, the media suddenly develops an interest in a group they call the "white working class," whose political behavior is supposed to be the key determinant of national elections.

At one time, they were called "Reagan Democrats." Later, they became "angry white males" and "NASCAR dads." Today, they appear to be one of the driving forces in support of Donald Trump's racist campaign for the Republican presidential nomination.

Writing in the conservative-leaning Real Clear Politics, political scientists David Brady and Douglas Rivers described Trump's supporters as:

a bit older, less educated and earn less than the average Republican. Slightly over half are women. About half are between 45 and 64 years of age, with another 34 percent over 65 years old and less than 2 percent younger than 30. One half of his voters have a high school education or less, compared to 19 percent with a college or post-graduate degree. Slightly over a third of his supporters earn less than $50,000 per year, while 11 percent earn over $100,000 per year. Definitely not country club Republicans, but not terribly unusual either.

This description of Trump's support--along with the racist filth that the campaign has encouraged--has led some liberals to characterize Trump as a fascist, while others, like Salon's Sean Illing, take aim at his supporters:

It appears white people are doing [what] white people have often done when things go wrong: blame brown people. Trump's gift is that he has no limits or shame, no moral imperative apart from self-promotion. He's happy to fan the flames if it keeps his circus rolling another day or two. People do stupid things when they're afraid. And there's just no other way to say it: voting for Donald Trump is a very stupid thing to do. But times are tough, and Trump is the perfect candidate to exploit that.

From one perspective, the debate about Trump and his supporters is a rerun of the argument that Thomas Frank put in his 2005 book What's the Matter With Kansas? In Kansas, Frank argued that the Democratic Party's retreat from its pro-labor New Deal past opened the door for conservatives to win over the working class, appealing on grounds of conservative positions on abortion and gay rights.

Echoes of this argument recently surfaced in Kentucky, where Tea Party favorite Matt Bevin won his long-shot campaign for governor against heavily favored Democrat Jack Conway. Cale Turner, the Democratic judge-executive of Owsley County, gave voice to this argument while talking to reporters:

To be honest with you, a lot of folks in Owsley County went to the polls and voted against gay marriage and abortion, and as a result, I'm afraid they voted away their health insurance. Which was their right to do, I guess. But it's sad. Many people here signed up with Kynect [i.e., the local Obamacare system], and it's helped them, it's been an absolute blessing.

Substitute "immigrants," "Muslims" or "ISIS" for "gay marriage" and "abortion" in Turner's comments, and you have the bulk of liberal commentary on Trump. But is the "white working class" really the main base of reaction in this country?

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Who Are We Talking About?

The media's sloppiness in defining what they're talking makes understanding what is happening even more difficult. That's because journalists and commentators shift interchangeably between "working class voters," "white working class," "whites without a college degree," "downscale voters," "NASCAR dads," "security moms" and the like. So even identifying which group of people whose political behavior we're supposed to be analyzing is a confusing task.

The first point to make is that we certainly aren't talking about the U.S. working class as a whole. That majority of the population is multiracial and disproportionately made up of people of color. It includes both men and women, people with different sexual identities, of different religions (and increasingly no religion). It is made up of different age groups.

As Columbia University statistician Andrew Gelman pointed out in his book Red State, Blue State, Rich State, Poor State, while economically better-off states "have become more strongly Democratic over time, rich voters have remained consistently more Republican than voters on the lower end of the income scale."

So let's start by narrowing the focus to white members of that working class. But we immediately run into more definitional problems.

For pundits and scholars alike, the most common definition of the "white working class" is whites who didn't obtain a bachelor's degree or higher. While education level is certainly related to the types of jobs people do, the main reason for adopting education level as a proxy for class is one of convenience, according to Andrew Levison in his The White Working Class Today. It's far easier to capture education level than occupation on surveys. By this definition, "working class whites" make up about 44 percent of the 18-and-over U.S. population.

While it might be easier for analysts to speak of "non-college whites," this can lead them to overgeneralize about political inclinations. For example, exit polls from the 2012 presidential election showed no difference among whites possessing a bachelor's degree or less in their vote for Barack Obama--all groups came in around 37-38 percent. Only whites holding more advanced degrees than a bachelor's voted in their majority (52 percent) for Obama.

