Thomas Frank has perhaps done more damage to the Democratic party than any 1 person in recent memory, by giving currency to the phrase “voting against their economic interests”. 12 years after his book came out, Democrats still buy the premise that poor white people in Dumbfuckistan vote for Republicans in large numbers, and that they do this because Democrats don’t offer an economic message for the White Working Class (™, trumpet fanfare).
Frank wrote his book in the wake of George W. Bush’s re-election in 2004; thinkpieces along these same lines are essentially a cottage industry in the wake of Trump’s scraping through the electoral college. And they are all entirely wrong and need to stop.
Fortunately we do have some numbers that show how different groups of people actually voted in 2016. Read them a couple of times, because it can take a moment to realize how entirely backwards the Democratic narrative is from that loss.
Clinton didn’t just win voters from households making less than $50K, she dominated. She won by 12 points. And she closed the Democrats’ normal gap among voters making more than $100K to parity. The gap in support was in voters making $50K to $100K (and in fact other polling narrows it down to $70K to $100K).
Croesus apocryphally said that no man has ever thought himself rich. Fair enough. But it struck me as ridiculous that we were calling $80K per year, $30K above the national household median, “working class”. And that’s because I wasn’t thinking about race.
The median white high school graduate in the US today makes $36K. In a two-earner family (and this is still “normal”, if a bit waning), that yields $72K as a hypothetical median white high-school educated household. That is to say, exactly Trump’s economic sweet spot. Now, life is hard everywhere, but it’s just incredibly out of touch to call $72K poor, anywhere. Even the richest cities have a lower median household income than that. That’s the wage premium that comes with being white. (The median black high school graduate income is $12K, meaning a 2-earner family is at $24K.)
Christ Ladd, at Forbes, has taken this argument to its conclusion, a conclusion I find very troubling but can’t summon an argument against. Looking back at the Roper Center numbers, voters concerned about “the economy” preferred Clinton by 11 points. Voters concerned about “foreign policy” voted Clinton by 27 points. I don’t think you can overstate the reversal this represents of the parties’ perceived strengths 30 years ago. Meanwhile, voters concerned about “terrorism” preferred Trump by 17 points, and those concerned about “immigration” preferred him by 31 points. Now, it’s important to remember that those 4 rubrics are not equal. Voters concerned about the economy were 52 percent of the electorate, more than the rest of the issues put together (foreign policy and immigration were each 13 percent, and terrorism was 18 percent. So Clinton decisively won the huge block of voters concerned about the economy.
This leads to an awkward question: why, after an election in which the Democratic candidate won voters concerned about “the economy” by 11 points, is the Democratic party talking about changing its economic message? And why is the party doubling down on its values about immigration, when it lost “immigration” voters by 31 points?
The repudiation of the first major-party female candidate by a male party power structure is clearly a large part of that. But I think in the Democratic party there’s also a racial microcosm of the country as a whole: as minorities become more empowered and more confident, white power holders feel threatened and try to fit the square pegs of this new energy into the round holes of 2-generations-old leftism. (Ta-Nehisi Coates writes about class-conscious white people who seem genuinely puzzled that black people happen to be disproportionately poor).
I’m going to do immigration in a later post, so I won’t go into that here. But like with so many issues, reductionists everywhere are ignoring the intersectionality of all these questions. Economic growth is driven by immigration; both terrorism and counterterrorism have nexuses with immigration.
In broad strokes, you could describe the split in the Democratic party as “class-forward” vs. “culture-forward” (I’m definitely the latter). The class-forward group wants to say that Democrats failed to deliver an economic message to displaced factory workers (note, incidentally, it’s always that, and not displaced typists or switchboard operators). But I have to conclude that if the Democrats had a fundamental problem with our economic message, we would not have won both the poorer half of the country and voters explicitly concerned about the economy as broadly as we did. The class-forwarders accuse people like me of just throwing up our hands and saying “Trump voters are racist”; and, yes, maybe we’re too quick to do that. But the numbers are hard to get around, on that. Feel free to cast those Roper results in a non-racist light in the comments, if you think I’m giving up too soon.