In his brilliant and prophetic 2011 book, “Coming Apart,’’ my friend Charles Murray identified the stark social division that is defining this year’s presidential election.
Murray’s book was unabashedly about “the state of white America.” The white population of the United States, he argued, is more polarized than at any time in the past half century. On the one hand there is a “cognitive elite,” who are educated together at universities like Harvard and Yale, then marry each other, work together, and live together in the same exclusive neighborhoods.
Concentrated in “super zipcodes” such as Beverly Hills, Santa Monica, Malibu, Manhattan, and Boston, these people are politically more liberal than the national average, as well as much richer and more inclined to eat quinoa salads.
On the other side of this social chasm is a new lower class: white Americans with nothing more than a high school diploma, if that. They eat Chick-fil-A, not quinoa. In a masterstroke of exposition, Murray vividly localized his argument by imagining two emblematic communities: Belmont, where everyone has at least one university degree, and Fishtown, where no one has any.
Murray’s key point in “Coming Apart’’ was that four great social trends of the post-1960 period had hit Fishtown much harder than Belmont. Family breakdown, loss of employment, crime, declining “social capital”: all are much more prevalent in Fishtown. And that, Murray concluded, is why the inhabitants of Fishtown are so unhappy.
Fast forward five years. Murray’s disgruntled white lower class has now found its “voice” and his name, as you have probably guessed, is Donald Trump. The declining, dangerous country that Trump described in his supposedly “dark” acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland was Fishtown writ large. Indeed, you could simply change the names. For Fishtown read Cleveland; for Belmont read Philadelphia, where the Democrats held their convention last week.
Viewed from Belmont, everything is awesome. President Obama’s speech on Wednesday was a masterpiece of self-congratulation. He proclaimed his “faith in America — the generous, big-hearted, hopeful country that made my story.” He celebrated the United States of Diversity. And he insisted that “every country on Earth sees America as stronger and more respected today than they did eight years ago … America is already great. America is already strong.”
Though mostly a hatchet job on Trump, Hillary Clinton’s acceptance speech offered a further helping of this Kool-Aid: “We have the most dynamic and diverse people in the world. … America is great because America is good.”
But that’s not how it looks in Fishtown. Since 2005, according to a new report by McKinsey, more than four fifths of population (81 percent) have had flat or falling incomes. The white lower class is in the grip of an epidemic of ill health and premature death. And that is why Trump leads Clinton in seven out of the ten most recent national polls by between one and seven percentage points.
True, that’s almost certainly a temporary post-convention “bounce.” Nevertheless, there are three reasons why Belmont is underestimating Fishtown’s chances of winning this election. The first is that a “change” election is likely to produce, well, change. If two thirds of Americans believe that the country is “on the wrong track,” why would they vote for the candidate so resoundingly endorsed by Obama — not to mention Obama’s wife, his vice president and umpteen senators and congressmen?
The second is the extent to which Trump will succeed in mobilizing white voters. There were 129 million votes cast in the 2012 election, of which 93 million (72 percent) were cast by white voters. Mitt Romney won 59 percent of those votes to Obama’s 39 percent, but still lost. However, if Romney had won a shade over 62 percent of the white vote he would have won the popular vote. To have won Florida, Ohio, Virginia, and Iowa — and hence the electoral college and the presidency — he would have needed to do better than that, but not much better.
Can Trump succeed where Romney failed? Yes. Right now, he leads among white registered voters without a degree by a margin of 58 percent to 30 percent, compared with Romney’s lead in pre-election polls of 55 percent to 37 percent. Indeed, a recent CNN poll gave Trump a 66-29 advantage with this group. Fishtown, in short, is voting for Trump.
Of course, a lot of college-educated white Americans are repelled by The Donald. But that brings us to factor number 3: the generation gap. The Obama years have seen that gap widen even more than in the Nixon years. More than 66 percent of voters aged 18-29 backed Obama in 2008. Only 42 percent of those aged 65 and above voted for him in 2012. To be sure of winning in November, Clinton needs to replicate Obama’s appeal not only to minorities but also to the young. Can she? I wonder.
With a bevy of Trump-hating Republican billionaires endorsing Clinton, her campaign has all the money it could wish for. But Fishtown has one big advantage over Belmont: numbers. Maybe the Obama “rainbow coalition” will come together again for the first female presidential candidate. But there’s an almost equally strong probability that it’s the turn of Belmont itself — the elite America that Hillary Clinton personifies — to come apart.
Niall Ferguson is a senior fellow of the Hoover Institution at Stanford.