Princeton political scientist Larry Bartels notes that non-college-educated whites in the lowest third of income distribution have been more likely to vote Democratic over the past few decades. Bartels concludes that most of the shift to Republicans that did take place among non-college-educated whites took place in the South, which was also true among those in the middle and upper ends of the income spectrum.

One more point: The non-college-degreed part of the population also overlaps more heavily with older people, who tend to be more culturally traditional.

To a Beltway pundit, though, all white working class people are easily pigeonholed into the conservative "base," with all the NASCAR-following, gun-toting, Rush Limbaugh-listening stereotypes that image implies. But when you look beyond the caricature, you find a much more varied reality.

At first glance, the phenomenon of working-class conservatism shouldn't be that hard to fathom. Just as there are liberal billionaires like George Soros or Tom Steyer, there are workers who identify as conservatives. Even in the heyday of Democratic Party liberalism, a solid 35-40 percent of workers, including unionized workers, supported Republicans in election after election.

What's more, the Republicans' "Southern strategy" of using coded appeals to racism, pioneered in the late 1960s and '70s, was aimed at least in part in winning layers of white workers to support the Republicans in opposition to government spending on the undeserving poor--which was redefined in the public eye to mean the Black poor.

But even accepting this, there's much more to the reality than the conventional media wisdom would suggest.

For one thing, the group of "non-college whites" who do not identify themselves as Hispanic or Latino amounts to more than 104 million people 18 years old and older, according to U.S. Census figures from 2014. Within that group, one finds that the majority is female, and it includes the full range of occupational experiences.

According to Levison's calculations, about half of white non-college men work in what have traditionally been defined as "blue-collar jobs," while half work in "white-collar" jobs. For white women without a bachelor's degree, the split is about 3-to-1 in favor of "white collar" jobs. And, adds Levison:

[M]any workers are now also small businessmen. In large cities one can still walk by large construction sites where hundreds of unionized hard-hat workers are employed but in single family home and small commercial construction, you will see instead a collection of pickup trucks and vans with the signs of independent contractors stenciled on their sides.

Such occupational distinctions within the broad category of "non-Hispanic whites without a bachelor's degree" means that significant numbers of people in this group may not see political issues from the perspective of a worker, but from the perspective of a small businessperson.

Even given that, as Levison writes in analyzing research on this group's attitudes towards religion, immigration and military intervention, attitudes are sharply polarized between an intolerant and militaristic minority numbering 25 percent or less and a much more tolerant and open-minded majority.

Working America, the AFL-CIO's community outreach arm, regularly canvases working-class Americans on political and social issues. Its activity was helpful in mobilizing working-class Ohioans to reject Gov. John Kasich's attempt to roll back union rights in the state in 2011.

A Working America internal memo quoted by Levison describes the outlook of this target audience: "One-third of the people we talk to are with us. One-third will never be with us. The challenge is to reach the middle third."

In Election 2016 terms, the one-third "with us" are likely to be core supporters of candidates like Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton, while the one-third that will "never be with us" might be part of the GOP base--with the middle third being up for grabs.

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Why Would Anyone Support Trump?

So the "white working class" has a greater diversity of political opinions than the standard media stereotypes allow. But it's nevertheless true that at least a section of that group has apparently gravitated towards Trump's reactionary and xenophobic candidacy.

Why would working-class voters support a blowhard billionaire and a party whose economic policies are crafted to serve Corporate America and the very rich? To many liberals, this phenomenon is either unfathomable or another piece of evidence to confirm their suspicion that much of the American electorate is easily duped.

Trump appeals to his supporters' sense that the U.S. is in decline, and that the main culprits for this are immigrants, Muslims, the Chinese government--and those in the U.S. who aren't "strong" enough to stand up to these supposed villains. Trump holds out the empty promise of "making America great again."

Although this narrative is false in almost every respect, it has a resonance because it speaks to the experiences of a large section of the U.S. population that has endured several decades of stagnating or declining living standards and dashed expectations.

