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A country divided by a great gulf

10 November 2017

The voters who swung the election remain out of Democrats’ reach, says Harriet Baber


Polar opposites: Trump supporters and opponents argue at Sterling Heights, Michigan, earlier this year

Polar opposites: Trump supporters and opponents argue at Sterling Heights, Michigan, earlier this year

WHEN the smoke cleared after the United States presidential election, it was easy to see exactly what had happened: Democrats voted for Democrats, Republicans voted for Republicans, and the white working-class tipped the balance to Trump (News, 11 November 2016).

The question was why. Why did the white working-class vote for Republicans, the party of plutocrats, against their own economic interests?

The received view is that they were duped by religious hucksters. They voted Republican because Republicans promised to end sin and access to legal abortion. This posed an even harder question: why did they support Trump, a serial adulterer with no discernible religious convictions, in preference to other Republicans?

The answer to both questions should have been obvious: white working-class voters believed, falsely but with justification, that Democrats did not support their economic interests — and falsely, but with justification, that Trump would.


FOR a generation, as the economy grew, the working class fell behind. Secure, well-paid blue-collar jobs disappeared, and the income gap between highly educated “knowledge workers” and the rest of the population grew. Data from a recent study by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development show that the US has one of the most unequal income distributions in the developed world, the highest level of wealth inequality, and one of the lowest rates of intergenerational economic mobility.

But there was also good news. Equality and economic mobility went together: there was no need to trade off one for the other. Countries that promoted equality, through income transfers, provided the greatest opportunity for their citizens to better themselves economically. Countries with the greatest economic inequality, including the US, provided the least opportunity.

This was good news that Americans could not believe. Most believed that programmes addressing inequality undermined opportunity, that a strong welfare state was unsustainable, and that the social programmes that citizens of other countries took for granted were unaffordable. They were convinced that hard choices had to be made.

Trump’s white working-class supporters, in particular, were convinced that many very hard choices had to be made. Times were tough, they believed, resources were scarce, danger all around — and tough times called for tough measures. A national health scheme was unaffordable. Environmentalism killed jobs. Immigrants, who competed for American jobs, had to go. And, with what they called Mexican rapists pouring across the border bringing crime and drugs, carnage in the cities, and international terrorism, the priority had to be aggressive defence and tough policing.

From their perspective, the Democratic Party had little to offer. They saw their real income, job prospects, and economic security decline while Democrats focused on sexuality and “lifestyle issues”. And Democrats’ professed social-justice agenda was, it seemed, aimed at getting a better deal for everyone except them: benefits for ethnic, racial, and sexual-identity groups, and help for the poor.

When white working-class voters objected, they were dismissed as racists and haters: “a basket of deplorables”, to quote Hillary Clinton. Democratic ideologues argued that addressing their concerns was tantamount to throwing women, minorities, and LGBT people under the bus. Democratic strategists wrote them off, confident that a coalition of upper-middle-class urban-coastal professionals and minorities would sweep the Democrats into office.

White working-class Americans looked for a strong leader who was on their side and had the power to set things right, a patron and provider: a Big Man. And Trump was the one. For working-class men, he was an aspirational ideal. For working-class women, he was a provider; if he made crude comments and had the wandering eye, that was just like a man, and could be overlooked if a man was a good provider.

Trump’s erstwhile supporters in high places, including fellow Republicans, peeled away, but his white working-class supporters stuck. They were not bothered by the racist remarks or “locker-room talk” that horrified us on the other side of the class divide.


A GREAT gulf is fixed between the working class and those of us they despise as the “liberal elite”. That gulf is not only economic, but geographic and cultural. They live in a “traditional society”, as we all did until very recently in human history, and as most in the developing world still do. And, in traditional societies, Big Men — warlords, tribal chieftains, and magnates — are entitled to multiple wives and concubines.

That cultural gulf will remain fixed so long as the economic gap between us and them persists. And the economic gap will persist so long as Republicans are in power. And so long as the working class are economically insecure and view the world as a tough, dangerous place, where hard choices have to be made, they will support the Republican Party — the party that talks tough and promises strong, simple solutions.

They will not switch sides when Republicans, inevitably, fail to deliver. The tougher their lives become, the less likely they are to favour Democrats, whom they regard as weak, effeminate, and incapable of protecting and providing for them in a time of danger and scarcity, in a hard, mean world.


Dr Harriet Baber is Professor of Philosophy at the University of San Diego, in the United States.


Feature: President Donald Trump, one year on

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