Whatever our dismay about the US election result, this year was always meant to have been a Republican year. If you looked at the postwar presidencies that ran across two terms, and then at who won the mid-terms in the sixth year, you would have been able to predict the presidential result two years later in all but one or two cases. In 2014 the GOP heavily defeated the Democrats, gaining nine Senate seats, thus giving them a clear majority in both houses. On that basis alone any Republican should have won this year. If you add in the fact that the GOP went into this election holding the governership in 31 of the fifty states – a powerful fact once the state administration is effectively put behind the governor’s party – 2016 should have been a shoo-in for a Mitt Romney or a John McCain, especially against such an unpopular candidate as Hillary Clinton.
A second point: when Lyndon Johnson passed the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act in 1965 he said with regret that the Democrats would lose the South for a generation. His judgment proved correct. A generation on, in 2008 and 2012, the US elected an African American president. In addition Americans saw the appointment of an African American attorney general (Eric Holder), and an African American ambassador to the UN (Susan Rice, now the national security adviser). White Americans are always being reminded – rightly – that they constitute a shrinking group and that the future belongs to the African American, Latino and Asian minorities. Perhaps this was the sunset vote.
The failure of the American Dream, as we are told repeatedly, has produced a populist revolt of volcanic proportions. At the heart of the problem is the stagnation of real wages and the lack of upward social mobility as higher education costs escalate out of sight. The data is persuasive. Between 1948 and 1973, productivity rose by 96.7 per cent and real wages by 91.3 per cent, almost exactly in step. Those were the days of plentiful hard-hat jobs in steel and the auto industry when workers could afford to send their children to college and see them rise into the middle class. But from 1973 to 2015 – the era of globalisation, when many of those jobs vanished abroad – productivity rose 73.4 per cent while wages rose by only 11.1 per cent. Trump argued that this was caused by unrestricted illegal immigration and the off-shoring of jobs, though these were only partial causes: the erosion of trade unions probably accounts for 25 to 30 per cent of the net loss in earning power. The 11 million unauthorised immigrants in the US form only part of the vast mass of non-unionised labour competing for jobs.
In any mass democracy, this would spell trouble, but it was masked for some time by more women going out to work, creating two-income households, and later by many workers taking two or three jobs. Sooner or later the stress of such a downward spiral had to be felt and the results are more and more visible. Drive across America and you will notice who operates the pumps at the gas stations. Over and over again it is white men and women in their seventies, pensioners eking out a few more dollars. Such people were unlikely to be impressed by the parade of celebrities at Hillary Clinton’s rallies – Beyoncé, Katy Perry, Lady Gaga, Jennifer Lopez, Bruce Springsteen etc. The French use the expression ‘la richesse insultante’. What does it mean for someone on social security to walk past shops with watches or shoes or dresses marked in the thousands of dollars? Each price ticket says: ‘You’re just nothing, you’re a loser.’
There is no sign of any halt in the trend towards greater inequality (and a Trump victory, bringing tax cuts for the rich, will only increase it). Since 2000 the wages paid to college graduates have fallen. For men wages have risen slightly but for women they have plunged, producing an overall fall. The situation at the bottom is more serious still: the worst paid 10 per cent saw the biggest drop in wages between 1979 and 2013. At the same time, employers have slashed health benefits. In 2011, only 50 per cent of high school graduates – the peculiar America-speak for those who didn’t have a higher education or enter the middle class – got them (down from 67 per cent in 2000) and only 76 per cent of college graduates, down from 84 per cent.
Another telling figure. On average in 1965 an American CEO earned 20 times what a worker did. By 2013, on average, the number was 296 times. Marx foresaw ever greater concentrations of capital accompanied by the pauperisation of the working class. But the result has been the opposite of what Marx predicted: the rise of right-wing demagoguery. The elemental nature of this working and middle-class revolt explains why much of Trump’s support was impervious to his crass behaviour and his wish to give offence. Things that might have sunk earlier candidates did not sink him. Clinton spent scores of millions of dollars on negative ads about Trump, with no apparent effect at all.
After the Romney defeat in 2012 the GOP concluded that it must increase its appeal to ethnic minorities, women and the young, otherwise it would find itself marginalised. This was widely agreed. But what happened was the opposite: it ended up with a candidate who was anathema to all those groups. Why? Because the people who voted in GOP primaries were ‘old’ Republicans rather than the ‘new’ Republicans they were hoping to attract. But Trump then did something quite remarkable. He ignored most of the rules of the game. He didn’t prepare for the presidential debates, which Clinton easily won. He spent more on ‘Make America Great Again’ baseball caps than he did on opinion polls. And nowhere did he have a ground organisation comparable to Clinton’s to get out the vote. Overall he spent only half as much as Clinton and depended instead on projecting his campaign as a crusade, a ‘movement’. Like all successful populists, Trump promised to bring back yesterday.
The success of Bernie Sanders has shown that the Democratic nomination is wide open to someone well to the left of Clinton. She beat Sanders only because she had a far better organisation and more money; her juggernaut was prepared years in advance and she had a virtual monopoly of super-delegates. If a left-wing Democrat like Elizabeth Warren runs next time she will not face such an opponent. Sanders might well have beaten Trump. And while it would have caused a Democrat civil war, given the ‘entitled’ Clinton bandwagon, Obama probably missed a trick by discouraging Joe Biden from running. Biden has always had a good rapport with working-class voters and would probably have beaten Trump by a clear margin. Clinton’s best chance was in 2008 and she would have done better to call it a day after that.