This reality has been hiding in plain sight for years. As a recent Pew Center report showed, the American middle class has been hollowed over the course of the last 40 years. Between 1970 and 2014, the aggregate income of households defined as middle-income has declined from 62 percent of total income to 43 percent. Today, the wealthiest 21 percent of the population now controls just under half of total income.

The groups that have experienced the greatest downward mobility, according to Pew, are all people without four-year college degrees. Non-college high school graduates are more than twice as likely to be in what Pew defines as "lower-income" households than they were in 1971.

Although the occupational group that showed the greatest downward mobility since 1971 was teachers--most of whom presumably hold at least a bachelor's degree--the rest of occupations falling downward are traditionally thought of as "blue-collar" or "pink-collar" jobs that mostly require a high-school diploma or a two-year college degree: sales, administrative services, transportation, mechanics and repairers, operators and transportation.

While the Pew analysis didn't break out the occupational or education groups by race and ethnicity, it's notable that both white and Black households experienced upward mobility in that 40-year span, while Latino and immigrant households either became poorer (Latinos) or experienced no change (immigrants) in their relative position in the U.S. income distribution.

Statistics like these may expose the nonsense of blaming Latinos and immigrants for declining working-class living standards--as opposed to "managers and executives," who made out like bandits, according to Pew.

But they show why Trump's narrative of American decline can find a hearing--the living standards and conditions of work for a lot of the people in the middle of the income ladder have been in decline.

For millions of Americans, the lived experience of the last 40 years has been one of what the 19th century author Henry David Thoreau once called "quiet desperation." The findings of economists Anne Case and Angus Deaton recently brought this point home in dramatic fashion.

In brief, Case and Deaton showed that middle-aged (ages 45-54) non-Hispanic white Americans experienced a sharp decline in life expectancy between 1999 and 2013, with much of the decline explained by deaths from suicide and drug and alcohol abuse. Non-Hispanic whites with a high school education or less accounted for the majority of the decline. Every other racial or ethnic group in the U.S. or European countries that Case and Deaton analyzed experienced increased life expectancy in the same period.

Efforts to explain these results are only just beginning. But it's not far-fetched to see in the statistics showing declining incomes and rising death rates evidence for the sense that the world has been turned upside down for millions of Americans.

Some commentators have even compared Case and Deaton's findings to the spike in alcoholism and early death experienced in Russia in the 1990s, following the collapse of the former USSR and the cratering of the Russian economy as a consequence of free-market "shock treatment" policies.

These observations give a context for the durable public opinion findings in recent years that whites are the most pessimistic people in the U.S., and the most likely to believe that the U.S. is on the "wrong track."

No doubt some of this sentiment comes from Republicans and some reflects racism against the the country's first Black president. But it should be clear that there are much broader social and economic trends at work. And Trump's message is nothing if not an appeal to those in despair.

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A Better Question: What's the Matter with the Democrats?

On the eve of his inauguration as president in January 2009, Barack Obama's popularity had reached 80 percent, and large numbers of Americans had high expectations for his administration.

USA Today reported that a poll conducted jointly with Gallup found "stratospheric expectations for the incoming president that his own supporters acknowledge may be unrealistic. A majority of those surveyed said Obama will be able to achieve every one of 10 major campaign promises, from doubling the production of alternative energy to ensuring that all children have health insurance coverage."

The poll also showed that seven in 10 people believed the country would be better off after Obama's first term. The right in the U.S. looked small and irrelevant to the concerns of most Americans, with the Republican Party seemingly doomed to spend years in the political "wilderness."

Two years later, the formerly discredited and out-of-touch Republicans scored a historic landslide victory in the 2010 midterm election. After Obama's re-election in 2012 and another setback for the GOP, the Republicans increased their hold on Congress and statehouses again in 2014.

The Republican sweep has been so broad that the party won a wide majority of governors and the largest percentage of state legislative seats since 1928. From these positions, the GOP has been able to carry out a counter-revolution against union rights, reproductive rights and aid to the poor at the state level.

