Right-Wing Politics of the Middle Class

I was looking back at data related to the past presidential election. The demographic of Trump voters is multifaceted. First, I’d point out the demographics of Republicans in general, specifically as compared to Democrats. In recent history, Republicans have done best with the middle class. They get disproportionate votes from those with average income, average education, average IQ, etc. It’s Democrats that typically draw more from the extremes and less from the middle, for whatever reason.

I’m not sure how much this dynamic changed this election. There were some typical Democratic voters who switched parties to vote for Trump. And some other voting patterns shifted at the edges. But I don’t get the sense that any of this was a major issue, at least in determining the election results. The deciding factor in the swing states often had more to do with who didn’t vote than who did. For example, in Wisconsin, Trump lost fewer votes compared to past Republican candidates than Clinton lost compared to past Democratic candidates. So, Trump won by losing less. But it was different in another key state, Florida, where Trump won strong support among certain minority groups that helped push him over the edge; specifically, Cuban-Americans and Haitian-Americans. So, there were many complications. But it’s not clear to me that this election demographically veered that far away from a typical election for Republicans.

Trump voters seemed to include many average Americans, although Trump voters were slightly above the national average on wealth. With incomes below $50,000, 52% for Clinton and 41% for Trump. With incomes more than $50,000, 49% for Trump and 47% for Clinton. A large part of Trump’s votes came from the income range of +50 to -100 thousand range, i.e., the middle class. The only income level bracket that Trump lost to Clinton was those who make $49,999 and under. Trump’s victory came from the combined force of the middle-to-upper classes. Trump did get strong support from those without a college degree (i.e., some college or less), but then again the vast majority of Americans lack a college degree. It’s easy to forget that even many in the middle class lack college degrees. Factory jobs and construction jobs often pay more than certain professional careers such as teachers and tax accountants. I’m sure a fair number low level managers and office workers lack college degrees.

Among white voters alone, though, Trump won more college-educated than did Clinton. The white middle class went to Trump, including white women with college degrees. Only 1 in 6 Trump voters were non-college-educated whites earning less than $50,000. Ignoring the racial breakdown, Trump overall won 52% of those with some college/associate degree, 45% of college graduates, and 37% with postgraduate study. That is a fairly broad swath. A basic point I’d make is that the majority of Trump voters without a college education work in white collar or middle skill jobs, representing the anxious and precarious lower middle class, but it has been argued that the sense of financial insecurity is more perceived than real. The working class, especially the poor, were far from being Trump’s strongest and most important support, despite their greater financial insecurity. Rather, the Trump voters who played the biggest role were those who fear downward economic mobility, whether or not one deems this fear rational (I tend to see it as being rational, considering a single accident or health condition could easily send into debt many in the lower middle class).

Also, keep in mind that Trump did surprisingly well among minorities, considering the rhetoric of his campaign: 29% of Asians voted for him, 29% of Hispanics, and 8% of blacks. Those aren’t small numbers, enough to have helped him win… or if you prefer, enough to cause Clinton to lose, as the percentages might have to do more with the decreased voting rate this election among particular minority populations. Trump did better among older minorities and rural minorities, at least that was true with Hispanics as I recall, which seems to indicate a similar economic pattern of those who are feeling less hopeful about the future, although I’d point out that most of Trump voters were urban and suburban. Trump specifically beat Clinton in the suburbs and also got more than a third of the votes in cities. But because of how our system is designed votes in low population rural states are worth more than votes in high population urban/suburban states, the reason Wisconsin turned out to be so important.

I would make some additional points. Poor people in general, white and non-white, vote at lower rates. The poorest are rarely ever a deciding factor in any national election. As for the working class more broadly, Trump had some of his strongest support from places like the Rust Belt in the urban Midwest, although it is fair to point out that Clinton lost some progressive strongholds in what once was the New Deal territory of the Upper South that had been loyal Democrats for a long time (in one county in Kentucky, having been won by Trump, the majority voted for a Republican for the first time since the Civil War). Even in the Rust Belt, it wasn’t that Trump gained white working class votes but that Clinton lost them. There was simply fewer people voting in places like that, preferring to vote for neither candidate, some combination of not voting at all and voting third party.

