When Bill Clinton first ran for president in 1992, there was a sign on his Little Rock, Arkansas campaign headquarters wall that read, "It's the economy, stupid."(1) It was a brief and blunt reminder to relentlessly hammer George Bush Sr. with this significant - and then signature - issue.(2)
Well, good luck getting many Clintonistsas or establishment pundits to admit that the economy impacts voter behavior today. The middle class has been shrinking and the wealth gap has been widening, but many busy wordsmiths hold the passionate conviction that voters are totally okay with that. According to their anything-but-the-economy arguments, nobody votes their pocketbook anymore and only spoiled college boys care about factory closings or job layoffs. Their breathless lectures on privilege and realism displayed zero self-awareness. They would be hilarious if they did not have such catastrophic consequences.
I am not arguing that racism and sexism were not factors in the outcome of this election – on the contrary, they were profoundly important – but class was a massive factor as well, and these writers don't seem to see wealth as a form of privilege. They are, at best, oblivious to the possibility that it might be, and at worst, in militant denial that it is. They can't imagine that it matters to anyone because it doesn't matter to them. And that, of course, is the very definition of privilege. So, small wonder they cannot possibly fathom how race and class interact. Indeed, they see the two as mutually-exclusive.
For example, take this little gem purporting to prove that economics had nothing to do with Trump's win because - drum-roll, please - his supporters are split on the issue of trade.
No shit. Both parties are. Republicans were practically the exclusive party of "free trade" until Bill Clinton passed NAFTA. It's a pretty libertarian pro-business position, so OF COURSE a huge hunk of Republicans still favor free trade. Trump just used anti-NAFTA rhetoric to peel away enough blue collar votes to swing the Rust Belt.
This could have alienated traditional white collar conservatives, but it didn’t. They correctly reasoned, "Trump doesn't really mean it: He's a businessman. He makes most of his merchandise in China." Conversely, many working class voters disastrously rationalized that Trump did not really mean his racist rhetoric, but hoped against hope that he might move the needle on trade and voted accordingly. In short, most of the people who voted for Trump did so because they thought he was lying.(3) Some did from a position of affluence and strength and others did from a position of desperation after decades of declining fortunes. Watch both videos. They are heart-rending.
So white collar conservatives accordingly stayed put instead of bolting across the aisle into Hillary Clinton's camp. Apparently, all those establishment GOP endorsements she chased down had no benefit. Indeed, in this anti-establishment climate, they were a definite detriment with many voters in both parties. Moderate Republicans were supposed to flock to her banner in the spirit of sensible bipartisanship. Of course, that did not happen.(4)
What accounts for the confusion of that article’s author? Best guess says abysmal historical illiteracy and going by Trump's statements in that vacuum. Not only was the GOP's pro-business proclivities unknown to her, she was apparently unaware that working class whites do not have a monopoly on racism. Indeed, racism has been driving suburban growth since the Fifties. White flight has long been monetized and politicized – frequently violently. The suburbs are not quite bucolic bastions of liberal enlightenment.
This impacts trade politics. Remember Rush Limbaugh’s racist defense of NAFTA:
If you are unskilled and uneducated, your job is going south. Skilled workers, educated people are going to do fine 'cause those are the kinds of jobs NAFTA is going to create. If we are going to start rewarding no skills and stupid people, I'm serious, let the unskilled jobs that take absolutely no knowledge whatsoever to do - let stupid and unskilled Mexicans do that work.
The suburbs are filled with people who think like this; which is why those so-called soccer moms who were supposed to break for Clinton stayed with Trump instead. These people hate unions, go to high-tech suburban mega-churches, and love the fact that they can buy stuff at Walmart for next to nothing because that's what the people who make it are paid. These Paula Deen-like ladies would love to have their own slaves. Alas, "political correctness" and the Thirteenth Amendment prevent that.
And lest this salient facet escape your attention: Rush Limbaugh was not siding with Bill Clinton - Bill Clinton was siding with Republicans (who Rush Limbaugh spoke for). George Bush Sr. had negotiated NAFTA, but Bill Clinton fought his own party to secure passage.(5) The Clinton Administration went so far as to have Al Gore debate Ross Perot about it. Overt support doesn't get much more theatrical than that. That’s the problem with making memorable moments - people remember them. And they remembered in 2000 when Al Gore was running.(6) But, no, let's blame Ralf Nader even though NAFTA was why we lost Congress in 1994 and had such great difficulty holding onto it ever since. Recall that we had a virtual lock on Congress for several generations since the New Deal.
Arguing that white working class votes were a big factor in Trump's win is not the same as saying most Trump voters were white working class – just that a strategically significant sliver of them were. Indeed, studies discovered that most Trump supporters were fairly well off. Earlier, the same fact was discovered about Tea Baggers. The popular misconception that they were mostly working class people voting against their own economic interests was wrong. When these studies were first released they provoked puzzlement. They should not have. It just means they are typical suburban Republican voters – the ones centrist Democrats were willing to betray working class voters to get.
You may be thinking, “Jerome, lay off the article's author. She’s probably just a kid.” If so, that’s both ironic and irrelevant. Ironic because Millennials are inexplicably one of Clintonitsas’ favorite scapegoats just now. Irrelevant, because the mainstream media is filled with equivalent gibberish. The article epitomizes both. There's less and less daylight between click-bait websites and the press.
During the 2012 election, Fox News and other conservative outlets told its viewers that Mitt Romney – a man who said “let Detroit go bankrupt” – was going to beat President Barack Obama in a landslide. But the landslide slid in the other direction. A pretty predictable scramble for half-assed rationalizations ensued. This year, the rest of the corporate media assured us that Hillary Clinton would crush Trump and when that did not happen a similar spectacle followed that debacle.
In both cases, the loser had alienated labor. Bigly. Perhaps that's a bad strategy for both parties.
In both cases, the loser had alienated labor. Bigly. Perhaps that's a bad strategy for both parties.
(1) Actually, it was just "The economy, stupid" but everyone remembers it as “It’s the economy, stupid.” I am going with the more familiar form to make my post’s title work.
(2) But it was also a directive to display empathy towards the victims of the “mean season” that Ronald Reagan began. For working people, his Thatcherite austerity measures meant union-busting. For the rich, it meant a party on borrowed money. George Bush Sr. had promised “a kinder, gentler nation.” (It was an odd promise after the Willie Horton ads that got him elected.) But it was not gentle enough. Bush infamously promised “No new taxes.” But the bill for Reagan’s party was due and Bush broke his improbable promise. Pro-business policies meant exporting jobs and the economy was already feeling the pinch. And here came Bill Clinton with his Kennedy-esque youth and charm. Most people wanted to believe Clinton would reverse the perverse zeitgeist Reagan had inaugurated. Instead, Clinton co-opted it – shortly after his Sister Soulja moment.
(3) Interestingly, both candidates followed the same strategy: Poach voters from your opponent and hope that your base thinks you do not mean it. At her private fundraisers, Hillary Clinton assured Wall Street donors that her populist rhetoric was all for show. Clinton actually said it was necessary to have “both a public and a private position.” She mocked Millennials as “living in their parents’ basement” talking about Scandinavian style socialism “whatever that means.” I guess she doesn't really "love Denmark" after all.
(4) Hillary Clinton was banking on disgust for Trump, but vulgarity aside, Trump was not saying anything Republicans had not been saying for decades in more genteel terms. Republicans have been milking the Southern Strategy since 1964. It admittedly had peeled away a lot of white working class voters – indeed, it appealed to racists of every income but that escapes mention for some reason. Suburban voters inexplicably (okay, not inexplicably) get a pass. Trump just cranked up the volume. As I wrote before, "The [racist] dog whistles are now air raid sirens. All subtlety and plausible deniability has been spectacularly jettisoned." But the rhetoric was always there. What Trump did that was truly new was break with the GOP party establishment on trade. No GOP nominee had done this in modern times. Yes, Pat Buchanan had advocated this strategy, but the Republican establishment had always beat him back. Well, Donald Trump was Pat Buchanan's revenge, wall and all.
(5) During the primaries and well after the general election, I routinely ran into Clintonistas who insisted it was not Bill Clinton but George Bush Sr. who signed NAFTA. Actually both did. Bush had a signing ceremony after the treaty was negotiated, but the Senate had not yet ratified it by the 1992 election. Once in office, Bill Clinton pressured Democrats to secure passage and did the final signing. But hey, don’t take my word for it – just ask the Clinton Presidential Library. I was shocked that Rachel Maddow had pushed this bizarre narrative that Bill Clinton had nothing to do with NAFTA. Again, who can forget the Gore-Perot debate? Yet, to this day, Clinton supporters still deny that Bill Clinton had passed NAFTA the same way that Republicans deny Ronald Reagan had granted immigrants amnesty. (Indeed, Ronnie did.) Any fact that contradicts how they imagine the man is loudly ignored.
(6) It is important to note that Al Gore was not just going to bat for NAFTA against the wishes of working people but that he was smug and condescending about it. He was the hated Taylorist efficiency expert with the clipboard. Here was a managerial technocrat telling working voters that they were too simple to understand international trade issues that they understood all too well. They knew the treaty would pit them against Mexican workers in a race to the bottom in wages, hours, and working conditions. Al Gore’s performance validated every rightwing screed about the “liberal elite.” The debate played great with the yuppies in the suburbs, but it was a demoralizing, fuck-you gut-punch to the old New Deal coalition. Of course, it was supposed to be.