The Democrats lost the white working class. The Republicans exploited them. Can Clinton win them back?
The basement of a hotel on Capitol Hill. A meeting room with beige walls and headachy light, cavernous enough to accommodate three hundred occupants but empty, except for Hillary Clinton. She sat at a small round table with a cloth draped to the carpet. Her eyes were narrower than usual—fatigue—and she wore a knee-length dress jacket of steel-blue leather, buttoned to the lapels; its metallic shine gave an impression of armor, as if she’d just descended from the battlefield to take a breather in this underground hideout. Politics, at times so thrilling, is generally a dismal business, and Clinton’s acceptance of this is key to her power. She’s the officer who keeps on marching in mud.
I sat down across from her. With only a few weeks left until the election, I wanted to ask her about the voters she’s had the most trouble winning. Why were so many downwardly mobile white Americans supporting Donald Trump?
When she took the lead on her husband’s most important initiative as governor—raising the state’s abysmal educational standards—she made an adversary of the teachers’ union. 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.
Never before has our nation enjoyed, at once, so much prosperity and social progress with so little internal crisis and so few external threats.” The country had more jobs, higher wages, faster growth, bigger surpluses; it had replaced “outmoded ideologies” with dazzling technology. The longest peacetime expansion in history had practically abolished the business cycle. Economic conflict was obsolete. Education was the answer to all problems of social class. (His laundry list of proposals to Congress included more money for Internet access in schools and funds to help poor kids take college-test-prep courses.) “My fellow-Americans,” the President announced. “We have crossed the bridge we built to the twenty-first century.”
Summers described numerous trips that he had made during his years at Treasury to review antipoverty programs in Africa and Latin America, and in American inner cities. “I don’t think I ever went to Akron, or Flint, or Toledo, or Youngstown,” he admitted. 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.”
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 locavore movement, whatever its benefits to health and agriculture, is an inward-looking form of activism. When you visit a farm-to-table restaurant and order the wild-nettle sformato for thirty dollars, the line between social consciousness and self-gratification disappears. Buying synthetic-nitrate-free lunch meat at Whole Foods is also a way to isolate yourself from contamination by the packaged food sold at Kmart and from the overweight, downwardly mobile people who shop there. The people who buy food at Kmart know it.
In a more recent book, “Coming Apart,” Murray focusses on the widening divide between a self-segregated white upper class and an emerging white lower class. He concludes that “the trends signify damage to the heart of American community and the way in which the great majority of Americans pursue satisfying lives.”
Hamilton created the American system of public and private banking, and for two centuries he was a hero to conservatives, while his archrival Thomas Jefferson—founder of the Democratic Party—was taken as the champion of the common man. “State a moral case to a ploughman and a professor,” Jefferson once wrote. “The former will decide it as well, and often better than the latter, because he has not been led astray by artificial rules.” But Democrats now embrace Hamilton for his immigrant background and his modern ideas of activist government. Meanwhile, the name of the slave-owning, states’-rights champion Jefferson has been removed from Democratic fund-raising dinners. 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.
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.
“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.”
As communities in Appalachia, the Rust Belt, and rural America declined, attitudes toward government programs grew more hostile. J. D. Vance describes working, at seventeen, as a cashier in an Ohio grocery store. Some of his poor white customers gamed their food stamps to buy beer and wine, while talking on cell phones that Vance couldn’t afford. “Political scientists have spent millions of words trying to explain how Appalachia and the South went from staunchly Democratic to staunchly Republican in less than a generation,” he writes. “A big part of the explanation lies in the fact that many in the white working class saw precisely what I did, working at Dillman’s.”