In a Vox article of October 16, 2018, you can find a report on a study carried out by three academics showing that the deciding factors in the outcome of the 2016 presidential elections were views on issues of race and attitudes toward immigration; factors that Trump exploited in order to get into the Oval Office. The report is titled, “Vote Switching in the 2016 Election: How Racial and Immigration Attitudes, Not Economics, Explain Shifts in White Voting”, and was conducted by UCLA’s Tyler Reny, UC-Riverside’s Loren Collingwood, and Princeton’s Ali Valenzuela.
Setting up their theoretical approach, the authors of the study state: “Traditional views of partisan identification focus on the issues, ideologies, and groups connected to each party, what Huddy et al. (2015; 2018) call the instrumental conception of partisanship … More recently, scholars have conceived of partisanship as a social identity, comparable to race or religion … In this view, partisan affiliation is akin to a salient social group attachment (Tajfel 1981) and partisanship the result of “comparing a judgment about oneself with one’s conception of a social group. As people reflect on whether they are Democrats or Republicans (or neither), they call to mind a mental image, or stereotype, or what these sorts of people are like and square those images with their own conception” (Green, Palmquist, and Schickler 2002, pg. 8).”
The approach adopted by the authors does not take sides in this divide, but rather combines them. For the team of researchers, these two approaches, the ‘instrumental’ and the ‘social identity’ approaches to explaining partisan identification, are not necessarily mutually exclusive. The underlying argument of the study is that identity (self-perception) includes an ideology, and ideology dictates (at least) part of one’s self-identity.
The study further states: “We argue that three parallel trends have opened the door for vote switching in 2016 among partisans via both channels: the election of Barack Obama, mass immigration from Latin American countries, and the slow collapse of American manufacturing.”
The authors conclude, however, that the first two of these (Obama presidency leading to more racial divisions and mass immigration from Latin America) decided the outcome. The study does take into account the importance of the declining American manufacturing jobs as a contributing factor to the increase in economic insecurity, which in turn acted as an underlying cause when coupled with conservative racial attitudes. Put differently, the insecurities associated with the collapse of American manufacturing reflected itself in ‘ideological’ and ‘identity issues’, highlighted and refracted through views of race and immigration, which led to the switching of votes from Obama to Trump among many white working-class voters.
Here is another factor to consider, though. According to the Vox article referenced above and a Washington Post report from Dec 1, 2016 (https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-fix/wp/2016/12/01/donald-trump-will-be-president-thanks-to-80000-people-in-three-states/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.5452d8dc2b22), and depending on the figure you accept as correct, between 40,000 and 80,000 voters in only three states (Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin) decided the 2016 presidential election, based on electoral college votes; the popular votes were in favor of Clinton by three million.
Maybe a future research project could address this particular sub-set of the electorate, and address this question: What are the specific commonalties of those 40,000-80,000 voters who actually did decide the outcome of the 2016 presidential election?
I do recognize the importance of the study in pointing out a historical shift in the partisan voting coalitions deciding who is more likely to vote Democrat or Republican. And the insights provided in this study should be taken as a warning sign. However, a more exact and comprehensive explanation of what happened in the 2016 elections must take into account the specificities of the American electoral system and all its structural dimensions. The ‘electoral college’, for example, is a fundamental dimension of the presidential election system in the U.S. that must be accounted for in any such study, to show how this dimension of the electoral system can be manipulated.
Here is yet another dimension to consider. How about the number of Democratic Party voters who voted in 2012 compared to that number in 2016? Maybe the lower number of Democratic voters in 2016 can account for the 40,000-80,0000 number that decided the 2016 presidential election?
