Think of a Donald Trump voter, the kind that various studies have identified as his archetypal backer: a white man without a college education living in a region experiencing economic distress.
What do you see? A new “forgotten man,” ignored by elites in both parties, suffering through socioeconomic dislocations, and turning to Trump because he seems willing to put the working class first? Or a resentful white bigot, lashing back against the transformation of America by rallying around a candidate who promises to make America safe for racism once again?
You’re allowed to answer “both, depending.” But where to lay the emphasis has divided liberals and conservatives against one another.
Conservatives who are generally happy with the Republican Party’s status quo, the mix of policies that Trump has ranged himself against, have stressed his voters’ baser proclivities and passions, dismissing them as bigots who are really the authors of their own unhappy fates.
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Conservatives who favor a populist shift in how the GOP approaches issues like taxes or transfer programs have stressed the ways in which Reaganite Republicanism has failed the working class, while urging a conservative politics of solidarity that borrows at least something from the wreck of Trumpism.
Likewise on the left: The more content you are with a liberalism in which social issues provide most of the Democratic Party’s energy, the more likely you’ll be to crack wise on Twitter — “a lot of economic anxiety here!” — every time Trump or one of his hangers-on or supporters makes a xenophobic foray.
Alternatively, the more you favor a left-wing politics that stresses economic forces above all else, the more you’ll cast Trump’s blue collar support as the bitter fruit of the Democratic Party’s turn to neoliberalism, and argue that social democracy rather than shaming and shunning is the cure for right-wing populism.
My sympathies are with the second group in both debates — as a partisan of a more solidaristic conservatism, and as an outsider who prefers the old left’s class politics to the pseudo-cosmopolitanism of elite liberalism today.
But it’s also important for partisans of socioeconomic solidarity, whether right wing or left wing, to recognize that racial and economic grievances can’t always be separated, and that a politics of ethnic competition is an unfortunately common state of political affairs.
Consider the trajectory of liberalism. In the 1930s, Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal deliberately excluded blacks from certain benefits and job programs. This was discrimination, but it was also patronage: It was a time when “affirmative action was white,” to borrow from historian Ira Katznelson, lifting white workers at the expense of African-Americans.
Then decades later, liberalism moved to create affirmative action programs to help those same African-Americans. This was redress and expiation, but it was also another form of patronage: a promise of a hand up, a race-based advantage that only liberalism would provide.
With time, that promise was extended to groups with weaker claims to redress than the descendants of American slaves, even as mass immigration expanded the potential pool of beneficiaries. Eventually, we ended up with a liberalism that favors permanent preferences for minority groups, permanently large immigration flows — plus welfare programs that recent immigrants are more likely than native-born Americans to use.
This combination is (mostly) rooted in idealism. But it still amounts to a system of ethnic patronage, which white Americans who are neither well-off nor poor enough to be on Medicaid see as particularly biased against them.
This constituency, the gainfully employed but insecure lower middle class, is the Trumpian core. By embracing white identity politics, they’re being bigoted but also, in their own eyes, imitative: Trump’s protectionist argle-bargle boils down to a desire to once again have policies that specifically benefit lower-middle-class whites — welfare for legacy industries and affirmative action for white men.
This crude attempt at imitation, unfortunately, is part of a very common iterative cycle in politics. It’s a reason why, in multiethnic societies, multiracial parties are the exception rather than the rule.
And breaking that cycle won’t be easy for either party. The activist energy on the left is pushing for a more ethnically focused politics, devoted to righting structural race-based wrongs. That energy will be blunted temporarily by the flight of well-educated whites from Trump, but the absence of economic common ground between Hillary Clinton-voting white moderates and the party’s poorer, minority base means that her temporary coalition is likely to fracture first along racial lines.
That fracturing will help the GOP recover, but it won’t help Republicans build a pan-racial conservatism. The pull of white identity politics can be overcome, but only with great effort. Not least because it requires not only that conservatism change, but that minority voters be persuaded that the change is meaningful.
And after Trump, what forgiveness?