Why the white working class ditched Clinton

Working-class whites give Trump the White House
Working-class whites give Trump the White House

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Working-class whites give Trump the White House 02:20

Story highlights

  • This was Hillary Clinton's election to lose, says Stephanie Coontz
  • Democrat was unable to convince voters she was a defender of those left behind, Coontz says

Stephanie Coontz is director of research at the Council on Contemporary Families and teaches history at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington. Her most recent book is "A Strange Stirring: The Feminine Mystique and American Women at the Dawn of the 1960s." She is also the author of "The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap."

(CNN)Since the presidential election, pundits have struggled to explain Donald Trump's upset win. Liberal columnists are united in shock that so many people voted for a man who inflamed racial, ethnic and religious tensions, insulted and mistreated women, and was deemed temperamentally unfit to be president, even by many of his supporters.

Stephanie Coontz
Conservatives are divided. Conservative columnist Ross Douthat bemoans the "crude genius" that has brought America to the brink of "catastrophe." House Speaker Paul Ryan, who repeatedly denounced Trump during the campaign, now hails Trump's election as a sign that Americans have repudiated "failed liberal progressive policies."
    But the biggest debates swirl around Trump's appeal to working-class whites. And this appeal represents something far more complicated than either side admits.
    Contrary to Ryan, Trump's working-class and rural supporters don't endorse most traditional Republican alternatives to progressive policies. In fact, polls consistently show that they oppose free trade, mistrust corporations and banks, and oppose cutting Medicare or Social Security.
    They largely account for the substantial portion of Republican voters -- almost 30% -- who say they would support "heavy" taxes on the wealthy.
    Listen to how the first policy statement in Trump's victory speech Wednesday morning echoed the progressive agenda that Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren have championed, embellished with a typical Trumpian flourish: "We are going to fix our inner cities and rebuild our highways, bridges, tunnels, airports, schools, hospitals. We're going to rebuild our infrastructure, which will become, by the way, second to none. And we will put millions of our people to work as we rebuild it."
    Liberals explanations for the Clinton loss are also incomplete. Yes, racism, sexism, and nativism are widespread, and the right wing has demonized Hillary Clinton for years. But ultimately, this was Clinton's election to lose, and Democratic Party officials should reflect on their eagerness to nominate her in the first place, despite the clear longing of so many young liberals and older conservatives for an anti-establishment figure motivated by more palpable indignation against "the system."
    What's more, Trump's dog-whistle appeals to racism were not the only reason Clinton failed among white voters without a college education. The last time around, these voters comprised more than one third of the Americans who voted for Obama.
    But Clinton failed to duplicate that success in any state that was up for grabs in this election. In one Ohio county where President Obama won by a 22-point margin just four years ago, Trump defeated Clinton by six points.
    So what's going on with these voters?
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    As a recent CNN poll shows, white working-class and rural voters without a college degree are not the poorest of Americans, but they are the most pessimistic about their future prospects. A full half expect their children's lives will be worse than their own, and less than a quarter expect their children to do better.
    In stark contrast to blacks and Hispanics without a college education, most don't believe they would be better off if they had earned a four-year college degree. Clinton's promise of free college didn't resonate with them.
    What they want is what they used to have: predictable jobs and long-standing social networks in stable communities. As liberals note, the social networks in which they were embedded reflected strict racial and gender hierarchies and enforced a conformity to community norms that was very painful for gays and lesbians, political dissidents and women who dreamed of doing something in the world outside the home. But they provided a stability that has since disappeared.
    In the 1950s and 1960s, young people didn't have to leave for college, move to another state, or join the military, putting their lives at risk (in sharp contrast to most of their more educated or affluent fellow Americans), in order to find a job that paid enough to raise a family. Businesses didn't demand tax breaks from their towns and then move away as soon as the tax break expired. Your kids could follow in your footsteps and do better than you, just as you had done better than your own parents.
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    Since that time, however, working families have experienced downsizing, outsourcing, and the relentless destruction of middle-wage jobs, with their reinvention as lower-wage jobs. They lost homes or home values in the deepest recession since the Great Depression and have since watched a "recovery" that has mainly benefited wealthy urbanites.