This bit from the Forbes magazine may shed some light on the matter: “Take Michigan for example. A state that Obama won in 2012 by 350,000 votes, Clinton lost by roughly 10,000. Why? … Detroit and Wayne County should kick themselves because, of the 595,253 votes they gave Obama in 2012, only 518,000 voted for Clinton in 2016. More than 75,000 Motown Obama voters did not bother to vote for Clinton. They did not become Trump voters – Trump received only 10,000 votes more than Romney did in this county. They simply stayed at home. If even a fraction of these lethargic Democrats had turned out to vote, Michigan would have stayed blue.” (The Non-Voters Who Decided the Election: Trump Won Because Of Lower Democratic Turnout; Forbes, Nov 17, 2016)
Also, from a report in The New York Times, dated Nov 17, 2016: “In counties where Trump won at least 70 percent of the vote, the number of votes cast rose 2.9 percent versus 2012. Trump’s pugnacious message evidently stirred people who hadn’t voted in the past. By comparison, in counties where Clinton won at least 70 percent, the vote count was 1.7 percent lower this year.
“The most important states, though, were Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. Trump won those states by 0.2, 0.7 and 0.8 percentage points, respectively — and by 10,704, 46,765 and 22,177 votes. Those three wins gave him 46 electoral votes; if Clinton had done one point better in each state, she’d have won the electoral vote, too.” (The Democrats’ Real Turnout Problem; The New York Times, Nov 17, 2016)
In politics it does matter how your opponent is conducting their campaign. Political races are not like running or swimming races, wherein the most competent, the fastest and the most skilled wins the race regardless of how others compete. Political races are more like very long and protracted Sumo wrestling matches. Why Sumo? Because in Sumo wrestling, although there are rank classifications (the Yokozuna being the highest in terms of power, skill and dignity/grace, and Komusubi the lowest), anybody can go against anybody in official tournaments, and it is not uncommon for a lower ranked rikishi (or wrestler) to throw higher ranked ones. If you’re skilled enough, know a few good tricks, know your opponent’s weaknesses and are agile enough, you can throw down wrestlers twice your size. The flip side, as pertains to political races, is that if you’re wrestling somebody who’s not as skilled as you are or is weaker than you, you seem stronger than you actually are.
Trump knew Clinton’s weaknesses and knew the vulnerabilities of the electoral system and was able to manipulate those liabilities to persuade enough people to get his way into the presidency, by appealing to the fears and insecurities of workers and lower middle-classes trapped in industrial dead zones created by globalization.
In seeing how, in retrospect, Trump’s rise to presidency arose partly out of his ability to energize his base (thanks to his racist and anti-immigrant rhetoric), as opposed to Clinton’s inability to energize hers (thanks to her self-avowed standing as the representative of the status quo, a status quo which sucks for millions of voters), and knowing how his presidency has seen a steady level of support among his base due to his ‘rule-by-deepening-divisions’, the report may have presumed that one of the multiple explanatory factors (divisive issues such as race and immigration) was the only operative factor explaining the Trump win in the presidential elections of 2016. Based on this, the report concludes that issues of race and immigration will be the deciding factors in the new electoral coalitions of the future.
Now, that last conclusion may indeed be true. We may be in for a generation or two (or more?) of Trumpism, just like we have been stuck for a few generations now in Reaganite neo-liberalism. But, knowing comprehensively how we got to this point is important, and just one (racial) issue does not paint the complete picture. This is an important point for socialists to take into account.
That was the look-back at how Trump got to be president. But it is equally (if not more so) important to look forward, to assess how our political situation is likely to develop from here.
An insight can be drawn from reflecting on how the liberal faction of capital in the U.S. is reacting to the Trump presidency with horror and panic, while incapable of coming up with an inspiring enough political platform that would bring them back to political dominance, to bring back the functioning of capital as it used to be, in a ‘harmonious’ manner without so much acrimony and chaos. What drives people to vote Democratic is more a fear and revulsion of Trump, and not so much Democrats’ offerings.
The panic has also seeped into the right wing of the socialists, as testified to by the inclination among many DSA and Green Party members who advocate voting for Democrats.
