Attempts to explain what the hell happened on Tuesday have been coming fast and furious. Hillary Clinton was touted by her supporters as the most qualified candidate ever to run for president. How could she have possibly lost to a buffoon who is not only a political novice but also a despicable bully, nasty racist, world-class grifter, and deranged sex criminal?
Racism was certainly an important factor. A slew of studies have found that Trump supporters rack up high scores on measures of racial resentment. Sexism, too, is part of the story. Hillary Clinton was subjected to a nonstop barrage of ugly misogynist attacks by Trump, his supporters, and users of social media. No wonder the gender gap—24 points—was the largest in the history of presidential elections. And if you still question whether racism and misogyny played a significant role in this election, the many frightening acts of violence and harassment aimed at women and people of color that have occurred in the wake of Trump’s victory should quell any remaining doubts.
But as is the case with every election, Tuesday’s outcome was multi-causal. I would like to identify an additional culprit: economic inequality, or more specifically, economic inequality among women. Women of color supported Clinton by wide margins–understandably so, because the Democrats have historically cared a lot more about their interests than the Republicans have.White women, however, flocked to Trump by a substantial margin and were crucial to his victory. Yet not all white women supported Trump: There was a yawning class divide in their vote. One widely used proxy for the working class is adults who lack a college degree. And while white women who are college-educated supported Hillary over Trump by 6 points, their white, non–college educated counterparts chose Trump by a margin of 28 points. That added up to a cavernous class gap among this group—34 points, 10 points more than that record-setting gender gap.
Class differences among women are an all but taboo subject. But scholars such as Leslie McCall have found that economic inequality among women is just as large, and has been growing just as fast, as economic inequality among men.This economic divide among women has created one of the most significant fault lines in contemporary feminism. That’s because professional-class women, who have reaped a disproportionate share of feminism’s gains, have dominated the feminist movement, and the social distance between them and their less privileged sisters is wide and growing wider. In the decades since the dawn of the second wave, educated women gained access to high-status jobs, but working-class women experienced declining wages and (because of the rise of divorce and single parenthood among the working class) shouldered an increasingly heavy burden of care. Yet mainstream feminist groups and pundits have consistently stressed the social and cultural issues that are most important to affluent women, while marginalizing the economic concerns of the female masses.
The class divisions between women came to a head in the 2016 election, when Big Feminism failed women, big-time. Mainstream feminists sold women a bill of goods, arguing that the election of a woman president would improve the lot of women as a class. Echoing Sheryl Sandberg’s dubious thesis, they claimed that leadership by women will as a matter of course produce gains for all women—though actually, the social science evidence for this claim is mixed at best. There was also a lot of talk about how having a woman president would “normalize” female power.
But if you’re a woman living paycheck to paycheck and worried sick over the ever-diminishing economic prospects for you and your children, you’re unlikely to be heavily invested in whether some lady centimillionaire will shatter the ultimate glass ceiling. Exacerbating the problem is that Clinton, the person whom feminists blithely assumed that working-class women would deeply identify with (because after all, didn’t they?) was such a painfully flawed candidate. In addition to a political record littered with betrayals of women, people of color, labor, and other key constituencies, she showed arrogance and terrible judgment by giving the Wall Street speeches and setting up her own State Department e-mail server. That was gross political malpractice.
Some of Clinton’s policy proposals were strong, especially her plans for paid family leave and expanded child care. But Clinton never found a way to craft a compelling message that persuaded people that she cared about people like them. It’s telling that she seemed far more relaxed and comfortable making speeches to Wall Street plutocrats than she ever was on a campaign trail. Also problematic was her campaign slogan, the fangurl-ish “I’m With Her.” Why not something more inclusive and democratic, like, say “She’s With Us”? In addition, in this moment of high populism, her many appearances with glitzy celebrities like Lena Dunham and Katy Perry did not help.
