Ideas

Ideas | David M. Shribman

Can the white working class lead?

A supporter of Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump hoists a poster during an election night event at the New York Hilton Midtown in New York on November 8, 2016. Billionaire populist Donald Trump was poised for a possible shock victory over Democrat Hillary Clinton in Tuesday's historic US presidential election, as a string of swing state victories for the Republican jolted world markets and stunned her supporters. / AFP / Timothy A. CLARY (Photo credit should read TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP/Getty Images)

TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP/Getty Images

Make room, African-Americans, Latinos, the LGBTQ community, feminists. And while we are at it, Catholics, Jews, evangelicals, too. There is a new identity group in American life. It’s the white working class.

This is the group whose members were largely ignored by the mainstream media — at least until Donald Trump’s campaign drew attention to them — and left behind by the new media. It is the group that was mobilized by Franklin Roosevelt but felt unmoved by Hillary Clinton.

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“This crisis of white working people has been going on for some time, but we are just noticing it,’’ said Robert D. Putnam, the Harvard scholar from industrial Port Clinton, Ohio, who has written widely on this group. “The Mon Valley around Pittsburgh didn’t just suddenly run into economic problems. The jobs left Rust Belt Ohio a long time ago. The white working-class people who voted for Trump did so not because of the issues, or because they thought he’d bring back the auto parts factory in my hometown. The people living in a place that has been hopeless for 20 years were just angry at the world, and their vote was an upturned middle finger.’’

With Trump’s inauguration fast approaching, the surge is on: to define this newly prominent group, to explain their viewpoints, to win their allegiance — everything, perhaps, but to address their grievances. The big question of the dawning Trump era is this: Can Trump, or anyone else, turn an upturned middle finger into a program for governing?

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When ethnic minorities and many other identity groups entered the political mainstream, their agenda was self-evident: protections against discrimination, the ability to serve in positions of political power, the ability to pursue the American dream. The white working class, in contrast, is unorganized, increasingly suspicious of government programs, and accustomed to seeing itself as Middle America — not as a special interest.

Meanwhile, the policies that seem to be emerging out of the Trump transition lean more toward traditional conservatism than populism. This is unfolding as an administration that would be favored more by the acolytes of William F. Buckley than by the fans of Willie Nelson.

In theory, November’s revolt of the white working class will usher in what could be a momentous transition, the most startling political example of “Changing Places”’ since the New Deal social engineers replaced the free-market mandarins of engineer-president Herbert Hoover, in 1933. Big switches, to be sure, are a familiar aspect of American politics — the substitution of George W. Bush’s movement conservatives for Bill Clinton’s boomer liberals, for example. But in tone and timbre, the transition of 2017 is of a different order entirely — in part because, as Sarah Purcell, a Grinnell College historian, put it, “the result was so unexpected, the divisions are so pronounced, and the passions are so great.”

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Besides the Washington transition, there is the transition in the profile of the two major parties and the transition between those who found succor and success in the Barack Obama years and those who found insult and indignity in it. “The people who were despondent about the Obama administration were lurking in the background, and now they are front and center,’’ said Steffan W. Schmidt, an Iowa State political scientist. “And the people who supported the Obama administration are upset and frightened and worried about retribution.’’

Indeed, the Great Switch of 2017 involves those who feel their voices will now be heard and those who worry theirs no longer will be heard.

“Black and brown people feel right now that the forces who opposed our rights of full citizenship are coming into power,’’ said Elaine Jones, former president and director-counsel of the NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund. “We now see that the people who fought us will be in office.”

The Obama administration, to be sure, resembled the Obama electoral coalition — eggheads, upscale professionals, and environmentalists, as well as the representatives of a multicultural America. Trump’s new administration looks less like his working-class voters than like Dwight Eisenhower’s Cabinet, which was once described as “nine millionaires and a plumber.’’ Except there’s not even a plumber in the Trump inner circle. And the profile of his Cabinet leans more toward billionaires than millionaires.

Especially if the Trump administration ends up pursuing a corporate-friendly economic policy, working-class Americans’ anxieties aren’t going away. Half of working-class whites, according to a CNN poll, expect their children’s lives will be worse than their own. Two-thirds of the white working class, according to separate CNN polls, believe hard work will no longer get people ahead in the United States.

“This part of America is not participating in the economy the way they once did,’’ said John Dick, the new-generation pollster who is the CEO of CivicScience, a consumer and market intelligence company in Pittsburgh. “Now they have a voice — but that voice speaks in the simplest possible narrative about their difficulties.”

The challenge for politicians courting these voters is to identify a policy agenda built on something more than nostalgia — or explicit appeals to racial identity. Half of the Trump voters among a group of white working-class Americans surveyed by CNN think that the increasing diversity of the United States threatens the country’s culture. The GOP nominee explicitly bemoaned the country’s changing demographics and shifting cultural norms.

His victory raises an uncomfortable question: Is there a less racially charged way of appealing to a group whose members used to feel a sense of power but now see they’re losing ground? Richard L. Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO, believes that it is possible — and necessary. “Working people in general are looking for someone to address their issues — issues they discuss every day around the kitchen table: jobs, security, and health care,’’ he said in a year-end interview. “Anyone who comes out with that is going to get support from working people.” Of course, Hillary Clinton made just such an economic pitch but came up fatefully short in once-reliable Democratic counties.

The people living in a place that has been hopeless for 20 years were just angry at the world, and their vote was an upturned middle finger.

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The political shift that white working-class voters have now triggered could prove wrenching. “This powerful reversal, where one group is now down and another is up, is a lot like the 1930s,’’ says David Greenberg, a Rutgers historian. “Then you saw polarization not just between a liberal party and a conservative party but also between different conceptions of what government is for.’’

David M. Shribman, a former Globe Washington bureau chief, is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
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