The new class warfare in America
The data express a feeling of being shut out from the benefits of growth
Say what you like about Donald Trump, he knows his market. “I love the poorly educated,” he said recently to cheers from those he loves. The rest of America inhaled sharply. Welcome to a very un-American debate. Once redundant, the term “working class” is now part of everyday conversation. In an age of stifling political correctness, the only people who are fair game in polite society are blue-collar whites. How absurd these people are, we tell each other, and how ignorant. Don’t they know Mr Trump was born rich? Can they really be so stupid as to fall for his con trick?
The derision is not limited to liberal elites. Educated conservatives are just as scathing. Take the National Review, a flagship of thinking conservatives, that described Mr Trump as a “ridiculous buffoon with the worst taste since Caligula”. In January it pulled together 22 intellectuals to condemn Mr Trump’s candidacy as an existential threat to conservatism. Their efforts had no impact on Mr Trump’s fan base. Now the magazine has switched to damning his supporters. By declaring open season on blue-collar whites, Kevin Williamson’s widely read essay on “white working class dysfunction” marks a turning point. Yet he is only putting into writing what many conservatives say.
“The truth about these dysfunctional, downscale communities is that they deserve to die,” Mr Williamson writes. “Economically, they are negative assets. Morally, they are indefensible . . . the white American underclass is in thrall to a vicious, selfish culture whose main products are misery and used heroin needles. Donald Trump’s speeches make them feel good. So does OxyContin.”
Margaret Thatcher’s henchman, Norman Tebbit, once sparked fury by implying the jobless should get on their bikes to find work. Mr Williamson says America’s benighted working classes should hire a U-Haul and move on.
As an exercise in condescension, Mr Williamson’s words rival the most inbred hereditary peer.
As an economic prescription, it is wide of the mark. Millions of Americans are anchored to blighted neighbourhoods by negative equity, or other ties that bind. Their life expectancy is falling. Their participation in the labour market is dropping. The numbers signing up to disability benefits is rising.
Opioid prescription drugs are rife. Those that are white tend to vote for Mr Trump. On Super Tuesday this month, the counties with the highest rates of white mortality — whether to overdoses, suicide or other symptoms of community breakdown — came out heavily for Mr Trump. The correlation was almost exact, according to a Wonkblog study.
None of these trends are new. It should be no surprise that many Americans are desperate for a different kind of politics. As Mr Williamson notes, what is happening to much of the country’s white working class is eerily redolent of what befell its Russian counterpart after the collapse of the Soviet Union. There too, people yearned for a strongman — or a “father-führer”— to reclaim past certainties. There too, the gulf between the urban elites and the rest was an open cultural sore. It is no accident Mr Trump admires President Vladimir Putin so much, and vice versa. Their electoral bases share distinct traits, such as a taste for authoritarian flag wavers.
In a recent poll of people serving in the US military, Mr Trump received the largest support at 27 per cent. It was followed by Bernie Sanders at 22 per cent. Hillary Clinton received 11 per cent.
Yet demography is not destiny. Here is a better explanation for what is happening. In 2000, 33 per cent of Americans described themselves as “working class”, according to Gallup. By 2015 that number had risen to 48 per cent. Far from dying out, the working class now accounts for almost half of America by people’s self-perception. In some respects these measures are more revealing than statistics on median income, or income inequality. They express a feeling about being shut out from the benefits of growth. It is a very un-American state of mind. Which party represents them best? Is it the Republicans who keep cutting taxes on thresholds way above their paygrade? Or the Democrats whose organising principle is diversity? Until recently, blue-collar whites were like turkeys voting for Thanksgiving. We have only ourselves to blame for missing the fact that one day these turkeys might switch to Halloween.