    A 2014 study prepared for the US Conference of Mayors and the Council on Metro Economics and the New American City found that over the last 40 years, the distribution of income has steadily shifted toward upper-income households, while jobs recovered after the 2008 recession paid an average of 23% less than the positions they replaced.
    Another study by the National Employment Law Project found that by 2014 there were 958,000 fewer jobs in mid-wage industries and 1.85 million more workers in low-wage industries than at the start of the recession.
    Here's one concrete reason why so many working-class voters, unlike most of Clinton's educated supporters, don't think America's best days lie ahead. Between 1947 and 1979, real wages for an average meatpacking worker, adjusted for inflation, increased by around 80%, reaching almost $40,000 per year, a salary that could support a comfortable middle-class lifestyle. But between 1979 and 2012, the average meat packer's wage declined by nearly 30 percent, to about $27,000.
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    Clinton seemed oblivious to facts like these. As a historian who has studied the rise and decline of working-class families since World War II, I listened to Hillary Clinton's speeches over the last few months, looking in vain for any sign that she grasped the mounting frustration that so many working people have felt over the past few decades.
    While Trump talked about "the working class," she carefully focused on "the middle class." She mentioned tuition breaks and family friendly work places far more often than she talked about investment in infrastructure and jobs.
    Furthermore, despite my contempt for Trump's constant lies and self-aggrandizement, I understand why people who have felt trampled on by "the system" for many years had trouble making meaningful distinctions between the respective vices of these two candidates.
    Trump made things up. But Clinton kept things quiet, including the cozy and well-paid meetings that financial interests arranged for her. He lied; she stonewalled.
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    Clinton was quick to point out that Trump's father gave him a big pile of money to start his supposedly "self-made" business. But she and her husband financed daughter Chelsea's $3 million dollar wedding, and it's doubtful Chelsea would have landed a $600,000 a year job her first year after leaving school without those parental connections.
    Trump made his fortune manipulating tax laws and stiffing small businessmen, creating a few well-paying jobs along the way. Vulnerable people looking to master "the art of the deal" learned the hard way that Trump held all the cards.
    The Clintons were nowhere near so crude. They made their considerable fortune from profitable book deals and wildly-lucrative speaking engagements. They didn't need to stiff anyone. But neither did their activities generate many jobs.
    Clinton spent more campaign time calling out Trump as a bully than presenting her own program for working-class renewal. But for many working-class Americans, that is one of his attractions. Throughout history, people with few educational or economic resources and little bargaining power have often looked to authoritarian, ruthless people to stand up for them. As one of Trump's female supporters explained to a reporter, Trump is the kind of bully you get to beat up the people who have bullied you.
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    Clinton was clearly the more competent candidate, but when her campaign ridiculed Trump, it merely proved to many Americans who also felt disrespected by the establishment that he was an outsider who understood their feelings of exclusion.
    She was simply unable to present herself as a forceful defender of everyone who has been left behind by the march of globalization, professionalization and the emergence of a new just-in-time, winner-take-all economy.
    For the past seven months, I have been commuting back and forth to New Orleans for family reasons, and Wednesday morning as I walked into the hotel lobby I wondered if I would be greeted by boisterous celebrations of Trump's victory. Instead, the first words I heard were from a white waitress, who later confirmed that she had never gone to college, with whom I had idly chatted over the past few days.
    "Bernie would have beaten Trump in all those swing states, just like he beat Hillary in many of them," she announced. Later, a desk clerk mentioned that her uncle had voted for Bernie Sanders in the primaries but for Trump in the final election.
    Perhaps Sanders would have driven more middle-class voters into Trump's arms than any working-class ones he pulled away from Trump. But as these comments suggest, Democratic legislators need to devise ways to address the legitimate grievances of white working-class Americans without abandoning their defense of the minorities, women, and gay and lesbian Americans who are likely to face intensified discrimination under this administration.
    As for Republican legislators, it is time for any of them sane enough to believe the scientific evidence of climate change to become brave enough to help protect their working-class constituencies from its effects.