Those of us from white working-class families with people we know and love who voted for Trump have a special heartache over this year’s election. Why do so many good people have such deplorable politics? I mostly took a pass this election on arguing with family members, because it was convenient to avoid the emotion and hurt feelings that these arguments often generate, even though I know those hurts eventually pass into our stronger lifetime relationships without leaving significant scars. I also didn’t work this time to help turn out the vote. Why did I do that and what have I learned from it that might be useful to others going forward?
First, it is self-satisfying in the aftermath to blame Hillary Clinton and her kind of Democrats. Pushed by us Berniecrats, she actually had a pretty good progressive economic program to run on. It wasn’t big enough to make the kind of transformational political and economic change we need (or to inspire people with a sense of possibility), but it was moving in all the right directions. What I blame her for is the strategic decision to focus her campaign on Trump’s character vs. her character, his temperament and style vs. hers, rather than on their very different policy positions – especially class issues like the minimum wage and their tax policies, even the wonky class differences between a tax credit and a tax deduction for child care expenses — anything that would have shifted the political “debate” to substance rather than style. Her ambiguous (and untrustworthy) position on trade and her lack of a larger economic vision or narrative had an impact as well, but I don’t blame her for that in the same way that I don’t blame frogs for being amphibious. She is who she is, and she is representative of many professional middle-class Democrats whose hearts are in the right place, by my lights.
But, like those Democrats, Clinton’s presumption that “people” vote on character not policy condescendingly underestimates the political and economic intelligence of most voters, and especially “low-information voters.” Instead of “I’m a really good person and you can trust me,” what low-information voters need is well-articulated explanations for policy choices – not just facts or information, but arguments and rationales.
Complicated economic explanations can be challenging for a low-information, “poorly educated” voter to follow in the first instance, but not so much when you repeat and elaborate, as can happen in national political campaigns. I know from three decades of teaching working-class adults that though you’re not going to convince many of them, you can complicate their thinking (which is the goal in my line of work), and, more relevant to politicians, you can win their respect. That is, you’ll get some points for character for making the effort to explain and convince. Engagement, real engagement, in arguing for your view as if convincing people mattered has political benefits beyond getting them to vote for you. It also puts you in a better position to govern if you are elected, and it advances your political agenda for next time even if you’re not.
Though I knew better, I hoped that Clinton’s running on “Trump is an asshole” would be effective because he was so good at illustrating it, but it also undermined the perception of her character, getting her into a mud fight with a mud wrestler. The polls, which as a data-driven middle-class professional I put altogether too much faith in, kept reinforcing my complacency. So, like many of my friends, I also blame Nate Silver! Clinton couldn’t motivate me, and Silver unintentionally led me to think that was okay this time around. So, I got my excuses, but it’s on me that I didn’t put in the work.
The other mistake I made is that I overestimated the good sense of that part of the white working class I think I know, the so-called Blue Wall Rust Belt states from Pennsylvania to Iowa. And I underestimated the necessity and importance of contesting for that good sense.
I didn’t underestimate the long-term, grinding pain of deindustrialization in those states – the social and economic dislocation of increasingly unsteady work at lower and lower wages. Nor did I miss what Sarah Jaffe calls Clinton Dems’ “colossal misreading of a moment when rage at the establishment (of both parties) was simmering everywhere.” I even expected the Blue Wall states would not match the relatively high levels of support white workers had given Obama in 2008 and 2012 (with actual majorities in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Iowa in 2008). But I did not expect the precipitous drops in both voter participation (except in Pennsylvania) and percentage support for Clinton vs. Obama. Clinton garnered from 10 to 21 points less support in these states than Obama had won in 2008.
My gripe with much of the punditry is that they so routinely mistake one part of the white working class for the whole, thereby stereotyping a class of people with whom they have little direct contact or knowledge. I insist on the value of using a union organizer’s approach when discussing the politics of working-class whites. Following Andrew Levison’s three-part breakdown, based on opinion research, one part are unreachable conservatives who can never be won over, but you must work to “neutralize” them in order to reduce their influence on others. Calling them boilerplate names rather than engaging their arguments doesn’t accomplish that, however, and it may actually increase their influence. Another part consists of solid supporters, and you need to enlist their activity and leadership in persuading “the persuadables,” which is the third part that Levison calls “on-the-one-hand, on-the-other-hand thinkers.”
By sitting out the 2016 election within my own family, for example, I did not do the work of neutralizing the unreachables, which is who I usually argue with. It seemed like a reasonable choice; why stir up old feuds if they are unreachable? But by not engaging them as I have in the past, I gave up what influence I might still have among the persuadables who listen in, “putting in their two cents” from time to time, often simply by asking a challenging question. What’s more, I didn’t help the solid supporters amplify their voices, which they often do by distancing themselves from “the professor” even as they agree with me. In one instance a Hillary supporter mentioned after the election that she had kept largely silent because she didn’t think two of her daughters “would actually vote for that asshole.” I made the same mistake.
I’m still puzzling over why such large majorities of non-college-educated whites voted for Trump. But it looks like part of what happened in the Blue Wall States is that hundreds of thousands of white working-class Obama voters from 2008 just didn’t show up in 2016, thereby increasing the relative weight of the unreachables. Sort of like me, they may have lacked enthusiasm for a flawed candidate executing an even more flawed campaign message. Or, unlike me, they may have come to the actually very reasonable but terribly misguided conclusion that it really does not matter.
Chicago Working-Class Studies