Post-election debates about class and identity in the Democratic Party have frequently focused on “economic populism” as a tonic to soothe the frustrations of economic anxiety, particularly in the white working class. But it’s rarely clear what that actually means in practice–and that in turn obscures the debates over whether a stronger dose of populism would have blunted Trump’s appeal to racist nationalism in the presidential race.
Defenders of the Clinton campaign are often understandably frustrated when they are accused of taking a less-than-progressive approach on economics. After all, they argue, Clinton ran arguably the most liberal general election campaign in modern presidential history. She moved left to adopt most of Sanders’ positions both on her own issues page and in the Democratic platform, and her speeches often mentioned a variety of economic proposals to help the poor and middle class. What more, they argue, was she supposed to do?
It’s a fair question. One answer is that those policies weren’t the core of her campaign against Trump, which focused more on his temperament and his prejudice than on, say, his wealth or his likelihood to privatize Medicare and cut taxes on the rich.
But the larger answer lies in the construction of the narrative. Economic populism requires a villain, and the white working class needs a villain to blame for its predicament. Trump gave them one, and Clinton did not.
As any decent screenwriter knows, a memorable story requires a great villain more than it does a good hero. It’s essential to a compelling narrative. The Clinton campaign never really had one: its slogans “stronger together,” “love trumps hate” and “America is already great” redounded with inclusivity and compassion, but provided no one to blame for those who felt angry and cheated by the modern economy.
The need for populism to establish, attack and defeat a chosen villain is precisely why so many comfortable centrists on both sides of the aisle have such a strong disdain for it. They see vilification as intrinsically ugly, uncouth, simplistic, and beneath the dignity of an educated populace that should be making policy based on dispassionate analysis of objective problems. Populist solutions are decried as fairy tales, and blaming any particular class of persons–be it immigrants or Wall Street–is seen as the juvenile tantrum of the unsophisticated.
But that itself is a form of classist privilege. Dispassionate incremental technocracy is the luxury of those who feel the system has treated them well, and feel enough empowerment and obligation to society to heed the call of public service and work across the aisle to solve problems with comity and gentility. The desperate don’t have that luxury.
People who have memories of a world that worked better–of an economy that didn’t leave their towns decimated and decaying, where people could get good jobs working with their hands out of high school, where opioids weren’t the only form of escape from the slow death of a WalMart and gig economy–those people know that somebody did this to them. They know that someone is to blame. They know they work as hard as their parents and grandparents did, but for some reason that’s not enough anymore. Something happened, and they’re determined to get justice against whoever it is that made the world a worse place for them.
And yes, many of them are white hypocrites who told minorities who suffered similarly for decades under the thumb of structural racism that they were lazy and should pull themselves up by their bootstraps. Their own prejudice and white privilege led them to believe that the Other was responsible for their own supposed failures, while they themselves must have been victimized. But the fact that many of them are prejudiced hypocrites when it comes to the suffering of others, doesn’t mean they’re wrong that someone did this to them, and it’s cold comfort for liberals to smugly chide them for their white privilege. Wealthy liberal urban elites chiding them for their hypocrisy is, in fact, a form of class privilege. It’s also a waste of a teaching tool, throwing away a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to create solidarity across racial lines and remind them that the 99% are all in the same boat together. Those who feel no empathy for them, and most of all those who don’t clearly explain who is responsible for their plight, don’t deserve their votes.
And we do know clearly who did this to them. It was the overbloated finance industry, the top .1% of incomes, and all who enabled them. If you want to know who stole the futures of the white working class and of the millennial generation, you need only look at the people who took all the loot. They’re the same ones who, having stolen all the gains from productivity over the last several decades, are mewling about the need for balanced budgets; the same ones who, having made sure that cheap college, housing and guaranteed pensions were available for them, are now claiming that society can no longer afford any of those things and that employers are under no obligation to provide the high-paying jobs they used to.
Yes, globalization and automation are in some ways impersonal economic forces that are removing good manufacturing jobs and lowering wages. But globalization itself is a policy choice–and the way in which globalization is implemented is also a policy choice. It was not inevitable that a global economy would come at the expense of American and European middle classes. It was not inevitable that as productivity continued to increase, middle class wages would decline even as profits and inequality soared. Western nations had the choice to restructure corporate law to ensure more equitable distribution of wealth, and to tax profit made from globalized labor to benefit citizens. Western nations had a chance to reject austerity and claw back the profits made from cheaper overseas and robotic production as a dividend for their citizens. Instead, neoliberals chose to push as many people as possible into the “ownership society,” dangling an ever-distant carrot of rising home values and stock dividends in front of them to make up for their declining and stagnant wages. It was a con of breathtaking proportions, one that funneled all the money to the top 1% of incomes while destabilizing the rest of the country in a crash-prone and overvalued asset economy that strangled the futures of young people and blue-collar workers.
The rest of the country was told to accept rapid de-industrialization and “re-train” for the jobs of the future, under the bizarre assumption that 50-year-old factory workers from rural Indiana would suddenly learn to code apps–or that they would even want to, rather than vote to bring the entire system crashing down. Which they predictably did.
The white working class was going to vote to punish someone. The only question was whom. Donald Trump gave them an easy–but wrong–answer. He told them it was minorities taking their jobs, and Wall Street profiteers colluding with government to send their jobs away. He was lying about the first part, and only half right about the second. But it was a far better answer than Clinton’s, which was that there was no one to punish, but that if they were kind enough to vote for her she might get them family leave from their McJobs. With all respect, that’s not remotely good enough.
Women and minority voters, of course, needed no such villain to be named. They already knew–and rightly so–that racism and sexism are chiefly to blame for their economic difficulties. One of the most common responses to the claim that economic anxiety caused the white working class to vote for Trump is that minority voters did not respond the same way. But of course they didn’t! Historically speaking, ethnic majorities have always responded to economic crisis with xenophobia, while the disadvantaged in society have turned to socialism. It is no accident that the Trump and Sanders phenomena both arose in the same year for the same reasons, but with a very different set of voters responding differently. Women and minority voters are well aware that structural racism and sexism are the biggest obstacles to their success, and will generally vote for the party that does the most to remove those barriers. But it’s also no surprise that Sanders did very well with women and minority voters under 40, whose challenges in terms of tuition, housing, and employment are more similar to those of the nearly equally beleaguered white men of their generation than they are to the challenges of their parents and grandparents. Class solidarity is stronger among younger voters of all identities, and for good reason.
But being chewed up and spit out by the merciless thresher maw of late-stage capitalism is a comparatively new experience for the white working class. They want to know who is to blame. Somebody is. They know that America isn’t already great, and they know that a rising tide isn’t lifting all boats. They know we’re not all stronger together. Somebody screwed them and they want revenge. The only question was whom they would get revenge on. That’s what economic populism is all about.
Democrats didn’t give them a villain to blame. Trump did. That’s the story of the election. That’s why Trump won.
And every person who tried to avoid the uncouth, unseemly business of pointing to a villain in the hopes of creating an anger-free politics of love and unity, unencumbered by the sort of divisive rhetoric that might threaten the shareholders and donor classes, is partly responsible for the outcome.