One example of panic and fear is that of Carl Bernstein’s, as reflected in an interview he gave on CNN’s “Reliable Sources” program on Sunday, Oct 21, 2018. In the interview he expresses extreme concern over the fact that, “We have a president who does not believe in truth,” the journalist said. “This is far different from anything we have experienced.”
Well, first off, this is not really a germane point, even if true. But it is not true. Politicians worldwide are not known to be truth tellers. Trump, specifically, knows very well that he is lying when he states all those astonishing untruths. He knows whom he is speaking to, and it is not Carl Bernstein or any other liberal leaning person. That’s the thing liberals just cannot grasp. Considering themselves the as righteous holders of the ‘center’, the norm, the standard, they think they are the intended audience of all political discourse. But, they are not. Trump’s addressees are always his own base.
Bernstein gives us an inadvertent insight, though: ““I think it’s time to recognize that what we are watching in the Trump presidency is worse than Watergate,” Bernstein told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer in August. “It’s worse than Watergate, as I say, because the system worked in Watergate.
“The heroes of Watergate were Republicans who demanded that the president be held accountable, who demanded that he be transparent, who demanded to know what did the president know and when did he know it, and who conducted bipartisan investigation that led, in fact, to understanding and finding out what Nixon had done,” he added.”
Here we have a propaganda point that is of utmost importance to the liberal faction of capital. “The system always works” is the soothing sound of an idealized world that nevertheless puts the fright in the souls of millions of African-Americans, more so than anything else. “Works for whom?” is their corrective response.
But, let’s take that at face value and believe it for a second, as relates to the point Bernstein is making. The ‘system’ that he believes worked in the case of Watergate was constituted at a historical point when the base of the Republican Party was a party base; meaning, they voted for the party. If the party put up the Devil himself, they base would vote for him. It was also a historical moment in which the system was confident and stable enough to allow Nixon to establish the Environmental Protection Agency, the bane of existence of the current Republican Party.
However, remember that during the 2016 elections most of the ‘establishment’ Republicans openly voiced their revulsion of Trump all throughout the primaries, and only very reluctantly accepted his nomination. Remember the ‘Never-Trumpers’? Trump was able to embolden and energize the party base and to persuade them that he is ‘the one’ (the one that makes you feel like superman), and so the party apparatus has had to realize that the base is loyal to Trump. That has scared the Republicans into submission. The tax cuts for the corporations and billionaires, of course, constituted the reward for their submission; the tax cuts plus his packing of the judicial system with right wingers has also endeared him to the corporate donors.
A significant point that should be highlighted is how the Republicans lost against Obama in 2008 and 2012. Both Republicans who lost to Obama, McCain and Romney, were establishment Republicans. Both were unable to energize the party base in significant enough numbers to win the presidential elections.
Further, with the Democrats having played their role as the trusted placeholders of the ‘center’, the norm previously established by former Republican administrations, the donor class had no problem pouring their funds into the coffers of the Democratic candidate, Obama, at a time that the country was going through potentially catastrophic economic and financial crises. The donor class, the real owners of the economy, needed a popular figure, especially among the Democratic base that constitutes the working classes, so as to be better equipped to control the frustrations and the outrage of the people directed at the system. And Obama preformed magnificently for them.
The truth is that having moved so much to the right — having deregulated the banking system, having ‘reformed’ (destroyed, really) the welfare system for the poorest, having instituted ‘three strikes laws’ leading to the current level of barbarity in the justice system, having instituted trade policies that outsourced manufacturing jobs (all under Clinton), and then having continued the Republicans’ ‘war on terror’, and having bailed out the bankers and not the homeowners (under Obama) — the overwhelming majority of Democrats and the establishment wing of the Republican Party seemed almost indistinguishable.
Somebody had to dig not-so-deep into the dormant resentments simmering just beneath the surface, to bring them up and dress them in a custom designed suit, to ‘explain’ why some people had been robbed of good jobs and were sliding down a downward spiral, filled with misery and humiliation of realizing that, to the system as it stands, they’re nothing but stray dogs to be ignored. Trump brought that extra outrageously horrific message with his open spousal of racist ideas, misogyny and scapegoating of immigrants and Muslims, while offering simplistic solutions that (he claimed) only he could deliver. In short, Trump has hijacked the party base and turned it into a cult of personality built around himself.
Historically, and as modern socialists have been explaining for the past one hundred and seventy years, capitalism fundamentally lacks the capacity for satisfying the needs of all the populations under its control. It cannot even secure the minimum wellbeing of at least half of its population in the wealthiest nation on earth, as testified to by the mass protests of teachers and instructors (white color workers) in the U.S., just to point to one egregious example. Here is another example: according to a Quartz report (Oct 22, 2018), the number of undernourished people in the world is rising again. This, despite all the news of the global ‘recovery’ from the financial crash of 2008, and despite the record levels of wealth pouring into the pockets of those who vacuum up the global financial markets’ gains.
The fact that capitalism must produce more divisions across class, race, gender and ethnic lines, as well as the fact that it must increasingly produce more widespread poverty and misery so as to make fewer and fewer families even wealthier — all this is an obscenity and a violence that most humans can see. But, what is the solution you bring to this? What solutions do you promise your base, if you’re a Trump? If you have no real solutions, as capitalism does not, then all you can do is sow more divisions. That’s all they can do. Capitalism is in perpetual deflection mode. That is all it can do.
As the cliché goes, the best defense is offense. Capital has been on the offensive for the past forty years. Now, seeing how weak the labor movement globally has become, the right-wing leaders see their opportunity to push their agenda even more forcefully and with more vigor. So, racism and anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim sentiments are encouraged by right wing politicians as their only way to maintain power and deflect from the real causes of the cyclical crises they cannot get rid of.
The extremely reactionary part of the Republican Party’s base needed something horrifically to the right of the status quo to get super-energized. All societies have reactionary social bases. As Marx observed, just because a particular economic system of value extraction disappears formally does not mean that the ideologies associated with that system would perish. Most religions are pre-capitalist ideologies, yet they continue to exist.
So, in the U.S. where would you find reactionary ideologies? Where reactionary ideologies benefitted certain classes of people. In this case, ‘classes’ not defined by their relation to ‘means of production’ alone, but also in relation to skin color. If benefits that previously came your way purely by virtue of your skin color are gone, you feel bereaved. So, when some snake-oil politician on the national stage declares that you are right to be pissed off about losing your skin-given privileges to uppity minorities and immigrants, for example, you can be persuaded to listen to his simplistic solutions.
To get back to the academic study that started this article, and despite some methodological shortcomings, it is advisable to deliberate on their conclusions: racial orientation and attitudes toward immigration are the issues around which the Republicans see their best chances of manipulating the electoral coalitions of the future, including not only in 2018 and 2020, but beyond.
This means barbarity will be on the rise for some time to come. This also means that, as people continue to increasingly witness Democrat’s inability to stop Trump administration’s attacks on the social safety network — his destruction of environmental health of the nation, his looting of the national treasury to benefit his ilk, his attacks on the media, his attacks on the normal rules of running the presidency or his disruptions of the capitalistically accepted established laws in the U.S. — as people experience more and more of the Democrats’ continued complicity, the more likely they are to look for alternative political views that not only explain the root causes of their situation, but also show them how to change the situation. This is where socialists must step in vigorously to drive their message home, and to build a truly independent political organization nationwide, so as to be able to push back against this rightwing nightmare.
Socialists who advocate voting for the Democrats are helping one faction of capital while deceiving the voters about the ability of the Democrats to protect them from the current extreme rightwing onslaught. It is imperative to remember that it was the successive waves of ‘lesser evil’ campaigning by the Democrats that brought us to this very large evil, Trumpism.