All in all, it’s hard to tell what the demographics indicate, as there is so much left out of the data such as there being more to economic class than mere household income. For example, income inequality isn’t the same as wealth inequality, as the latter has to do with savings and inheritance, most wealth in the US being inherited and not earned. The lower middle class has lower rates of savings and inherited wealth. As for the changes from past elections, it probably has more to do with the drop in the number of voters in key places, but that surely is caused by more than just economics and related factors. Anyway, I’d argue that it really was more about Clinton losing than Trump winning. That is my sense, but I could be wrong. I’m hoping that a detailed book-length analysis of demographics comes out in terms of recent politics and the population in general.

This was my rethinking over what happened. I’ve already written about this many other times, but I thought it might be useful to emphasize the role of the middle class in this election. It’s interesting that the middle class has received a lot less attention this past year, even though for a couple decades the middle class had become an obsession of media and politicians. I’ve often thought that much of what gets called the middle class is actually working class, something pointed out by Joe Bageant. One could make that argument for the lower middle class, in particular. In the past, middle class was more of a social attitude based on economic aspiration, during a time when upward mobility was common and the middle class growing.

My grandfather who was a factory worker probably never identified as middle class, but along with my grandmother working as a secretary they had a fairly high household income which allowed them to live a middle class lifestyle in many ways: owning a house, buying new cars, regular vacations, saving for retirement, sending his children to college, etc. Downward mobility, along with worsening mortality rates for whites, has changed demographic and voting patterns, along with how people identify themselves and how they are perceived by others. The upwardly mobile working class a half century ago was more hopeful and progressive than the present downwardly mobile lower middle class. I might add that might grandfather voted Democrat his whole life, but if he were around today he almost certainly would have voted for Trump and it wouldn’t have been for economic reasons. His children, my mother and uncles, are all over the place in terms of life experience, economic class, social and political ideology, and voting tendencies.

Demographics shift greatly from one generation to the next, often even within families. That is magnified by the larger shifts in entire populations, as the politics of individuals is strongly shaped by what is going on in the world immediately around them. And obviously more is changing in the world than is remaining the same. The United States is a far different place than it was when my grandparents were born a hundred years ago.

By the way, if your concern about Trump voters relates to right-wing authoritarianism, there is a key point to keep in mind. Groups like the Klan and the Nazis drew their strongest support from the middle class. That shouldn’t be surprising, as it is the middle class that is the most politically engaged. One would predict almost any political movement will attract many from the middle class. Also, it’s not so easy to pin this down ideologically. What you should really fear is when the liberal middle class (AKA liberal class) submits to the authoritarian trends in society, as happened in the past. Never forget that the Klan and the Nazis were rather progressive in many ways. Hitler rebuilt infrastructure and promoted policies that helped many ordinary Germans. The Klan supported child labor laws, public education, etc.

Don’t blame the poor for everything, whether poor minorities or poor whites. In a country like the United States, the lower classes have very little political power, economic influence, and activist engagement.

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Here is some of what I was looking at while writing this post. The following presents various data, analyses, and conclusions.

Election 2016: Exit Polls
Produced by Jon Huang, Samuel Jacoby, Michael Strickland, & K.K. Rebecca Lai
The New York Times

The myth of Donald Trump’s upper-class support
by Michael Brendan Dougherty
The Week

Stop Blaming Low-Income Voters for Donald Trump’s Victory
by Jeremy Slevin

The Myth of the Trump Supporter: They Are Not Predominantly White Working Class but Rather Anxiety-Ridden Middle Class
by Theo Anderson

Trump and the Revolt of the White Middle Class
by Stephen Rose
Washington Monthly

Angry White, Rich, Educated Men? Trump Voters Are Smarter And Richer Than The Average American
by Tyler Durden

Trump supporters are not who the media told you they were
by Ben Cohen
American Thinker

High Homeownership Counties Were Twice as Likely to Vote for Trump
by Derek Miller

Financial Insecurity and the Election of Donald Trump
by Diana Elliott & Emma Kalish
Urban Institute