Indeed, Clinton’s failings as a candidate are among the reasons I’m not so sure that voter sexism determined the outcome of the election (though it surely played a role). It’s more likely that what ultimately did her in was not her gender but her failure to connect with voters. It’s easy to imagine other Democratic women, most notably the populist Democratic firebrand Elizabeth Warren, killing it this election. Unlike Hillary, Warren has the virtue of not being one of the architects of the failed policies of the past (NAFTA, Wall Street deregulation, etc.) that helped create the profound economic dislocation that so many working-class voters have suffered.
The destruction that Bill Clinton’s policies wrought in now-depressed rural areas in battleground states like Ohio, Michigan, and Pennsylvania came back to haunt Hillary. The residents of those regions, who are largely white and working class, have been ravaged by the abandonment of major industries and the social and economic ills that followed in its wake: record low levels of labor-force participation, downward mobility, drug epidemics, and more. In his reporting from Rust Belt cities in southwestern Ohio and eastern Kentucky, the journalist Alec MacGillis has described “the general aura of decline that hangs over towns in which medical-supply stores and pawn shops dominate decrepit main streets, and Victorians stand crumbling, unoccupied.” The social and economic unraveling in these left-behind places is particularly acutely felt when compared to America’s coastal cities, which are soaring ahead. Rising regional inequality was surely one of the driving factors in this election, as it was for Brexit.
In these white working-class communities, it is the women who have experienced some of the worst hardships. You may have heard of that famous study that showed that showed an unprecedented decline in longevity among white Americans who lack college degrees. But most media reports missed a crucial point: As the statistician Andrew Gelman pointed out, “Since 2005, mortality rates have increased among women in this group but not men.” And in addition to economic insecurity and rising mortality rates, working-class women have suffered from another indignity: invisibility. During the campaign, there was a blizzard of articles about the concerns of elite Republican women and white working-class men, but practically nothing about female members of the working class. Tamara Draut, one of the few journalists who bothered to talk to working-class women, zeroed in on the pain they feel about their marginalization:
In my dozens of interviews with working class women across the country, a common refrain has echoed: They feel invisible in our politics, our economy and our culture. They feel that our political leaders don’t care about their struggles or their aspirations—from the daily grind of balancing work and caregiving to the dream of giving their children a better future through college, without saddling them with crippling debt.
Since the election on Tuesday, all over social media and the mainstream media, liberals have been issuing hysterical denunciations of the white working class. But their tantrums over the “deplorables” will only help feed the monster of right-wing populist backlash. As Alec MacGillis tweeted, “Can’t overstate how much anti-big media scorn’s driving this [support for Trump].” The white working class is keenly aware that liberal elites despise them, thank you very much. And one thing elitist liberals overlook is that the white working-class racism they rightly abhor is itself exacerbated by a failing economy (studies have shown that racism flourishes during bad economic times).
If we want to end this nightmare and defeat Trumpism once and for all, we need to figure out how to win these voters back. It’s not like we have a choice. Working-class whites are approximately one-third of the electorate.The Democrats will not be able to win national elections without peeling off more of their votes. Obviously, progressives should never make appeals to these voters’ racism and sexism (leave that to the Republicans). But we do have at least one powerful basis for common ground: economics.
White working-class women appear to be more open than men are to progressive appeals (62 percent of them voted for Trump, as opposed to 72 percent of their male counterparts). That suggests that the most promising path forward would be to agitate for a robust economic agenda focused on women’s needs: a $15 minimum wage, universal child care and pre-K, paid family leave, free college, and tough laws that crack down on wage theft and guarantee fair scheduling and equal pay for women. One of the strengths of such an agenda is that its appeal is hardly limited to women. In our brave new economy, increasing numbers of men now labor under the kinds of precarious working conditions—low wages, minimal benefits, little if any security—that have traditionally characterized women’s employment. Policies like these would help the men, too. They would not be not just righteous, but politically pragmatic.
But it’s not only the Democratic Party that is badly in need of reform. The feminist movement, too, needs to reorient itself. Feminists would be well-advised to ease up on pop culture navel-gazing and corporate pseudo-feminist drivel like Lean In. They need to shift their central focus from the glass ceiling to the sticky floor, which, after all, is the place where most women dwell. And should feminism once again become a vibrant bottom-up mass movement instead of a top-down elite concern, there’s no telling how far it could go.