In the recent United States presidential election, Hillary Clinton enjoyed a large majority of votes among the lowest income earners and Donald Trump won the majority of the highest income earners. This has led some observers to conclude that economic anxiety and deprivation played no role in Trump’s victory, that there was no ‘working class revolt’. The same observers have taken from this that people clearly supported Trump out of racism, that the swell of support was in essence a xenophobic and anti-immigrant movement. Trump supporters clearly are the ‘deplorables’ identified by Clinton, not people frustrated at real economic hardship. Some have even gone so far as to argue that the Left should no longer attempt to win the support of these xenophobes but instead concentrate on progressive issues.
There are several problems with this conclusion. First, it doesn’t properly capture the psychological effects of economic and social deprivation which are more relative than absolute in nature. In essence, the middle class can feel as deprived as the absolute poor. It is not a voter’s position in relation to society as a whole which influences their political behavior but their position in relation to where they believe they should be. The concept of relative deprivation tells us that people become increasingly frustrated when they sense they cannot reach the lifestyle they have been led to expect. In a period in which inequality is now at a peak not seen since the Depression era, but following decades of consumerism and raised expectations about a promised quality of life, many white voters in the economic middle, in the working and lower middle classes, do not compare themselves to the poor. They contrast their position – their several often insecure jobs, the closed factories and shops in their towns, their lack of spending capacity and rising costs – against that of the wealthy whites they see in the cities, in other neighbourhoods of their towns and on television.
This gap between the American Dream and reality is why Trump won a large margin (+5%) among those in the middle, in the $50,000 to $99,000 income per year bracket of income earners. Why he won more support the further an electorate moved from the urban centres: in some areas the two candidates split the urban and rural vote 70-30. And why he won 67% of non-college educated white voters, the largest margin by far by any candidate since exit polls began in 1980. Two thirds of Americans over the age of 25 do not have a college degree which means less secure jobs and no company healthcare. The availability of high paying jobs for those without college educations has declined precipitously, such positions are now the preserve of the educated. It is why Trump won among white women despite his appalling misogyny. Class matters. The aspirations to a life of success are encouraged everywhere but the obstacles to realise them have multiplied. As a result, frustrations have risen.
This leads to the second difficulty with the ‘no working class revolt’ thesis – there is no neat separation between issues of ethnicity and class. While the frustrated middle intuitively knows that the sources of their deprivation are the super wealthy financial and political elite and political institutions which are increasingly seen as corrupt, the most visible and vulnerable target of their anger are the different – ethnic minorities and migrants. Elections are as much to do with emotion as they are with rational interest and people are easily convinced that these groups are taking their jobs, depressing wages and placing a burden on social services. That the dominance their ethnic group (and country) once enjoyed is slipping away. Working class whites, not only in the Midwest but elsewhere, have seen social movements empower every other group but their own. Many white voters did not so much vote against their interests, they just blamed the wrong people.
But in the end, of course, Trump’s victory is not going to benefit them either.
It’s clear another Democratic nominee might have done better but that means little now, apart from as a lesson for the future. But one thing is certain, continuing to refer to anybody who votes for the Right as xenophobic and misogynistic will mean none of those people will ever consider voting for candidates on the Left. The working class – white and non-white – has genuine economic and social grievances that need to be addressed rather than dismissed. That is why they voted for Obama in greater numbers than they did for Clinton, because they believed he was going to bring change. If the Left simply blames its electoral failures on the racism of conservative whites it is unlikely to win anytime soon. We must all condemn the escalating racist attacks and intimidation unleashed by Trump. But insisting that all 60 million people who supported him did so out of racism while ignoring their growing sense of disenfranchisement and frustration will mean that things get worse before they get better.
Chris Wilson is Senior Lecturer in Politics and International Relations at the University of Auckland. firstname.lastname@example.org