The Myth of the Rust Belt Revolt
by Konstantin Kilibarda and Daria Roithmayr

Myths Debunked: Why Did White Evangelical Christians Vote for Trump?
by Myriam Renaud
The University of Chicago

About the Stereotype Busting High Median Incomes of Trump Voters
by Scot Nakagawa
Race Files

The Comfortable Classes Remain Comfortable

I’m constantly reminded of the comfortable classes because of my personal situation. I’m a working class guy, but I live in a prosperous middle class town of middle class professionals. I see these people every day on my job and I visit my parents’ middle class neighborhood on a regular basis.

The world of these comfortable people has remained unchanged since Trump was elected. In fact, their world hasn’t changed much in their entire lives, unless they’re old enough to have lived through World War II. Even the 2008 recession didn’t have a major impact on most who were economically well off, other than maybe taking a hit in the stock market.

The Iowa Republicans took away bargaining rights of unions, but most comfortable people aren’t in unions (as I am; because of this change, I can now be laid off for no reason and with no notice). If the Republicans dismantle Obamacare, it won’t effect most comfortable people who already have good insurance from their employers or that they can afford on their own. And Trump’s childcare plan would actually benefit many of these comfortable people, as “70 percent of the benefits go to people making over $100,000 a year” (PolitiFact).

Most of them aren’t Muslims who will be targeted or immigrants who will be deported. Most of them didn’t grow up in poverty and so they have no family and friends that are still in poverty. The majority of them are white, US-born citizens who have spent their entire lives economically secure, maybe not always rich but comfortable. It’s all they’ve known and it is all they assume they will ever know.

They have little to fear, in any fundamental way. For most of them, their lives will go on as before. They will still be employed with good pay and good benefits. Everything happening in politics is simply melodrama to them. It might make them feel a bit anxious, but it has no personal reality to them. And if it ever does get bad enough, most have the means and opportunity to get citizenship and employment in other countries, as one person recently admitted to me. They won’t be going down with the ship and so they have no reason to fight as if their life depended on it. The lifeboats will be reserved for them.

Part of why this is possible is that over this past century, the US has become a highly segregated society. Most Americans in the upper classes (including upper middle class) and the lower classes literally live in different worlds. This has happened because of suburbs, bedroom communities, gated communities, gentrification, etc.

A large part of the population lives around people who share the same class, race, ideology, and party affiliation. This is particularly true for the comfortable upper classes who can afford to buy into expensive communities that isolate them from the rest of society. And the town I live in is a fairly expensive, especially for housing (a large part of my paycheck goes to rent alone, which I can afford only by not owning  a car).

These comfortable people live in nice houses that are located in nice neighborhoods and nice communities. They send their kids to good schools, either well-funded public schools or well-funded private schools. They attend wealthy churches, their local infrastructure is maintained, their kids don’t have high rates of lead toxicity, and they have nice parks to visits. Life is good for them and will continue to be good for the foreseeable future.

Trump and the GOP are annoying. But none of this is a personal threat, at least not for now. When these comfortable people begin to feel seriously uncomfortable, then they will all of a sudden start caring about the public good and societal wellbeing, assuming they don’t simply escape so as to leave the problem for others to deal with. Until then, they can’t or won’t understand. In fact, they have a vested interest in not understanding.

Class War is a Rigged Game

As long as there is class war, the lower classes will never be able to be free. It is hard to break the power of an elite. Even if this is accomplished, it is easy for this elite or a new elite to gain power again. It is endless.

It seems to me that struggle from below will never by itself solve the problem. Somehow the elite has to be transformed by coming to realize that what negatively impacts the lower classes also negatively impacts the elite.

It seems to me that playing into the class war rhetoric will always lead to the upper class winning. It is a rigged game.

The reason it is rigged is because it is an easy game for the elite to win and a difficult, if not impossible, game for the lower classes to win. The elite a small group by definition and it is easy for them to organize, especially as they have so much in common in terms of culture and economics. The lower classes, however, are vast and diverse which makes organization difficult. The elite always have the upper hand in a class war.

The game itself has to change.