Meanwhile, Obama's term in office may be remembered for policies that saved the economy from a Great Depression-like meltdown, but it did so in a way that prioritized saving the banks, pushing an austerity agenda and deepening neoliberal economic policies of the last 40 years. For that reason, living standards for the working-class majority have yet to return to pre-recession levels.

And despite giving election-year lip service to trade union organization (remember the Employee Free Choice Act?) and calling income inequality "the challenge of our times," Obama and the Democrats have done little to change either one for the better.

In fact, some of their policies, like Obamacare's "Cadillac tax" that will fall heavily on good union health care plans or the Race to the Top education policy, take direct aim at union benefits and power.

It's well documented that trade union households are much more likely to support liberal economic policies, and that union members are more likely to embrace solidarity across race and ethnic lines than non-union households. Thus, in key states like Ohio and Wisconsin in 2012, white trade union households went overwhelmingly for Obama, while non-union households voted for the Republican Mitt Romney.

The long-term decline of unions--not just in terms of collective organization, but in labor's inability to resist the neoliberal onslaught--has contributed to atomization among workers and a sense that "nothing can be done," which characters like Trump can exploit. And while the Democrats would seem to have an interest in promoting unions and policies (like single-payer health care) that reinforce a sense that "we're all in this together," they've proven that they'd rather chase after Wall Street dollars.

Another clear piece of evidence of this: When the 2011 Occupy Wall Street movement injected into mass consciousness the powerful idea that the richest and most powerful "1 Percent" were the enemy of the "99 Percent," the Obama administration didn't embrace it. Instead, its Department of Homeland Security coordinated the effort to sweep it off the streets.

This shouldn't be any surprise. The Democrats are, after all, as former Republican strategist Kevin Phillips called them, "history's second most enthusiastic capitalist party."

For the left, the biggest challenge may not be that it is losing the working class to the right, but that the Democrats' bias to the status quo is encouraging more and more working people to conclude that since nothing will really change, it doesn't matter what they do, in the voting booth or anywhere else.

An analysis of voters and non-voters in the 2014 midterm elections--where 57 percent of the total was white--showed that the poorest people, who support a social safety net, were more likely to be non-voters. People who were more slightly better off--and who were more likely to agree with the conservative view that government gives benefits to the undeserving, with the obvious racial component involved in that view--were more likely to make it to the polls.

This skew in the electorate is a much more compelling explanation for why states with poor populations have elected conservative political leaders and officeholders than the simple-minded liberal view that sees working-class people as fools who will now "get what they deserve."

In a year-in-review interview last month with NPR's Steve Inskeep, Obama acknowledged that Trump is "taking advantage" of "anger, frustration and fear." And his description of the source of this anger and frustration is accurate enough. But his detached, professorial air was telling:

If you are living in a town that historically has relied on coal and you see coal jobs diminishing, you probably are going to be more susceptible to the argument that I've been wiping out the economy in your area...It doesn't matter if I tell them actually it's probably because natural gas is a lot cheaper now so it doesn't pay to build coal plants. If somebody tells you that this is because of Obama's war on coal, well, you know, that's an argument you may be sympathetic to.

So the president who presided over the fracking frenzy in states across the country is telling thousands of working-class Americans that the economy has made them obsolete, and there's not much he can do about it. There's not even a hint here about other forgotten Obama promises about millions of "Green jobs."

Bernie Sanders certainly realizes that there's a problem with Obama's approach, and his frankly left-wing message is winning over millions of people. Unfortunately, he's already promised to support whoever the Democrats nominate for president--and the odds are overwhelming at this point that it will be the hawkish, neoliberal Hillary Clinton.

The Democrats seem confident that well-documented demographic changes which are creating a more multiracial, more tolerant and less religious country will help them defeat Trump or whichever other reactionary gets the GOP nomination. They also seem to believe that they will eventually end up with a long-term majority, though there's a lot more evidence to suggest that the Republicans will keep control of Congress and the statehouses in November 2016.

The Democrats may be right about the presidential race in 2016. But if they continue to carry out policies that further hollow out living standards for millions of workers--and, crucially, if the unions and liberal organizations that mobilize support for the Democrats refuse to challenge those policies--the Trump phenomenon may be a signal of worse to come.