Would Progressive Economics Win Over Trump’s White Working Class Voters?

Image via Gage Skidmore, CC BY-SA 2.0

[UPDATE, 11/10/2016: Obviously the first two sentences here were wrong and they should have been hedged. Yet I hope you read it, as the overall message of this article is even more relevant given the white working class caused this upset election in traditionally Democratic strongholds.]

I think there will be a lot to celebrate when Hillary Clinton defeats Donald Trump, yet for a part of the left there will be a sense of melancholy. Clinton’s victory will show that the Democrats can win without the white working class, especially white working class men, the narrative will claim, and liberal pundits will dismiss their concerns as mere projection of racial apathy instead of economic desperation. The Republican elite, as they attempt to purge Trumpism from their party, will blame the white working class for their loss and take their concerns even less seriously than they did before. The inability of liberals to use this opportunity to push an economic agenda that speaks to Trump’s voters is a waste, both because they are our fellow citizens and because winning them on the economics can defuse the very racism and authoritarianism that is scary about them.

Fair enough. But how would one take their concerns seriously? What specific approaches and programs would convince Trump’s voters to join liberals? Here the argument becomes vague, focused more on what not to do rather than what is to be done. EJ Dionne, to pick a recent example, just wrote that “we should acknowledge that those who are angry about what’s happened to their lives are not all delusional bigots.” He’s smart about what won’t work, such as focusing on education alone or ignoring the downsides of trade. But when he calls for “fresh thinking about how an innovative economy can make those innovations work on behalf of the many,” he assumes that the answers will unite Trump voters with liberals.

Yet any sufficiently important left project going forward is going to involve at least four things: a more redistributive state, a more aggressive state intervention in the economy, a weakening of the centrality of waged labor, and a broadening, service-based form of worker activism. These four points, essential as they are, will likely further drive Trump’s white working-class supporters away from the left, rather than unite them.

I hope this is an intervention in the debate over “economic anxiety.” I find a lot of people saying Democrats need to move to the left to address the economic anxiety of Trump voters. Now, I think there is a left shift in the way liberals are talking about the economy, a shift that should be cemented and expanded. But it’s not clear to me, if and as it expands, why this would help Democrats with Trump voters, and I can see the many reasons why it would hurt. Going through these four examples will clarify why. Ironically, addressing white working-class economic insecurity will potentially drive them even further to the right. I think any such discussion needs to get more specific on what exactly addressing these anxieties would look like.


There are some important stipulations to make before we go forward. First, I think the broad left agenda is the right one for the white working class. I think it would provide better jobs, income, security and freedom. Nothing succeeds like success either, and being able to deliver the goods could change the underlying dynamics in the long run. At the end I’ll give some ideas on specifics that could work. But part of politics is knowing who will be your allies and opponents, and in the short term, the broad left agenda would likely widen the distance that already exists.

We should also note that Trump’s white working class is a bit of a myth. Even Democrats doing poorly here is a bit off. In general, as Stan Greenberg notes, there’s a strong regional component here, with Democrats doing poorly with the white working class in the South and West, while doing better with them elsewhere. More importantly, it’s not clear whether Trump’s working class voters even exist. “Better-off white people in places that are doing poorly” seems more on point as a description. But I’m going to go with the generic media description, sometimes bordering on caricature, of Trump’s base as people motivated by a mix of changing economic and social conditions.

I’m going to keep the concept of “left economics” open and vague, referring to high-level elements that will likely be part of any such agenda. Perhaps this agenda is wrong, but I think it’s important for those making these arguments to better articulate why they think it’s wrong, and how we could do it differently so that it would work.

1. Targeted, Universal, Free Stuff: Medicaid Expansion

A person who does economics messaging for Democratic groups recently complained to me that liberals don’t have a good bumper sticker message. He was not happy at my suggestion that “tax the rich, get free stuff” would be a fantastic one. That may not be the exact banner message, but any left program going forward is going to have more social services, income support and redistribution. Those programs should be as universal as we can get; even when they are not, the bias should be towards wider participation, broader risk-sharing, and public provisioning.

However it’s precisely this form of universalism that many of Trump’s supporters oppose. We saw this in the original work on the Tea Party by Theda Skocpol and Vanessa Williamson, which found that its supporters were happy with extensive welfare programs as long as they went to people like themselves. This concept of “welfare chauvinism” is better understood in Europe, where it’s been more prominent, compared to the libertarian fantasies that engage pundits on the right in the United States. But it’s here now. It’s why Trump is making headway with child-care policies that only benefit the better off while also defending Social Security against privatization.

During the primaries there was a brief back-and-forth over whether reparations should be part of Sanders’s agenda. Those arguing against it often gave the humorous answer that ending racism is hard, so we should do the easier project of ending capitalism instead. But the smart answer was that we should be focused on the concept of “targeted universalism.” We should have broadly available programs that would disproportionately benefit the most needy while creating a broader base of support. This could, in theory, sabotage Trump’s support.

Yet this targeted but universal approach is what the major expansion of Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act (ACA) is meant to do. This should have aligned the interests of the insecure working class along with the poor, as well as whites with blacks, into one coalition. States refusing to expand Medicaid should be under greater political pressure from Trump-sympathetic supporters once they see the differences: Annie Lowrey had an excellent piece a while ago about the border of Texas and Arkansas, and the vastly different outcomes from a state that expanded Medicaid and a state that did not. Yet I’ve seen no evidence that it’s shifted attitudes among Trump’s white working class or put anything other than weak pressure on Republican candidates.

