I keep getting into arguments with smart people about whether the rise of Trump, the Tea Parties, and the 2016 election is mainly about the long economic slide of white non-college-educated people—or simple racism.
Obviously, the story has elements of both. There have been several op-eds lately pointing to the paradox of a low unemployment rate and the persistent white working-class support for Trump, with headlines like, “It’s NOT the Economy, Stupid.” There have also been scholarly studies based on public opinion data that purport to show that 2016 was mainly about race.
That’s just too glib. And the public opinion conclusions depend heavily on how you ask the question.
For a more subtle look, have a look at the new book by political scientist John Sides, Michael Tesler, and Lynn Vavreck, titled Identity Crisis. Or look at this paper by Thomas Ferguson, Paul Jorgensen, and Jie Chen from the Institute for New Economic Thinking.
The point is that the long-term slide in the economic prospects of working people primed them to be angry at elites who were increasingly powerful.
Sides, et al., show that the peculiar dynamics of the 2016 campaign “activated” latent racist feelings. The Clinton campaign defined a rainbow coalition of identities, but identity politics played into Trump’s hands. Trump henchman Steve Bannon was brilliant at reframing economic grievances as racial ones.
Obviously, there is a lot of latent racism in American society. But somehow, during the long postwar boom, despite gains for civil rights, it stayed latent. Surely, the fact that working people got a rising share of a rising economy had a lot do with that.
Economics alone is not the cure. A call for an economy of more broadly shared prosperity, in which working people of all races understand that the problem is not each other but the overweening economic and political power of plutocrats, will not by itself damp down racism. But without that politics, we don’t stand a chance.
Going into 2018, Democrats had better get this right. Otherwise, their wish for social justice will continue to be Trumped.