Beyond the Backlash

Beyond the Backlash

How the 2016 election revealed the possibilities for new political identities.

A teenager at a Trump rally in 2016 in Cleveland, Ohio (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Identity Crisis: The 2016 Presidential Campaign and the Battle for the Meaning of America
By John Sides, Michael Tesler, and Lynn Vavreck
Princeton University Press, 2018, 333 pp.

In recent years, Europe’s social democratic left has been confronted with a terrible case of what hitherto had been largely an American malady: an electorate turning to nativist, largely racist, politics. To be sure, over the past millennium, the continent had experienced periodic outbursts of religious slaughter, but save in those instances (say, the Crusades) when it went spoiling for a fight, most of the violence was inflicted on homegrown Protestants (in Catholic countries), Catholics (in Protestant countries), or Jews (everywhere). Immigrants—and correspondingly, nativists—were generally few and far between.

More recently, of course, immigrants from the Middle East, Africa, and beyond have sought refuge in Europe, provoking a backlash that has contributed to the shrinking of the continent’s socialist and social democratic parties. This is but one of many reasons for the crisis of the European left, but it is, in many ways, a peculiarly American crisis that has left our European comrades floundering at sea. A number of the nations where social democracy had progressed the furthest—the Scandinavian nations in particular—were racially and religiously homogenous, the kind of places where class solidarity could flourish in the absence of ethnic tension. That’s one reason why socialism took root in Europe and never did here.

Unlike our European counterparts, America has always been a nation of immigrants and nativists, of whites and racial minorities. In Identity Crisis, John Sides, Michael Tesler, and Lynn Vavreck tell the unhappy tale of the 2016 election, bringing together a range of metrics—polls, tallies of media appearances and campaign outlays, regression analyses and the like—to argue, largely convincingly, that the outcome was chiefly the result of Donald Trump’s appeal to racist fear and loathing. The authors, however, are political scientists, not historians. And while the United States had never before seen a presidential nominee, much less a president, like Trump, it’s seen multiple elections dominated by varieties of the hatred that Trump stirred up. From the antebellum and Civil War–era Democrats’ campaigns against “Black Republican” Abraham Lincoln and his party; to the countless anti-Catholic Republican campaigns against the immigrant Irish, Italian, and Eastern European Democrats of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century; to George Wallace’s runs for president and the Republican dog-whistle campaigns beginning with Richard Nixon’s in 1968; nativist and racist sentiment has been as much, if not more, the rule than the exception in American elections.

Or, at least, it has been during those periods when racial minorities were seeking their civic and economic rights and when non-Protestant or non-white immigrants were arriving en masse. During those periods, that is, when the question of who was an American, who was the protagonist of the national narrative, was subject to change. It was only during the period when immigration from anywhere but Western Europe was almost entirely prohibited—from 1924 to 1965—that American workers were able to sufficiently overcome their fears and animosities to build powerful unions and support the creation of a semi-welfare state.

The backlash to Barack Obama’s presidency came in part because he had the misfortune to govern at a time when many Americans believed he symbolized not a triumph of egalitarianism but rather the rising of a new America in which whites would no longer constitute a majority. As Sides and his co-authors document, Obama was the first president whose popularity did not rise alongside rising consumer sentiment. For them, this means that the assessments of the economy held by Republicans and Republican-leaning independents were racialized. Indeed, noting that the share of Republicans who supported Trump was roughly the same at all income levels, they argue that it was racial, not economic, anxiety that put Trump over the top in November 2016.

My own view is that it’s more difficult than the authors admit to separate out one kind of anxiety from the other—that this anxiety, this anger, was, in quantum parlance, both particle and wave, both racial and economic. For one thing, the metrics by which they gauge views of economic and social wellbeing are those that measure the beliefs of individuals—consumer sentiment, wage data. Other deep dives into 2016 voter behavior, such as that by Jon Green and Sean McElwee, look at the experience of communities—of counties and zip codes. When researchers look at such collectivities, the socioeconomic roots of Trump support come more clearly into focus. As Green and McElwee note, “voters with favorable views toward Trump were more likely to live in geographic areas with worse health outcomes and a higher reliance on income from the Social Security Administration. . . . [T]he rate of increase in life expectancy between 1985 and 2010 was negatively correlated with Donald Trump’s vote share at the county level—that is, counties that saw slower or even negative growth in life expectancy over the past few decades saw larger Republican shifts in two-party vote share between 2008 and 2016.” They also noted a correlation between slower wage growth at the county level and the biggest electoral shifts toward Trump.

Before policy elites awakened to these grim realities, the inhabitants of “flyover” America understood full well that they had been left behind. Neither private nor public capital was finding its way to non-metropolitan areas, and the already glaring disparities between town and country, between big city economies and those of small towns and rural areas, ballooned during Obama’s presidency. A recent study from the Brookings Institution shows that since 2008, the number of jobs has increased by 9 percent in large metropolitan areas, 5 percent in medium-sized metropolitan areas, 3 percent in small metropolitan areas, and 0 percent in small towns, while declining by 2 percent in rural areas close to big cities and by 4 percent in rural areas not close to cities at all.