In 1992 Ross Perot predicted that when the Nafta treaty was signed, Americans would hear a ‘giant sucking sound’ as the nation’s jobs disappeared over the Mexican border. This has indeed occurred and while economists would generally say that the treaty has been beneficial to the US, the benefits have gone to the rich, while workers have lost their jobs. The result is a large loss of faith in the free market, free trade and globalisation. Sanders and Trump both inveighed against Nafta and other pending trade treaties and Clinton was forced to change tack and do the same. This was just one more sign that what worked for Bill Clinton twenty-odd years ago would not do now.
During the campaign Debbie Dingell, the Democratic Congresswoman for Michigan’s 12th district, repeatedly warned Clinton (whom she supported) that Michigan was not safe and that Trump could win. People thought she was nuts: Michigan has been solidly Democratic for most of the last eighty years. Dingell was ‘infuriated’ that Clinton didn’t pitch up in Michigan until the weekend before the primary vote, by which time Sanders had visited her district ten times. The auto workers went heavily for Sanders, who won the primary. From that moment on Dingell feared that they – and Michigan – would go for Trump, and they did.
‘The ordinary working man or woman in this country isn’t asking for a lot,’ Dingell said. ‘They want to make a decent living. They want to be able to provide for their family, buy a house in a safe neighbourhood, put food on the table, go to the doctor when they need to, afford their medicines and educate their children. What many don’t understand is how these things are in danger of becoming unattainable for too many Americans.’
She isn’t kidding. The median income of high school graduates fell by 13 per cent between 2000 and 2014. During his campaign Sanders would point to the example of United Technologies, a giant firm which benefits from many government contracts. In February 2016 it announced the closure of two manufacturing plants in Indiana, although both were profitable. Both were moved to Mexico, where wages were far lower, thus creating super-profits. The company’s CEO earned more than $10 million last year. ‘You really can’t make this stuff up,’ as Sanders put it. Indiana went for Obama in 2008 but Trump won it by nearly 20 points this time.
Pollsters were repeatedly faced by a large bloc of voters who said they didn’t like Clinton or Trump. All the indications are that they broke heavily for Trump. Clinton, meanwhile, had made women her focus from the start. Her rallies were mainly attended by women, her donors were 60 per cent women and in mid-campaign this seemed to be working, at least among middle and upper-middle-class women. For the first time ever a Democratic nominee led among college graduates and those earning more than $100,000 per annum. But gender is not a cohesive voting identity and when push comes to shove, it is always likely to break along class and ethnic lines.
This was visible as voters weighed their choices. The leading issues across the board were race, guns and immigration. Climate change was well down the list of popular concerns. Clinton and Obama gave the issue great prominence but the low priority it takes in the minds of voters meant there was little to be gained. On the other hand voters in states which depend on oil, coal or fracking tended to see an emphasis on climate change as threatening to their livelihoods. All such states went for Trump and it would be unsurprising to see oilmen in his cabinet.
According to exit polls, Trump beat Clinton 2 to 1 among white high school graduates, but college graduates broke 50-50. Only among those with graduate degrees was there a Democrat majority, as there has been since 1988. Clinton beat Trump 54-42 among women, but this was counterbalanced by her losing 41-53 among men. In the end fewer women voted for Clinton than had voted for Obama. African Americans went for Clinton by 88 to 8 – but they had gone for Obama by 93 to 6, so there was slippage there too. Clinton had placed great hopes on Latino women; as it turned out only 68 per cent of Latinas favoured Clinton compared to 76 per cent for Obama.
Yet this election was more about class than any election since the New Deal. The Fox News polls show the gathering landslide among white men with only high school education. With two weeks to go they favoured Trump by 48 to 32 (+16), with one week to go by 53 to 32 (+21) and on election day by 61 to 20, a crushing 41-point margin which swung the Rust Belt states to Trump. Interestingly, white women with only high school education favoured Trump by 58 to 31 with one week to go, but moved in Clinton’s favour in the last week, ending up 53-32 on election day (though this was not so much a move to Clinton as a move away from Trump). Nonetheless, their class position outweighed their gender.
It was only in the last week that this working-class landslide to Trump really built momentum, as the don’t knows and the ‘plague on both your houses’ voters caved in: a last-minute movement that caught the pollsters off-guard, and indeed the Trump camp. They had been preparing a concession speech but had no victory speech at the ready.
There has been much talk of the similarities between Brexit and the Trump victory. As Peggy Noonan puts it in the Wall Street Journal, they have both been ‘an uprising of the unprotected’. The old class politics has been reversed. Clinton could win the rich but lost the workers. Labour can win London, the richest part of the UK, but has lost the workers to Ukip and the SNP. We are in uncharted territory. One fact that has to be assimilated by both Labour and the Democrats is this: when Bill and Hillary arrived in Washington in 1992 they had little money. Now, despite remaining notionally in public service throughout, they are worth many millions of dollars. Tony and Cherie Blair were not obscenely wealthy when they arrived in power in 1997. Today they are worth more than $75 million. Consider the working-class voters whom the Clintons or the Blairs exhorted to vote for them in the 1990s: they are probably worse off now than they were then. In effect the Clintons and Blairs surfed on their grievances and inequities, making themselves rich and leaving their voters in the dust. This hasn’t gone unnoticed, which is one reason the old politics is no longer working.
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