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Economic Dislocation and the Trumpian Appeal

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“Economic anxiety!” has become a joke in discussions of the Trump phenomenon. I’ve never been fully comfortable with this, for reasons I’ll get into in a second, but I also understand why it has become a joke–because Trump’s election was explained by everyone according to their preexisting critique of the Democratic Party. So if you thought that the fundamental problem with Democrats is that they weren’t fighting the class war, then you just said it was about class warfare. And as that’s been proven again and again, it’s really not the case.

At the same time, it’s important to dig deeper here. As we often say in left-leaning academia, you can’t separate race and class in your analysis. It’s all wrapped up in the larger ball of America. Of course racism is a big part of Trump’s appeal. No one can legitimately question that at this point. But that doesn’t mean economic issues aren’t a part of that too. We can’t only not separate race and class in understanding history. We can’t separate them in our analysis of the present too.

Thomas Edsall had a piece last week in the Times on these issues. Noting that, of course, whites are hardly the only Americans affected by deindustrialization and capital mobility. for those whites the decision to vote for Trump was still guided by those realities, in combination with other realities of their lives that are different than those of Black workers who made a different decision in the voting booth. Anyway, you might not agree with the entire essay, but you should take it seriously. Here’s an excerpt:

Recent decades, Galston continues, “have witnessed the growth of a potent new locus of right-wing resentment at the intersection of race, culture, class, and geography” — difficult for “those outside its orbit to understand.”

They — “social conservatives and white Christians” — have what Galston calls a “bill of particulars” against political and cultural liberalism. I am going to quote from it at length because Galston’s rendering of this bill of particulars is on target.“They have a sense of displacement in a country they once dominated. Immigrants, minorities, non-Christians, even atheists have taken center stage, forcing them to the margins of American life.”

“They believe we have a powerful desire for moral coercion. We tell them how to behave — and, worse, how to think. When they complain, we accuse them of racism and xenophobia. How, they ask, did standing up for the traditional family become racism? When did transgender bathrooms become a civil right?”

“They believe we hold them in contempt.”

“Finally, they think we are hypocrites. We claim to support free speech — until someone says something we don’t like. We claim to oppose violence — unless it serves a cause we approve of. We claim to defend the Constitution — except for the Second Amendment. We support tolerance, inclusion, and social justice — except for people like them.”

Galston has grasped a genuine phenomenon. But white men are not the only victims of deindustrialization. We are now entering upon an era in which vast swaths of the population are potentially vulnerable to the threat — or promise — of a Fourth Industrial Revolution.

This revolution is driven by unprecedented levels of technological innovation as artificial intelligence joins forces with automation and takes aim not only at employment in what remains of the nation’s manufacturing heartland, but also increasingly at the white-collar managerial and professional occupational structure.

Edsall goes on to predict that massive automation might well make all this work. I am on record as being very concerned with what massive automation of work would do to our society. On the other hand, I know that many economists disagree. I think they are short-sighted; the different between automation in the present and in the past is that in the past, while automation did eliminate certain jobs, the growth of industrialization generally meant that the overall picture is that blue-collar work still existed. In the future, it may well not.

But the broader issues here, regardless of what you think about the automation side of this argument, is that economic displacements do actually matter. Unions were not perfect institutions, but they did more than anything else to provide a structure to get workers to not vote based on race and resentment. And if you already have racial resentment, you are going to interpret your economic decline on these terms. These are just facts. Ignoring race, as some left-leaning publications with a strong interest in doing so did, is quite ridiculous. But just yelling “economic anxiety!” at any racist Republicans isn’t particularly useful either. It’s a complex situation and our responses need to encompass that complexity, not revert to simplistic narratives.

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