This is not to say that the white working class is the sole or even the primary victim of deindustrialization. As any drive around Chicago, Cleveland, or Detroit makes strikingly clear, the factories in those cities shut down decades ago, depriving hundreds of thousands of African-American workers of full-time, decently paid, often unionized employment, as William Julius Wilson documented in his 1996 study, When Work Disappears. Latinos had a foothold in those factories, too—in the 1970s and ’80s, the local unions in a number of auto factories in California were Latino-led. Those factories all closed, however, just as immigration from Latin America surged, stranding those immigrants in low-paid service-sector and non-union construction jobs.

It is to say, however, that only the white segment of the abandoned working class has responded by moving right. One of the factors behind that movement—a historic factor that the authors don’t consider—is deunionization. Exit polls of presidential elections going back to the late 1960s have generally shown that the margin by which union members vote for the Democrat exceeds that of non-members by roughly 9 percentage points. For white male union members, however, that margin swells to 20 percentage points when compared to their non-union counterparts. Viewed through this prism, the shift of Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, and Wisconsin into the Republican column in 2016 becomes a bit less mysterious: these are all states where levels of unionization have shrunk from postwar heights of close to 40 percent to current depths near single digits. And while deunionization hasn’t driven African Americans to the right, it has almost certainly reduced their turnout—also a factor in Trump’s victory in once-industrial heartland states.

The efficacy of unions in turning out a more Democratic vote must come with caveats, however. During its rise to power in the 1930s and 1940s, the United Automobile Workers was able to produce huge Democratic majorities among its Michigan members in votes for federal and state offices. When it came to Detroit city elections, however, the UAW was seldom able to persuade its members—who in those years were predominantly white—to vote for its endorsed candidates. That’s chiefly because elected officials at the federal and state level concerned themselves with economic policy, while local politics was all about housing and policing—in other words, about policies that could keep black people in Detroit in their place.

In a sense, the 2016 presidential runoff resembled one of those Detroit city elections more than it did those that sent politicians to Washington. Sides, Tesler, and Vavreck document how both Trump and Hillary Clinton focused on the issue of Americans’ identity—posing a definitional choice between white or multiracial, bigoted or tolerant. Trump partially neutralized the Democrats’ advantage on economic issues by pledging not to touch Social Security or Medicare; Clinton didn’t exploit the Democrats’ economic advantage, choosing instead to ask voters to make a moral judgment on Trump and affirm the rise of a new, more diverse nation. “Stronger Together” really was her message, and it didn’t fly.

It was Bernie Sanders’s message—which the authors basically ignore—that actually put Democrats more in sync with that new, more diverse nation, much as Trump’s message resonated more deeply with Republicans than had any party message in a very long time. Sanders and Trump each propelled their respective parties (notwithstanding Sanders’s refusal to call himself a Democrat) to don their new identities more openly. For the Democrats, that meant moving to a more egalitarian economic as well as social perspective, and a war on plutocracy; for the Republicans, it meant less egalitarian policies across the board. Not only does the new Republicanism bump up against the nation’s changing demographics, but Trump’s own discontents once in office have accelerated the party’s estrangement from a broader range of constituencies—especially among women—than white nationalism by itself ever could.

Republicans seem committed to narrowing their already shrinking share of the American political universe. Columnist Ronald Brownstein had CNN break down the white working-class vote in the 2018 midterms between evangelicals and non-evangelicals, and found that while three-quarters of evangelicals—both college-educated and non-college-educated—voted Republican, white working-class non-evangelicals defected in large numbers: 44 percent of the men and 57 percent of the women voted for the Democrat last November. Under Trump, Republicans have become not only more openly racist and nativist, but also more openly misogynistic. The most glaring identity crisis in the nation today isn’t America’s; it’s the Republicans’. There are only so many of the GOP’s compatriots whom they can denigrate, keep from the polls, or gerrymander away—at least if they have hopes of winning future elections.

So can the Democrats regain power simply by virtue of the Republicans’ determination to estrange everyone outside their shrinking base? That, alas, seemed to be a strategic premise of Hillary Clinton’s campaign. Democrats must affirm the rights of all the groups that comprise the American mosaic, but they also must stress the social democratic economic causes that Clinton largely neglected or rejected if they mean to expand their electoral reach and actually seek to diminish our towering inequality. The United States isn’t roiled only by the racial identity crisis that Sides and his co-authors document. It’s also poised—if we can believe the polls on social democratic reforms—to remake much of its economic order.

What would identity politics along those lines look like? Something like, “We are the 99 percent.”

Harold Meyerson is executive editor of The American Prospect and a member of the Dissent editorial board.

Socialist thought provides us with an imaginative and moral horizon.

For insights and analysis from the longest-running democratic socialist magazine in the United States, sign up for our newsletter: