He was a journalist who wrote articles for the website of a cable news network. I asked him about the liberalism of his fellow journalists. He said that there were more non-liberals on the staff than many might think, but even so, the journalists were mainly liberals. Many of the staff did that popular quiz or drinking game after Donald Trump won: How many of us know someone who owns a pickup truck? How many know someone who owns a gun? Have you listened to a country song this week? Of course, these questions are meant to illustrate how out of touch the media and other coastal, liberal elites are from the segment of the country that elected our President.
I had a number of different reactions to what he said. One had me wondering about the one-sided nature of this game. The diehard Trumpistas are a minority that supposedly feel alienated and overlooked by much of America. That, perhaps, should lead them to thinking about the sources of their alienation, but I haven’t heard of them asking each other: Have you listened to NPR this week? Have you looked at the New Yorker recently? Have you read a novel this year? Do you know anyone who drives a hybrid? Does this supposedly alienated group ever introspectively explore the grounds that separates them from other Americans?
The questions that the journalists asked of themselves are predicated on the belief that there has been a massive shift of white, blue-collar folks towards Trumpian conservative policies. I also wondered about that. Maybe there has been some change, but perhaps it has been overstated. If there has been a shift, it did not lead to a majority, or even a plurality, for Donald Trump. That fact should cast doubt on the supposed sudden, massive blue-collar flight to the right. In fact, Trump got almost the same percentage of the popular vote as Mitt Romney did four years earlier. This hardly indicates a seismic change in the electorate. If more of the white, blue-collar demographic did vote for Trump than had voted for Romney, then an equivalent sized group who had voted conservatively four years before did not vote for Trump. If we talk about groups that gravitated to the conservative candidate, why aren’t we also talking about those who moved away from the conservatives?
And, of course, any rightward shift of white, blue-collar voters has not been sudden. It has been underway for a long time, since at least Nixon’s southern strategy.
The discussion also led me to think about a couple of books I have recently read which should be in the canon for anyone interested in understanding blue-collar America—Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right by Arlie Russell Hochschild and Janesville: An American Story by Amy Goldstein. In 2008, General Motors shut down a Chevrolet plant that employed 4,000 people in Janesville, Wisconsin. Local companies supplying the GM plant also close, compounding the effect of GM’s closure. Goldstein, a Washington Post writer, chronicles the effects the closings had on the city of 68,000. With the loss of $28-an-hour jobs, many families dropped from a comfortable middle-class life to one with not enough food or clothing. Other families were disrupted because some spent the work week far from home working in still-functioning GM factories. Some of the laid-off people found new jobs in Janesville, but the pay was usually much less than what they had made before. Depression and shame haunted those who remained out of work or worked for reduced wages.
The book does not propose remedies for what happened, but it does indicate that a favorite remedy of many—job retraining—was not successful. On average those who sought new jobs without retraining earned more than those who went through formal retraining programs. Amy Goldstein states, “The evidence is thin that job training in the United States is an effective way to lead laid-off workers back into solid employment.”
Goldstein does not indicate that Janesville’s travails brought a sudden shift to the right by the white working class. Chronicling the political upheavals in the country is not her goal. However, the book does illustrate the impact that corporate decisions can have on individuals and communities and that the individuals and the community are largely powerless to affect those decisions. (Janesville is Paul Ryan’s hometown. He was not able to keep General Motors there. There is no suggestion in the book that if Ayn Rand principles were followed everything would have been hunky-dory.)
Arlie Hochschild, a sociologist at the University of California at Berkeley, on the other hand, spent years in Louisiana’s Tea Party country to try to understand this brand of rightwing voters. She sees paradoxes in these conservatives. They maintain the country is better off with less government, but Hochschild notes that by almost all measures people in red states are worse off than those in blue states. She concentrates on what she sees as one great paradox: Pollution has directly and severely harmed many of these conservatives, but they still oppose environmental regulation. They prefer to live with the aftermath of pollution to having the government trying to prevent it. As one of them says, “Pollution is the sacrifice we make for capitalism.”
In her sensitive, affectionate portrayal of these people in rural Louisiana, she also makes several telling points about our present political divisions. First, she notes that the left has not moved further left in the last generation or so, but that the right has veered sharply right. She also has the important insight that for the Left, the flashpoint is up the social ladder. Thus, the Occupy Wall Street Movement focused on “the one percent” and increasing income inequality. For the Right, the flashpoint is between the middle class and the poor. The conservatives focus on they perceive as undeserved and munificent breaks given to those below them on the economic scale. As a result of these different flashpoints, the Left examines the private sector; the Right the public.
(Continued on April 20.)