It’s the year of the white working-class voter. The despair and dispossession of white Americans without a four-year college degree (the most common definition of “working class”) is said to have propelled the candidacy of Donald Trump, as well as the insurgency of Senator Bernie Sanders. Two surprisingly popular new books, White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America by Nancy Isenberg and Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance, have shed light on white working-class suffering, particularly joblessness, drug addiction, and rising mortality rates—issues that have come up on the campaign trail as both parties vie for the group’s vote, which was nearly 50 percent of the total electorate in 2012.
Some liberal pundits, however, believe that Democratic efforts to reach these voters have been too little, too late. Thomas Frank, who has made a career out of disdaining the political class’s turn toward “elites,” says Trump’s success is proof that Democratic “neoliberalism has well and truly failed” the white working class. In The New York Times, Thomas Edsall recently argued that Trump has been able to lure struggling whites with promises of economic salvation (plus a healthy dose of bigotry) because Democrats have become “increasingly dependent on a white upper middle class that has isolated itself from the rest of American society.” Now, white working-class voters in swing states like Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Ohio are considered Trump’s best shot at pulling off an upset, especially if Hillary Clinton ignores them in favor of cementing the “Obama coalition” of people of color, the LGBTQ community, and college-educated whites.
But is any of this tale true? Did the white working class flee the Democrats because the party abandoned them economically? Is Clinton, as the establishment favorite, uniquely unqualified to lure them back? Is their economic suffering really driving the Trump campaign? And can it be enough to carry the racist bully to the White House?
The answer to all of these questions, I’d argue, is no. There are, of course, political and moral reasons to care about the pessimism and dislocation of the white working class. It’s been the proverbial canary in the coal mine, a formerly thriving group once buoyed by government investment and labor rights whose standard of living has fallen since Republicans (with the aid of some Democrats) turned their backs on the post–World War II consensus. Some of the economic trends that have hurt this group, like sluggish wage growth, are holding back African Americans and Latinos as well.
But the conviction that’s common on both right and left—that the Democrats deserted the white working class by chasing “identity politics” and Wall Street donors and now show little interest in winning it back—is undone by the evidence. To bring these voters back, we have to understand what made them turn away in the first place.
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Frank may be the single most influential purveyor of the notion that Democrats betrayed their own base. Throughout this election, in The Guardian as well as in his new book Listen, Liberal: Or, What Ever Happened to the Party of the People?, Frank has repeatedly argued that Democrats alienated their former base through their support for neoliberalism, NAFTA, and Wall Street deregulation. The party has always assumed these voters had “nowhere else to go,” Frank writes; but now, “those people may have finally found somewhere else to go” in Donald Trump.