Left vs. Left: the Pitfalls of Hasty Conclusions

Like many small ‘l’ liberals, I experienced the early hours after the US election as an existential blitzkrieg.

A candidate who had no experience in public service, zero respect for the core tenets of democracy, made blatant appeals to sexism and racism throughout his campaign and had bragged about not paying his taxes, had mustered sufficient numbers of voters on November 8 2016 to win the United States Presidency.

In those first fragile days, my fellow political nerds and I pored over the exit polls in search of answers, the way a clairvoyant scrutinizes tealeaves to read the future. Whether your source was CNN, The New York Times or one of the fee for service polling houses, the same outlier pattern emerged.

The Republican voting gap between college educated white voters and non-college educated white voters had diverged like never before.

In 2016, on a two party preferred basis, the percentage of non-college educated whites who voted for Trump was 30% higher than the percentage of their white college educated counterparts.

As you can see in Figure 1 below, this is six times the ‘education gap’ previously observed.

Figure 1: Percent of two-party vote for the Republican presidential candidate among whites with and without a college degree, 1980-2016


The flight of the white working class to Trump became the story. And from that news story, two political narratives were born.

The first was a tale of working class angst and goes something like this: the Liberal elites have lost touch with the ordinary working people and have become an ivory tower establishment beholden to business interest and special interests. Hillary Clinton spent all her time campaigning on the aforementioned ‘special interest’ issues, such as gay marriage, women’s reproductive rights, gun control, black incarceration and climate change. She had ignored the real economic issues facing ordinary Americans. Feeling that the Democrats could no longer be counted upon to champion the concept of ‘a fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work,’ the white working classes had abandoned a party that no longer gave a damn about them.

This position was given significant amplification on November 14, when Bernie Sanders appeared on CBS This Morning to indict the Democratic ‘establishment:’

“There needs to be a profound change in the way the Democratic Party does business. It is not good enough to have a liberal elite.”

“I come from the white working class and I am deeply humiliated that the Democratic Party can’t talk to the people where I came from.”

The proponents of the above narrative have taken his call deeply to heart. In the two months since the election, the clamour for a back-to-basics working class platform from the hard left has only intensified.

It is worth noting at this juncture, that Sanders himself has been as much a vocal advocate of progressive social policies as he has been for strong social democracy. The narrative that he has come to embody is not necessarily representative of the man.

The countervailing narrative is this: the impact of sexist and racist sentiment as driving forces in this election cannot be downplayed. To ignore this fact is to run the risk of further fragmentation of a society already struggling to adjust to waves of demographic and social change.

For the first time in American history, many whites, particularly those without a college education, see themselves as an embattled group. They resent the fact that in a short space of time, the status of minorities and the role of women has shifted dramatically. The simultaneous loss of white privilege and economic security has led to an increasing insularity and nostalgia for the past. Coming off the back of America’s first black President, the prospect of America’s first female President was too much to bear.

Put another way, non-college educated whites didn’t turn away from the Democrats because they made an insufficient case for jobs. Rather they turned towards the Republicans because they promised to hit the pause button on demographic change.

Trump offered just such a retrograde vision. One where racial minorities could be jeered, women could be harassed, and LGBTI rights could be redacted from policy discourse altogether.

As a liberal I have wavered between these two narratives. Initially I felt strongly that economic dissatisfaction was the major driver for the ‘white flight’ to Trump. In an earlier post I wrote about the likely effect of rising income inequality in the United States on voter behaviour. However I have never felt that it was the only story to tell, nor considered that many of my fellow liberals would take that view.

In the past few weeks I have found myself growing more and more disturbed by proponents of the purist economic narrative, and their call for a wholesale rejection of policies that do not specifically frame the world as a struggle between labour and capital.

‘Identity politics,’ they claim, is the preserve of the urban elites, and of little relevance to the ordinary American who is barely managing to make ends meet. We should be doubling down on the real life-or-death issues affecting the working class.

The reality though is that a ‘class’ is just as much an identity as religion, race or gender. The shrinking demand for unskilled labour in traditional manufacturing industries has life-or-death consequences for some. The same can be said of the rise in hate crimes directed at Muslims, the disproportionate shootings of black suspects by police, and State interference with women’s reproductive rights.

Climate change moreover is a life-or-death issue of biblical proportions. One moreover, that disproportionately affects those with lower incomes, who are less likely to be insured, and more likely to be captive to geography.

With the passage of time comes the capacity for deep analysis. The public, the politicos and the pollsters have had a chance to analyse the campaign and voter sentiment in fine grained detail.

The final vote count which puts Clinton ahead of Trump at a count of over 3 million has dampened liberal panic to implement a knee-jerk solution.

We can see now that Hillary Clinton did not neglect the working class in favour of an ‘identity politics’ (ie ‘idpol’) agenda. A simple word frequency count of all her campaign speeches, in the primaries and the general races, indicates that economic concerns were at the centre of her campaign.

Figure 2 Word Frequency count of Hillary Clinton’s speeches (Source: Vox)


Furthermore, statistical analyses of voter sentiment has enabled us to progress beyond simple generalisations about the exit polls ie. ‘non-college educated whites voted for Trump because they are sexist and racist’ versus ‘non-college educated whites voted for Trump because they are struggling economically.’

Researchers at The University of Massachusetts Amherst surveyed a random sample of voters on a range of issues including their attitudes to gender inequality, race relations and the state of the economy and a range of factors. They then used a binomial model to analyse the effect that these characteristics had on voting behaviour. This kind of model is useful because it allows us to consider simultaneously the effect that a range of factors have on voting Republican, and to separate out which factors had an effect, and to what extent.

The results of one of the models in the study, which included only white likely voters, are summarised in the table below.

Those factors that have a statistically significant on the likelihood of voting Republican are colored red.

Table 1 Summary of Probit estimates of factors affecting white two-party vote for Trump


The above results show, somewhat predictably, that economic dissatisfaction, racism and sexism are all important ‘explanators.’

College education is not in and of itself an explanatory, once sexism, racism and economic situation are taken into account.

Also women in the study tended to vote Republican, and were not discouraged by the infamous ‘hot mic’ tapes. Go figure.

It is not just white voters that were motivated significantly by these three factors. The same model was run on a sample grouping of all races with similar results.

Each graph shows how much the likelihood of being a Trump voter increases for two people who are exactly the same, but for a shift in sentiment on one of the below scales: economic dissatisfaction, hostile sexism and acknowledgement of racism.

Figure 3: Predicted probability of voting for Trump based on values of economic dissatisfaction, racism, and sexism


Note: Predicted probabilities based on a variation of Model 1 which includes respondents of all races, while holding all other variables in model at their mean values. Vertical lines represent 95% confidence intervals.

Clearly the push-to-Trump factors of economic dissatisfaction, sexism and racism are not just a problem for non-college educated whites, but the voting population at large.

It also appears that Clinton was rejected, in large part, because of her gender. The effect of sexism was markedly more pronounced in 2016 than in the 2012 election.

Figure 4 Predicted probability of voting for Republican nominee in 2012 and 2016 based on values of sexism


Note: Predicted probabilities based on the models in Table 3 while holding all other variables in model at their mean values. Vertical lines represent 95% confidence intervals.

The reality that the Democrats lost the Presidential election, despite pitting the most qualified candidate imaginable up against a narcissistic clown, calls for serious self-reflection and greater understanding across constituencies.

The need for empathy for white voters experiencing loss of privilege, was expressed perfectly by outgoing President Barack Obama in his final address.

“For blacks and other minority groups, it means tying our own very real struggles for justice to the challenges that a lot of people in this country face — not only the refugee, or the immigrant, or the rural poor, or the transgender American, but also the middle-aged white guy who, from the outside, may seem like he’s got advantages, but has seen his world upended by economic and cultural and technological change. We have to pay attention, and listen.”

At the same time he warned against falling into the trap of reverting to the purely economic narrative tailored to the white worker:

“If every economic issue is framed as a struggle between a hardworking white middle class and an undeserving minority, then workers of all shades are going to be left fighting for scraps while the wealthy withdraw further into their private enclaves.”

A sustainable civil society cannot purport to leave anyone behind, either economically or socially. Recognising the effects of income inequality, and job insecurity on those without a college degree does not mean that we trash the idea that everyone – regardless of gender, race, religion, sexual orientation or health status – has a right to participation in public life.

As I write this article, the first steps to repealing the Affordable Care Act have been taken and Trump has revealed his pick for Attorney General, Senator Jeff Sessions, a Senator who is strongly anti-abortion and gay marriage but is good with torture.

It should be bleedingly obvious that this is not the time for small ‘l’ liberals to be fighting amongst themselves. There has been some truly excellent deep thought on how the Democrat Party can reconnect with its base, that does depend on a single narrative. It’s time to look at what constructive action can be taken to revitalise the left rather than searching for the enemy within.

Election 2016: The Revenge of the Forgotten People

In the seminal 1988 film Mississippi Burning, two FBI agents, one a rookie from the city, the other a former local, investigate the disappearance of three civil rights activists in a small town.

In one of the most memorable scenes from the film, the worldly Anderson (Gene Hackman), explains racism to a fresh-faced Ward (Willem Dafoe – hard to believe he was once fresh-faced, but there it is) in the form of a parable:

Ward: “Where does it come from, all this hatred?”

Anderson: “You know, when I was a little boy, there was an old Negro farmer lived down the road from us, name of Monroe. And he was, uh, – well, I guess he was just a little luckier than my Daddy was. He bought himself a mule. That was a big deal around that town. Now, my Daddy hated that mule, ’cause his friends were always kiddin’ him about oh, they saw Monroe out plowin’ with his new mule, and Monroe was gonna rent another field now they had a mule. And one morning that mule just showed up dead. They poisoned the water…So one time, we were drivin’ down the road and we passed Monroe’s place.  I looked over at my Daddy’s face – and I knew he’d done it. And he saw that I knew. He was ashamed. I guess he was ashamed. He looked at me and he said: ‘If you ain’t better than a nigger, son, who are you better than?’…He was an old man just so full of hate that he didn’t know that bein’ poor was what was killin’ him.”

This story is powerful because it highlights the shame, and the rage that comes with being poor and economically immobile, when you are in a demographically privileged group.

The emotions felt by Anderson’s father in the story are especially relevant to the uneducated rural white voter of today.  To this voter, terms like “white privilege”, “mansplaining,” and “cisgender” must sound like a cruel cosmic joke.

Twenty years of being told they are the demographic most likely to succeed, whilst being increasingly left behind in an economy run by urban elites, has taken its toll. In addition, constantly being reminded that they are privileged, may have been the last straw.

Instead of quietly killing a mule, they elected a candidate whose divisive rhetoric embodied the hate and rage that has been growing amongst America’s forgotten people. But to think that the rhetoric of hate is what defines these people would be a grave mistake.

In their cosy urban apartments, the US political elites mistakenly thought this election was primarily about identity politics. It seemed inconceivable that someone could become President off the back of the following statements:

  • On women: “Grab ‘em by the pussy.”
  • On Mexicans specifically: “They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.

And yet exit polls show that, despite having a barrage of hate speech directed at them:

  • 42% of female voters polled indicated they voted for Trump.
  • 30% of Hispanic voters polled indicated that they voted for Trump.

Groups that were repeatedly vilified or denigrated by Trump during the election did not turn away to the extent elites had expected. Which suggests other drivers were at play.

Looking at the breakdown of exit polls by demographic, what most stands out are the difference in preferences between city voters and rural voters, and between pro free-trade versus anti-free trade voters.

Figure 1 Exit poll on residence.
Figure 2 Exit poll on perception of effect of trade with other countries on U.S. jobs.

Rather than strictly hearing the rhetoric of hate, it seems that Trump voters responded strongly to:

  • Messages about the Clinton’s championing of free trade through the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a process begun by her husband Bill Clinton with the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) twenty-two years earlier.
  • Messages about Clinton’s close relationship with Wall Street, in particular her speaking engagements with financial crisis villains such as Goldman Sachs and JP Morgan.

For people trapped in a rural ghetto of shrinking opportunity and growing economic inequality, anti-free trade sentiment expressed by Trump is very appealing.

During the course of his campaign he has threatened to slap a 45% tariff on Chinese imports and to bully firms into returning their factories to America.

At best, these kinds of measures are unfeasible, at worst, they will trigger a financial crisis the likes of which the world has never seen.  Trump voters are probably aware of this, but given they have not seen the spoils of globalisation, they just don’t care.

When it comes to free trade, the political elite have recognised that there are winners and losers. However according to the conventional wisdom, the overall gains in export growth and cheaper goods for consumers, far outweigh the short term pain caused by job losses. Therefore we should all be happy with the outcome.

Trade economists such as David Autor have shown that this does not always hold. At a geographic level, the pain is far from short-term. In some areas employment falls at least one-for-one with jobs lost to trade, with displaced workers unlikely to move to seek new work. The lowest-skilled who do find new jobs tend to move to similar, and thus similarly vulnerable, employment.

The gains in manufacturing brought about by free trade – say in the automotive parts or ICT – have come at a time of increasing automation and specialisation. Thus Americans without transferable knowledge capital have not been able to cash in on the spoils.

As is evident in the chart below, the job market has become both increasingly unwelcoming and unrewarding for those without a university degree.

Figure 3. Declining returns to labor for non-graduates

To add insult to injury, income and wealth inequality have continued on an upward trajectory in the United States. As you can see from Figure 4, below, the top 1% and the bottom 90% enjoyed roughly equal levels of growth until the late 1970s.

However over the last decade the wealth of the top 1% of families has grown at a faster rate than for the bottom 90% of families. The very rich moreover, appear to have made a full recovery from the Global Financial Crisis, whereas the bottom 90% are still recovering from the impact of the housing bubble. Their wealth has fallen to early 1990 levels.

Figure 4 Growth of wealth of the top 1% and the bottom 90% from 1946 to 2014

In this context, with the investment banks behind the financial crisis bigger and brighter than ever, it is easy to see how the Clinton’s close ties to Wall Street only served to fuel working class resentment.

Bernie Sanders tapped into a rich vein of resentment with his message that, under the status quo the rich got richer. Meanwhile in the best case, the situation for everyone else was, meh.

Some will speculate that Sanders, with his social democrat credentials and his commitment to put Main Street ahead of Wall Street, could have pulled off this election. I think that this is unlikely. Sanders may be an idealist and a champion of meritocracy, but he could not have mobilised the army of crusty middle aged white voters with Confederate flag bumper stickers the way that Trump has.

We are talking about people who have been told again and again that they are privileged and ignorant, whilst watching their real wages decline and their communities become decrepit.  People who have been scolded for providing  insufficient opportunity for minorities and women in non-traditional professions, when they cannot be certain that there will be a career path for themselves or their children.

Their response? Anger. Hatred. Scapegoating. Celebration of a man who throws verbal punches at all those minorities they have been told to embrace, and has shown a willingness to poison the proverbial mule.

So they have voted in a man who has given them the promise of bringing back jobs and the plan of building a wall.

Whether he can deliver on this promise is doubtful. He cannot reverse automation or bring coal back to the mining towns. However one thing is for certain, these constituents will never again be neglected. If they have not succeeded in electing a President who will deliver jobs today, they have guaranteed that future candidates will deliver a policy platform that puts their needs front and centre tomorrow. It is up to the Democrats to offer a renewed vision. One that recognises that economic growth that leaves vast swathes of people behind is not viable.