I recall after the financial crisis of 2008 everybody with an unconventional opinion on banking and monetary policy felt confirmed that this showed they had been right all along. Whether they believed in more regulation of banks or less, or in the superficially plausible but ultimately wrong-headed notion of banning bank lending altogether and making up the money supply by having the government print a lot extra – they felt proven right by events.
We are in danger of doing the same with Donald Trump’s victory. Last week Helen Flynn argued that it was about inequality. Thus the solution is to keep advocating what we have been advocating all along.
But is it? Trump’s message to the white working class was not redistribution but “make America great again”. It was explicitly a promise (undeliverable as it may be) to raise the tide, lifting all boats with it, not to share out the spoils that already exist. Clinton cares more about inequality than Trump and American voters by and large understand that, but they don’t care about inequality enough to vote Clinton.
And, for those in the lower half of the income distribution, it is an entirely noble sentiment to wish to lift all boats rather than seek redistribution from others. It is only the better off – the elite – for whom this emphasis can be selfish. A middle class perspective so dominates left wing thought that this is forgotten, and working class people who believe in self-reliance are pushed away.
Now I don’t mean to reinforce the perception that it was the working class what won it for Trump. It wasn’t. Trump voters were overall higher earners (but less educated) than Clinton voters.
No – the point is that this election was not about the economics. Culture beat economics hands down. Immigration beat poverty/inequality.
It’s a tragedy because it would have been possible to be more culturally in tune with working class values (say self-reliance, plain speaking) without pandering to racism or abandoning good liberal causes. Here are a couple of passages from an article at the Harvard Business Review that give a sense:
Manly dignity is a big deal for working-class men, and they’re not feeling that they have it. Trump promises a world free of political correctness and a return to an earlier era, when men were men and women knew their place. It’s comfort food for high-school-educated guys who could have been my father-in-law if they’d been born 30 years earlier. Today they feel like losers — or did until they met Trump.
The Democrats’ solution? Last week the New York Times published an article advising men with high-school educations to take pink-collar jobs. Talk about insensitivity. Elite men, you will notice, are not flooding into traditionally feminine work. To recommend that for WWC men just fuels class anger.
And in the context of seeming to need a college degree to be able to express an opinion in the correct language:
Trump’s blunt talk taps into another blue-collar value: straight talk. “Directness is a working-class norm,” notes Lubrano. As one blue-collar guy told him, “If you have a problem with me, come talk to me. If you have a way you want something done, come talk to me. I don’t like people who play these two-faced games.” Straight talk is seen as requiring manly courage, not being “a total wuss and a wimp,” an electronics technician told Lamont. Of course Trump appeals.
Maybe Clinton understands all this, but Obama was better at showing it.
* Joe Otten is a councillor in Sheffield and Tuesday editor of Liberal Democrat Voice.