I think the election of Donald Trump proves that substance is overrated as a political tool.How depressing is that, if you believe in "liberal democracy" and the whole idea that the members of a community ought to choose its government on the basis of what they think the government should do?
In terms of presidential elections especially, where we always make fun of the people who voted for TV presidents like Reagan, W. Bush, and Trump, do we want to acknowledge that the same thing happened with Kennedy, Bill Clinton, and Obama? That they may have been smarter, kinder, and more skillful than their opponents, but the reason they kept winning was just their camera work?
And how can liberalism survive if we start believing that voters are stupid?
I have that same question with regard to the White Working Class theory of how the Democratic Party needs to cater to the idea of a discrete set of disappointed, ill-educated white dudes, whose prejudices and misconceptions mustn't be mocked, and hope our brothers and sisters of color don't take it too ill. That's a very elitist assumption, indeed, that there's a majority out there that is none too bright and needs to be deceived into supporting a progressive agenda, or simply a charismatic Progressive Guy, because they're not prepared to even deal with something as complex as an agenda, some Howard Beale figure who will directly express their inarticulate irritation as Trump does but in favor of the policy ideas we like.
If that's true, it's not just insulting the voters we're looking for, as the conservatives always do, it's a rejection of the whole idea of American liberalism as I understand it, which is that everybody, no matter how low in status and wealth, has a voice and a valuable role to play in the polity, and that the broadest of political goals is that of bringing all of them into the process and a share of the power. So anyway I have this alternative idea, that we need to start thinking of ourselves as going after, in addition to the rest of the traditional Democratic family, the smart white people.
By which I don't mean college graduates, because as a liberal I don't believe they're any smarter than anybody else. That's just one of those things Thornton refers to under the rubric "Wrongness is the Problem". I'm really interested in the kind of smart people who have gotten stuck in their lives because our society is designed, to a large extent, for stupid people.
Rather than trying to win over Trump voters, as the WWC theory suggests, we should be trying to win over nonvoters, in particular those smart people who haven't managed to finish college, or otherwise failed to flourish, precisely because they're too smart for the paths to a normal middle-class success, which entail desperate boredom, alienation, and suppressing one's creativity. People smart enough to decide it's ridiculous to vote, a silly conventional gesture in response to promises that will never be kept.
For one thing because Trump voters just aren't those tragically lost ex-miners and pill poppers we keep hearing about. Those people aren't voting. Trump voters are an entirely different group. I've been trying to say this since November, and I'm not alone, but the journalistic world and the Democratic Party can't seem to get a grasp on it, no matter how many times they're told, most recently by Nicholas Carnes and Noam Lupu in The Monkey Cage: Trump supporters in the primary campaign were mostly affluent, two thirds of them with incomes above the median, and while many of them didn't have college degrees (70%), that was around the same as the population as a whole; I'd add that because they skew older than other political cohorts, they come from a generation in which economic success without a college degree was a lot easier than it is today. You can see from the following table off the exit polls, Trump voters who earned more were even a bit less educated than those who earned less:
And old, white non-Hispanic persons with low income and no college degree made up just 25% of Trump's electorate.
The profile of the younger American without a college degree and in some economic distress, in contrast, actually fits the class of the person who chooses not to vote at all. I don't find any data from the 2016 election (nor does Benjamin Wallace Wells writing about nonvoters for The New Yorker), but there's a good deal of data about the 2012 period, in studies of 2012 and 2014 from the Pew Center and 2013 from Princeton.
Politically, the thing is, as I've said before, that nonvoters tend to be more "liberal" than voters. That is, they don't show a markedly different distribution on a good many issues, like the sexual questions of abortion or LGTB rights or the rights of immigrants (where they and the population as a whole are rather more accepting than the Republican party), and they didn't have very strong party preferences, though they are definitely less unfavorable to the Democrats than Republicans; but they are distinctly more in favor of social welfare programs and government spending, Wallace writes:
Non-voters, Leighley and Nagler found, favored much more progressive economic policies than voters did. They preferred higher taxes, and more spending on schools and health care, by margins that hovered around fifteen per cent. “The voters may be representative of the electorate on some issues,” Leighley and Nagler wrote, “but they are not representative of the electorate on issues that go to the core of the role of government in modern democracies.” That non-voters had the same partisan preferences as voters only seemed to strengthen the finding—they wanted more redistribution regardless of whether they were Democrats or Republicans.And according to the 2014 Pew study,
more nonvoters say that government aid to the poor does more good than harm than say the opposite (51% vs. 43%). Likely voters, by 52% to 43%, say that government aid to the poor does more harm than good.Similarly, the 2012 study found that nonvoters favored Obama over Romney by extremely wide margins—
But their expectations of government on the whole, as opposed to Obama, are pretty low; they don't thknk the parties are very likely to do much about these things. With good reason, because they haven't, since the 1970s, in spite of enormous amounts of talk, and the opportunities open to them continue to narrow even as the holdings of the very rich continue to expand.
Also they're not a "white working class", just a working class or at least a class that wishes it was working at some kind of satisfying and remunerative job, and diverse, as much as twice as black and Latino as the population as a whole; and they don't need to be addressed as white, the way the older and whiter Trump voters do. They can be addressed as people with serious needs that government needs to address better and more systematically, as we'd like it to do.
The literature suggests that Bernie Sanders should have been a pretty attractive candidate to the nonvoter population, though he obviously wasn't attractive enough to bring them out to vote for him in the Democratic primary (naturally a pretty big proportion of them, two thirds, aren't registered at all), or he would have won. And I have to say as far as I could tell during the campaign the Sanders camp was just terrible at the job, not even informing people of what they needed to do, as well as failing to recruit congressional candidates or do anything to bring on that "political revolution"; that was one of the main things that drove me definitively into the Hillary camp last spring, along with the feeling that Hillary was being treated really unfairly (under the influence, as we now know for sure, of nefarious forces some of which were coming from Russia), and that she had a far more radical policy outlook than her husband or Barack Obama had ever had, but also a far more flexible and worked-out agenda than Bernie, who just kept repeating himself.
The next campaign, which should be starting around now for 2018 (and I guess Perez and Ellison are indeed cranking it up), should be very heavily oriented toward registering smart young economically distressed voters, white and other, urban and rural, and engaging them on those directly relevant issues—massive paid job training and apprenticeship programs alongside that free college idea, to start with. And it should be aimed at their smartness, their ability to know what they need.
The old Hillary, in the 2000 Senate campaign, had a great way of approaching this with mostly older voters, meeting them in small venues and letting them tell her what they really wanted instead of her telling them, which can't really be implemented in a presidential campaign by the candidate, but we should see a lot more of it at the local level, which is right now a lot more important anyway. And telling the rural white ones, "Yes we're still working at getting a fair shake for the African Americans, and what should we be doing for you?" I'm betting they're smart enough to respond.