2. A Stronger Federal Regulatory State: Financial Reform

Any reasonable left program, at least for the foreseeable future, requires a stronger state presence in the economy. The economy is structured to send too much income to owners, managers and capital while not providing a level of investment capable of sustaining full employment. Efforts to tackle rents, concentration, and fraud need structural reforms and enforcement at the federal level, and a more aggressive response by the state is required for full employment.

Yet there’s nothing about Trump voters that conveys that they want such actions when they say that the economy is on the wrong track. When Trump talks about the system being rigged, he doesn’t really mention rich people; he discusses bureaucrats in Washington DC failing to make good deals.

This tension animates Arlie Hochschild’s recent book on the white working class, Strangers in Their Own Land. As a way of provoking this very question, Hochschild embeds with people living in the polluted “Cancer Alley” of Louisiana. They are people who are conscious of the environmental wreckage industry has brought to their area, yet they vote for people opposed to the Environmental Protection Agency and environmentalism generally.

Hochschild finds that her subjects don’t experience this as a tension because they view the federal government as something that is helping people “cut in line.” The story that Hochschild’s subjects use to describe their situation is one where you “are patiently standing in the middle of a long line stretching toward the horizon, where the American Dream awaits. But as you wait, you see people cutting in line ahead of you. […] As you wait your turn, Obama is using the money in your pocket to help the line-cutters.” It’s not that the federal government is too far removed, or that it’s too ineffectual or captured by the industry, but rather that this federal government allows for a leveling of local hierarchies. (A funny point is how people keep telling Hochschild that government workers are 40 percent of the workforce, which she spends a lot of time making sure isn’t true.) The idea that we can use that federal government to be more active in creating a better distribution and jobs is not going to make friends here.

I’ve watched this directly with financial reform following the crisis. Contrary to many stories, the Rick Santelli rant that started the Tea Party was not in response to the bank bailouts but to a timid foreclosure mitigation effort (HAMP), on the idea that “Do we really want to subsidize the losers’ mortgages?” This is pure “cutting in line” rhetoric. When the Tea Party talks about the behavior of banks, they discuss it as the banks colluding with or being patsies of the state and activist groups wanting free stuff. As such, it’s not clear what kinds of stronger rules structuring financial markets would motivate Trump’s white working class, and Tea Party candidates haven’t supported any.

3. Anti-Work

Any left agenda going forward, in addition to giving workers more power within the workplace, will have to weaken the centrality and power of waged employment as the central arbiter of value of society. This takes a variety of approaches in the current debates: there are hard theorists of “post-work imaginations” like Peter Frase and Kathi Weeks. There are those who want to see non-waged work in the home, the “silent partner” of capitalism as Heather Boushey writes, protected and compensated as such. Then there are those like Andy Stern who think our ability to produce jobs will decline with future automation, and non-work security is just getting ahead of the curve.

I see no reason that Trump’s voters would pursue these options. As Alec MacGillis wrote in Who Turned My Blue State Red?, “these communities who are voting Republican in larger proportions are those who are a notch or two up the economic ladder.” And for them, the defining feature is work; those who don’t work are the problem, and the government is the problem for letting them do so. This is tied to redistribution but also goes beyond it. One thing that Hochschild finds is that her subjects use capitalism as an ordering of their lives, part of their system that dictates who is where in line.

4. Labor Activism is Increasingly in Services, Done by Women and People of Color

It’s been noted that Trump’s appeal doesn’t extend to people of color and women; what’s also notable is that Trump also just doesn’t speak about service work, period. When he talks, it is about factory work, and it gets more energy from nostalgia than from economic analysis.

Manufacturing is unlikely to come back as a high-employment industry. The future will involve more service work, and ways to make service function as the foundation of a middle-class life are essential. Yet that isn’t addressed by Trump at all.

An obvious way to alleviate racial tensions is for workers to join together across races in unions, where solidarity and collective bargaining bind people together in a shared enterprise. Yet, as people like Tamara Draut have written, worker activism is increasingly in fields dominated by women and people of color. Finding ways to boost and amplify this activism is essential for the left. It is possible that Trump’s white working class could find solidarity with these efforts, but it is just as likely they would be further alienated.

Cautious Possibilities

This is not to convey that the Right has better answers. Efforts to roll back and devolve public power in favor of private and local ones would be devastating for struggling white working class communities that can’t manage their current economic risks. It’s the equivalent of throwing a drowning person a “swimming for dummies” manual rather than a lifeline.

On the Wall Street Journal op-ed page it’s clear how this will go down. The banker Edward Conard has started arguing that conservatives should just give Trump’s white working class a reactionary immigration policy and no more trade deals in exchange for reducing the progressivity of taxation. The immigration policy will be cruel but not ultimately work, and new trade deals matter a lot less out here in 2016. Reducing progressive taxes, however, is a major win for the elite that will benefit them with certainty.

This isn’t to argue for policy nihilism, as there are some possibilities. Trump is going to crater with white working class women, and this opens up the possibility of selling an agenda of equal pay, affordable childcare and paid-leave — core issues for Democrats right now. The minimum wage is a big winner. Certain kinds of structural reforms, such as antitrust, could convince skeptical people. Campaign finance reform is always important, but it’s equally important to not simply assume that the campaign for reform would lead to more progressive outcomes afterwards, rather than simply more skepticism about government period.

Note that this is precisely what Democrats are doing right now though. New situations will open up, and we’ll have to be nimble to take advantage of them. But the idea that this process will be obvious if the Democrats simply become more progressive needs to be challenged; how it is meant to work is exactly the question.

Always dressed and buttoned up.

Always dressed and buttoned up.