Why the president* Won
It is more complicated than racism.
It is more complicated than economics.
This week the Atlantic and the Nation published insightful essays on what drove votes to our president*. The common trope has been that working class whites weren’t racist, but rather voted for the president* for economic reasons.
Economics may have driven those votes to the president*. It is the favorite excuse of politicians like Bernie Sanders. And that makes sense really. An elected official doesn’t hold office if he/she calls the electorate racists. Despite this rhetoric a simple fact about the economic appeal of the president* remains: you cannot remove the president’s* economic message from his racial message. Don’t have a job? Some brown person took it via NAFTA or immigration. Make America Great Again, the mantra of the campaign, is itself code for Make America White Again. While voters may not have been consciously aware (and plenty were consciously aware) of it, the synonymous relationship in the president’s* language between “great” and “white” can’t be ignored.
That is not to say that some haven’t been pointing the finger at racism. There is no shortage of experts dismissing the white working class votes as racially motivated. Our history is littered with examples of white working class individuals acting against their self-interest in order to maintain their place in the racial hierarchy.
This is all to say that we cannot ignore the race based appeal of the president*. We should be careful, however, not to overstate the race based appeal . This brings us back to that Nation essay that argued that it was the racism of the white middle class — not the working class — that pushed the president* over the finish line. It is a unique breathe of a fresh air to the discourse for two reasons. First, it accurately shifts focus onto the white middle class which through housing policies and policing (and I would add school district map drawing) have been a bastion of racism and white supremacy. Second, the essay shows the white working class to be a more complex group which is accurate.
The main argument in the Nation essay, that without the race driven actions of the bourgeois that the white and black working classes would have united to topple the economic and racial hierarchy is flawed. There are examples, as he has given, of successful unions between working class whites and blacks, but there are examples of failed unions, like the 1929 Loray Mill strike in Gastonia, NC, as well. In some cases the white working class was willing to work with the black working class, sure, but that doesn’t mean that the white working class was disinterested in staying one rung above their black counterparts in the race ladder.
And of course, there is the Atlantic piece which shows that the primary driver for white working class voters was “cultural anxiety” and not economics. Now, we could spend hours unpacking what white working class voters understand “cultural anxiety” to be, but in the end it is pretty simple. They are afraid of losing the social status and privilege that whiteness provides. I would argue that “cultural anxiety” (racism) is prevalent in the white middle class as well. Ultimately, the “economics” excuse should lose it’s primacy because, as the essay points out, the poorer you were the more likely you were to vote Clinton.
In the end putting the blame for the president* solely on the white working class is incomplete. Economics and race, as they have for our history, drove working class and middle class to support a snake oil salesman. Both the working class and middle class bought the conman’s product. The product the president* was selling was a white supremacist based exceptional America that never truly existed. The Make America Great Again ideal only applied to whites.