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Why working-class whites aren’t giving up on Trump

Key voting bloc found a champion in the president

People watch President Donald Trump’s Independence Day celebration in front of the Lincoln Memorial in July. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call file photo)
People watch President Donald Trump’s Independence Day celebration in front of the Lincoln Memorial in July. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call file photo)

OPINION — “In some countries working-class groups have proved to be the most nationalistic and jingoistic sector of the population,” wrote the highly esteemed sociologist and political scientist Seymour Martin Lipset — 60 years ago last month.

In his seminal article “Democracy and Working-Class Authoritarianism,” which appeared in the August 1959 issue of the American Sociological Review, Lipset observed that many in the working class were “in the forefront of the struggle against equal rights for minority groups, and have sought to limit immigration or to impose racial standards in countries with open immigration.”

“The social situation of the lower strata, particularly in poorer countries with low levels of education,” he argued, “predisposes them to view politics in simplistic and chiliastic terms of black and white, good and evil. Consequently, other things being equal, they should be more likely than other strata to prefer extremist movements which suggest easy and quick solutions to social problems and have a rigid outlook rather than those which view the problem of reform or change in complex and gradualist terms and which support rational values of tolerance.”

Lipset’s analysis in that article, which I discovered after reading Jordan Michael Smith’s piece “Who Are Trump’s Supporters” in Democracy: A Journal of Ideas, obviously resonates today, both internationally (with the rise of populism in Europe) and in Donald Trump’s America.

Trump’s comments and tweets that “trade wars are good and easy to win,” that Mexico will “pay for the wall,” and that he knows more about ISIS “than the generals do” are just a few examples of his simplistic messages that have resonated with white working-class voters.

When he said during his 2016 Republican National Convention speech in Cleveland that, “Nobody knows the system better than me, which is why I alone can fix it,” Trump was echoing other authoritarians, who, like him, tore up treaties, portrayed previous leaders as incompetent or worse, and undermined long-established institutions, including the independent press. Only he, said Trump, could save the country.

The behavior of white, working-class Americans in 2016 and since has seemingly confirmed Lipset’s assessment. This demographic has embraced Trump’s authoritarian style, his criticism of key institutions and his culturally conservative agenda, including on abortion, immigration and gay rights.

Trump’s rallies, with cheers of “Lock her up” and threats to the media, are hardly a testament to tolerance.

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Culture wars

Cultural issues remain a major part of our national political debate, and they were a major reason why Trump won the White House in 2016, which must surprise veteran analyst Ruy Teixeira, a thoughtful observer of American politics.

A decade ago, in his July 15, 2009 article “The Coming End of the Culture Wars,” Teixeira announced that the so-called culture wars, “far from coming back (after the Obama presidency) are likely coming to an end as a defining aspect of our politics.”

The issues around which the war was waged — women’s issues, gay rights, abortion and immigration — allegedly were fading into obscurity as younger, more tolerant voters were replacing socially conservative white working-class voters in the electorate.

“Ongoing demographic shifts have seriously eroded the mass base for culture wars politics and will continue to erode this base in the future,” he wrote, adding that “the advantage conservatives can gain from culture wars politics will steadily diminish and, consequently, so will conservatives’ incentive to engage in such politics.”

Teixeira, like many of us (myself included), got the trend right but the timing very wrong.

Yes, generational change has changed the makeup of the electorate and lessened the importance of white voters without a college degree, who have been declining as a proportion of the electorate.

But that didn’t mean that those voters couldn’t join in 2016 with others — including suburban college-educated whites, evangelicals and rural voters — to elect Donald Trump.

In fact, Trump beat Hillary Clinton among whites with a college degree (48 percent to 45 percent), and he and Clinton evenly split (47 percent each) respondents with an income of at least $100,000 a year.

But he carried Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, in part, because he added working-class white voters without a college degree to a Republican coalition that included swing voters.

Still a force

Teixeira’s biggest mistake was in thinking that conservatives would give up the fight on cultural issues.

Not only did they not give up, they doubled down on their resistance to change. And at a time of dissatisfaction with politics and politicians, they found a champion who told them what they wanted to hear.

The cultural and economic divisions that Lipset found 60 years ago are still very apparent today. Democratic appeals to woo downscale white voters back to the party of Franklin Roosevelt on issues like minimum wage, jobs, and economic fairness and equality have had limited success because those voters continue to respond to cultural issues — and candidates with authoritarian styles and simplistic messages.

It’s no wonder that white, working-class Americans are still in the president’s corner — and why, unless a strong economic downturn refocuses their attention on economic issues, they will remain devoted fans.

But in the long run — and as long as cultural issues remain a deep divide in the country — it is difficult to see those voters finding a comfortable place in a Democratic Party that places such a high value on tolerance and diversity in general, and on issues like global climate change, women’s rights and racial inequality, in particular.

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