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At the Center, But on the Margins: Working Class Anger and the Elections

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Photo by Alan Levine | CC BY 2.0

Photo by Alan Levine | CC BY 2.0

‘The system is rigged.’ We already knew that the candidate with the largest share of the national vote does not always become US president; that the race for the White House ignores three-quarters of the states, in which the outcome of the election seems a foregone conclusion; that almost six million Americans with criminal records have lost their right to vote; that 11% of potential voters lack the identity papers required to cast a ballot; that the electoral system gives the two main parties a decisive advantage. Nor were we unaware that money, the media, lobbies and redistricting distort the democratic process (1).

But there’s more to it in this election: a feeling that crosses party divisions, an anger expressed in the primaries by the 12 million people who voted for Senator Bernie Sanders and the 13.3 million supporters of Republican billionaire Donald Trump. They reckoned the system is rigged because politicians, both Republicans and Democrats, have launched wars in the Middle East that have impoverished the US without bringing victory. Rigged, because a majority of the population continues to pay for the consequences of an economic crisis that has cost those who caused it nothing. Rigged, because President Obama has disappointed the huge hopes of change generated by his 2008 campaign. Rigged, because Republican voters saw little difference after they mobilised to take control of the two Houses in Congress in 2010 and 2014. The system is rigged because nothing changes in Washington, because Americans feel dispossessed of their country by an oligarchy that holds them in contempt, because inequality grows and the middle class is beset by fear.

The election ostensibly began so well. On the Democrat side, Hillary Clinton’s party nomination was supposed to be a cakewalk, a dynastic succession power-assisted by Obama, but it turned into a struggle against a maverick septuagenarian, Sanders. He surprised everyone by successfully mobilising millions of voters among the young, the rural population and the working class with an anti-capitalist campaign. And money was no obstacle: he raised huge sums from millions of small donations, circumventing one of the most hated ways in which US politics is rigged (2). This surprising outcome seemed all the more promising as Donald Trump also spent far less on his primary campaign than several of the Republican opponents he crushed.

An outcry against government has characterised the majority of previous presidential campaigns, but today even conservative voters are calling for greater state intervention in the economy. The perennial homilies about reducing welfare budgets, pension ‘reform’ and cutting unemployment benefits are not part of Trump’s programme. And on free trade — the central theme of his campaign — he wants to tear up the treaties negotiated by his Democrat and Republican predecessors and impose tariffs on US companies that move offshore. What’s more, both he and Hillary Clinton agree that government should fund the very costly reconstruction of the country’s transport infrastructure (3). So the bipartisan globalist consensus has been smashed. Corporate America, through its cynicism and greed, has destroyed the pretence of an automatic link between its prosperity and that of the country (4).

Even if Clinton has promised to entrust her husband Bill (the main architect of the Democratic Party’s shift to the right 25 years ago) with important economic tasks, the party no longer looks like the one the couple fashioned when they last occupied the White House. Democratic voters are more leftwing and less attracted to accommodations with the Republicans: the term ‘socialism’ no longer alarms them. And Hillary has had to make concessions to Sanders supporters on four key aspects of the 1990s swerve of the ‘new Democrats’ to the right: free trade treaties, the big hike in the prison population, financial deregulation and wage restraint.

Smashing the tablets of stone

Trump’s diatribes against Mexican immigrants and Islam, his sexism and his racist rants provoke such disgust that other things he says sometimes go unnoticed. Yet when it comes to welfare spending, trade policy, gay rights, international alliances or overseas military engagements, Trump has so determinedly smashed the Republican tablets of stone that it is hard to imagine GOP leaders backtracking on any of these issues any time soon. Unless they intend to definitively sacrifice ‘their’ base, which has already signalled its impatience by voting in the primaries for a candidate not known for pulling his punches, even when talking about his party. ‘Our politicians,’ Trump says, ‘have aggressively pursued a policy of globalisation. Globalisation has made the financial elite who donate to politicians very wealthy. But it has left millions of our workers with nothing but poverty and heartache.’ This is a piquant observation from a billionaire who divides his time between a Manhattan penthouse and his private jet, yet it’s not a bad summary.

All this might suggest that, after all, the system isn’t rigged — that, as Francis Fukuyama suggested recently in Foreign Affairs, American democracy is functioning, since it is reacting to popular anger, complicating the Clinton dynasty’s plans, humiliating the Republican barons, and putting the issues of inequality, protectionism and deindustrialisation centre stage in the election (5).

Perhaps it also sounds a knell for two political deceptions. Over time, the Democratic Party has become the tool of the educated middle classes and professionals, but has retained the vast majority of the black and Hispanic vote by displaying signs of its ‘diversity’. And with the support of the unions, it has kept a working-class electoral base. Yet its vision of progress has ceased to be egalitarian: it is sometimes individualist and paternalistic (‘try harder’) and sometimes meritocratic (‘study more’), but it offers no future to the peripheral America of the heartlands which, far from the coasts, remain cut off from the prosperity of the great global cities. This America is witnessing the disappearance of the industrial jobs that had long been the mainstay of a middle class with little college education yet confident in its future.

Before Trump, the Republican Party had little to offer them either. The party’s priorities were reducing taxes on businesses and letting them export capital and outsource production. But by talking about country, religion and morality to workers and the white proletariat, and by encouraging the American heartlands to believe their decline was caused by pampered minorities and arrogant intellectuals, the conservatives ensured that the designated victims of their economic and business policies served as their electoral canon fodder for years (6).

Trump’s popularity with these people works differently. He barely talks about the Bible and ‘traditional values’, and insists on defending industry and revoking trade agreements. Clinton did little to reclaim the affection of many of his voters when she lumped them into a‘basket of deplorables’ who are ‘racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic.’ She offered this diagnosis at a New York fundraiser before a ‘basket’ of people who were surely admirable, as they had paid a lot to hear her speak.

Is it possible that an election notable for such ideological upsets — and even a desire to up-end the whole applecart — will still deliver victory for the status quo candidate? Yes, since Trump is an outsider who is even more hated than she is. And that, ultimately, may be the main way the system is rigged. The US is not unique in this. France may experience something similar next year: popular anger at globalisation, social segregation and the connivance of elites, but which is short-changed by a political game whose sorry result unfailingly follows the buttered toast rule.

Since nothing very unexpected will come from Clinton because she is surrounded by experts, pollsters and PR people, and calculates everything to within a fraction of an inch, Trump has shaken things up by ditching his party’s decreed strategy.

The re-election of Barack Obama in 2012 took the Republican leadership by surprise. They concluded that to win they would have to reduce the Democrats’ electoral advantage among the black community — though here Clinton has less purchase than Obama — and especially among Hispanics, who represent a growing percentage of the population. As Hispanic Americans have often been alienated by the Republicans’ restrictive immigration policy, the party reckoned it should show more openness and offer an amnesty to some illegal immigrants. Theoretically, since electoral loyalties are not DNA-encoded, nothing prevents a Hispanic American from voting for the right if he opposes abortion or resents paying taxes. Polish, Italian and Lithuanian immigrants used to vote Democrat until they switched their support to Republican Ronald Reagan; in 2000, 70% of Muslims backed George W Bush, but eight years later 90% voted for Obama (7).

Stoking fear of immigrants

Instead of scrabbling for a few votes from the Latino and black electorate, who are hostile to the Republicans, Trump has chosen to bank on increasing his advantage among non-Hispanic whites. They may be a shrinking percentage of the population, but they still accounted for 74% of the electorate in 2012. To mobilise this group, especially manual workers and employees with little college education, Trump has stoked fears of an influx of immigrants threatening security and a loss of national identity, and hammered on about an industrial renaissance (‘Make America great again’). Such rhetoric resonates with social groups that the Democrat establishment largely neglects, since it doesn’t associate them with digital modernity or demographic diversity, probably because it reckons that these groups struggle along in a culture and universe whose days are numbered, and which are declining and ‘deplorable’.

The metropolises account for a growing share of the US’s prosperity and production of ideas, yet the peripheral states will decide the election. For several months, California and New York have been left in the shade, as their result — Democrat — is already known by all and the electoral margin of victory does not matter. Meanwhile Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin occupy the limelight, they are being courted because the outcomes in these states are more uncertain; they’re being listened to and heavily courted. And what do the candidates hear? That these states, whose populations are whiter, older and generally less educated than average, have lost hundreds of thousands of jobs to offshoring and competition from China and Mexico, that industrial wastelands are spreading, and that they have benefited less from the economic upturn than the rest of the US. Trump’s language of protectionism and anxiety goes down well here; Clinton has a tougher time selling President Obama’s record.

There may soon come a time when US world cities have expanded still further and immigration has transformed the US into a country where ‘minorities’ are in the majority. Then the Democrats may be able to do without the working-class Midwest, as they have previously done without poor Southern whites. But that time is not now. This year it’s still too risky for the Clintons’ party to scold all those who react badly to the problems the Democrats created, and to suggest that they seek training or a new career, or relocate. Because, with Trump in the ring, the Democrats can no longer be certain that they are the sole electoral refuge for what remains of a working-class base. Clinton, the personification of a political elite which for over a quarter of a century has led the working-class world towards catastrophe, must therefore take account of people whose economic fate is threatened and who are terrified by the loss of social status. Her CV is unmatched, but in 2016 many Americans seem to want to ditch the whole system and use a stick of dynamite called Donald Trump to do it.

So suddenly the suffering white population matter again, and are being scrutinised as the black lumpenproletariat were half a century ago. And we discover that life expectancy is declining for Appalachian miners, Virginia tobacco farmers, all those who’ve been forced to change jobs and become security guards at Walmart at a third of their former salaries. Life expectancy for white men with no college education is now almost 13 years lower than for their university-educated counterparts (67.5 years compared to 80.4); and for women, a little over ten years (73.5 against 83.9). Pawnshops and check-cashing stores are no longer only found in black ghettos, and the same is true of young single mothers on welfare, high levels of obesity, drug addiction and suicide. For this population, Clinton’s ‘experience’, and her respect for the way Washington works, are not necessarily assets.

What will the ‘post-industrial’ future mean for them when all the coal mines have closed down, when the taxi and truck drivers have been replaced with driverless Google vehicles, when the supermarket clerks are all barcode scanners and robots do the rest of the work? Will they all become programmers? Waiting staff? Self-employed food delivery bikers for a smartphone app, renters of Airbnb rooms for tourists, organic gardeners or home helps? Clinton is not responsive to this worry; she probably sees it as a rejection of progress. Trump harps on about it, trying to get people who are scared by the coarseness of his personality and his lack of knowledge to ponder ‘What have you got to lose?’

Rigged or not, we will soon know whether the US system has become so fragile that it may yield to a man like Trump. But if another terrorist attack, a bad TV appearance or the discovery of more compromising emails between now and the election keeps Clinton out of the White House, it would prove not just that the party of the status quo could not fight the authoritarian right, but that the latter derives much of its energy from the failed policies of the neoliberal left.

Notes.

(1) For a more detailed analysis, see Serge Halimi and Loïc Wacquant, ‘Democracy American style’ and Benoît Bréville, ‘Why Georgia isn’t on Obama’s mind’, Le Monde diplomatique, English edition, December 2000 and October 2012 respectively. See also Elizabeth Drew, ‘Big dangers for the next election’, New York Review of Books, 21 May 2015.

(2) According to an opinion poll conducted in late May 2015, 84% of Americans think that money plays too big a part in the political life of the country, 85% believe campaign funding should be completely overhauled or fundamentally changed, and 55% that their politicians mainly promote the interests of the groups who fund them (The New York Times, 2 June 2015).

(3) Clinton has promised to spend $275bn on transport infrastructure over five years; Trump, twice that. See Janet Hook, ‘Trump bucks his party on spending’, The Wall Street Journal, New York, 19 September 2016.

(4) See William A Galston,‘The double political whammy for business, The Wall Street Journal, 19 July 2016.

(5) Francis Fukuyama, ‘American political decay or renewal?’, Foreign Affairs, New York, July-August 2016.

(6) See Thomas Frank, What’s the Matter with Kansas?, Henry Holt and Co, New York, 2004. See also Serge Halimi, ‘US: phoney culture wars’, Le Monde diplomatique, English edition, May 2006.

(7) According to the New York Times, 9-10 January 2016.

This article appears in the excellent Le Monde Diplomatique, whose English language edition can be found at mondediplo.com. This full text appears by agreement with Le Monde Diplomatique. CounterPunch features two or three articles from LMD every month.

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Serge Halimi is president of Le Monde diplomatique

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