The 45th President of the United States will be Donald J. Trump. I wanted a Democrat in the White House, and supported Bernie Sanders for his integrity, idealism and policies. I often asked myself: “Why does Hillary want to be President?” I had only one answer: To become President.
Early in the Democratic primaries, a derogatory term emerged in the media: “Berniebros”. It suggested that Bernie supporters opposed Hillary due to misogyny – that the candidates were different, but not because of their ideological differences, but because of their genitals.
It’s an easy answer to a complex question and one that was also used to explain Trump’s support. And, sure, every single hardline racist and sexist probably did vote for Trump, but I’m also sure they voted for Romney, McCain, and George W. Bush.
But it’s more complicated than that. For if they were simple racists, why did droves of voters across the Midwest twice vote for Obama, before choosing Trump over Clinton? And it was the Midwest that handed Trump his victory. Pennsylvania, Ohio, Iowa, Michigan and Wisconsin all turned Red between 2012 and 2016. They control 70 electoral votes. Trump won by 51.
So who are these people? Let’s take Michigan as an example. Michiganians are mostly white, and are among the most hurt by globalisation. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Michigan lost around 200,000 manufacturing jobs (25 percent of the jobs in the region) following the free trade agreement NAFTA, which resulted in a wave of outsourcing. The Midwest is the US’s industrial heartland, and the vehicle that once drove its wealth. But now its empty factories produce nothing but rust – the Rust Belt indeed.
In 2012, Mitt Romney failed to connect with voters in Michigan. He believed in free trade and outsourcing. Trump, however, railed against the Ford Motor Company for moving more of its production to Mexico. Unsurprisingly, voters agreed.
Last summer, Guardian journalist John Harris went to neighbouring Indiana to speak to prospective Trump voters. At a rally in Evansville, a city of 117,000, Harris listened to Trump talk about jobs lost to free trade and the decline of the manufacturing industry. There was no mention of Muslims, and no sexist remarks or racism. The people who have experienced the pains of globalisation – not through academic distance or economic figures, but as a painful reality – cheered. As one steel worker put it: “I was all for Obama the first time around, but I think he was a pushover, he allowed people behind the scenes to control … I hope Trump can stop future jobs from leaving.”
People care about their economic wellbeing and the worst thing you can do is shame them for it. For decades, the Midwest has been a victim of policies that have eroded jobs, bankrupted families and left people angry and disillusioned. At the same time the media and the Left called these people privileged and suggested they look at other groups that are suffering more. A very progressive American friend of mine even went so far as to ask me: “why should we care about them, they are just experiencing the hardship that African Americans have always felt?”
The logic is this: if there is a group that is worse off than you, you have no right to be angry at your own problems. But can feelings be wrong? Especially when the people in Michigan and Indiana can look around and see their communities hurting? Only 13 percent of Americans believe their children will be better off than they are. And, worryingly, they are probably not wrong.
After the Cold War ended, the Left lost its ideals and stopped developing new ideas. Tony Blair and Bill Clinton embraced free market capitalism and treated it as an end in itself – the ideology of the Right – rather than seeing the economy as a servant of our wellbeing. In his 1933 inaugural address, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt proclaimed: “when there is no vision the people perish.” The modern Left has gouged out its eyes.
After adopting the economic thinking of the Right, the Left needed something else to distinguish itself. So it turned towards identity politics. The Left has always rightly focused on supporting the disenfranchised – gender equality, minority rights and the welfare state have always been a mainstay of traditional left wing politics. But with the economic question settled, identity politics came to the fore.
Left wing pundits in mainstream outlets such as The Guardian and The New York Times would have you believe that the problems facing the working and middle classes were solved long ago. Their focus is now LGBTQ rights, minorities and feminism. These are absolutely important issues, but the economy is the base of everything else. If we fail to address the material questions, we fail to address the foundation that maintains our democracy, liberty and peace.
It’s important to pay attention to the direction the American Left has taken, because we take our cues from the US–their identity politics are now coming to Europe. The Left judges people as either ‘good’ or ‘bad’ and, accordingly, who is deserving of empathy. But by identifying people as undeserving of empathy, based upon subjective assessments of people’s character, the possibility for solidarity is lost.
Berkley sociology professor Arlie Russell Hochschild recently released a book about the five years she spent doing field work in rural Louisiana. She wanted to understand people whose worldview was radically different to her own, and challenge her own stereotyping. Instead of hateful bigots she found warm people who felt left behind, talked down to by liberals and hurting financially. She argues that Trump has connected to their underlying sense of being invisible and disparaged.
But progressive and left wing media are having none of it. Mic published an article in response to Hochschild under the headline: Empathy’ for Donald Trump voters isn’t just misguided, it’s wrong. Guardian columnist Hadley Freeman wrote that “we’ve heard enough of white rage,” adding that we shouldn’t view working class people as “precious toddlers”, who “can’t possibly be held responsible for any flawed thinking”.
Does she really expect that mocking and shaming the white working and lower middle classes, by calling them bigots, misogynists and racists, will make them bow their heads in shame and return to the fold as better, more progressive individuals?
What’s more likely is that she is contributing to the alienation of a group that brought about the welfare state, carried the US through its most prosperous period, and who were once the backbone of the Democratic Party.
By undermining solidarity, those who participate in this demonisation are ultimately helping bring about to the nightmare world they think they are fighting. Both in the US and Europe the demonisation of the working classes is happening, and you should be worried – ignore them at your own peril.