In the wake of Donald Trump’s stunning and disastrous Electoral College victory, analysts have zeroed in on one demographic group that bears the burden for Hillary Clinton’s defeat: white voters without college degrees.
Crudely grouped under the rubric “white working class,” these voters helped push Trump past Clinton in the battleground states of Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, and Wisconsin.
In the weeks since, this same group — a vast and heterogeneous cohort that represents more than 40 percent of the electorate in all four states — has been the subject of a maddeningly unhelpful public debate.
Were some of these voters drawn to the siren of Trump’s white nationalist campaign? Yes, obviously. Were some of them expressing frustration at the social and economic decline of their communities, and the manifest inability of Democratic politicians to address it? Yes, just as obviously. Might these things all be related, in some fundamental way? You’re better off asking President Obama than a liberal pundit.
But while a chunk of this amorphous group may have decided the election by defecting from Obama to Trump, white Midwesterners without college diplomas were not the only Americans who voted this November. Nor are they the only demographic that can tell us something about the nature of the campaign and the evolution of both major parties.
Chasing the Moderate Republican
In the Democratic primary, Hillary Clinton fended off Bernie Sanders’s challenge with the strong support of two key groups: wealthy, educated whites and mostly working-class nonwhite Democrats.
While Sanders gradually improved his standing with younger nonwhite voters, it was not enough to take the nomination. Clinton’s core coalition — an effective alliance between the Upper East Side and East Flatbush — held firm, leading Clinton to blowout wins in states like New York, Texas, and Florida.
Clinton counted on the same alliance to carry her to victory in the general election. Very quickly, though, Democratic leaders made it clear that in a campaign against Donald Trump, not all members of the coalition required equal attention.
Faced with a Republican opponent who openly touted his affinity for “the poorly educated,” Team Clinton focused on courting white voters at the opposite end of the class pyramid. Trump’s vulgarity and chauvinism, they hoped, would drive wealthy Republican moderates toward Clinton. Rather than aggressively contest Trump’s bogus populism, Democratic strategists concentrated on “moderate” suburban Republicans — the ideological cousins, and often the literal neighbors, of professional-class Democrats.
“For every one of those blue-collar Democrats [Trump] picks up,” former Pennsylvania governor Ed Rendell predicted in February, “he will lose to Hillary two socially moderate Republicans and independents in suburban Cleveland, suburban Columbus, suburban Cincinnati, suburban Philadelphia, suburban Pittsburgh, places like that.”
Electorally, of course, this strategy proved catastrophic. In the Midwestern swing states, Clinton hemorrhaged white “blue-collar Democrats” without winning nearly enough “moderate Republicans” to compensate.
Nevertheless, the election results show that the Democrats’ conscious effort to woo the rich wasn’t entirely for naught. Clinton ran nine points ahead of Obama’s 2012 tally among voters earning more than $100,000. Further up the income ladder, among voters making more than $250,000 annually, she bested Obama’s margin by a full eleven points.
And although overall Democratic turnout declined substantially from 2012, it is wrong to say that nobody was excited to vote for Clinton. In the wealthy and well-educated suburbs of cities like Boston, Chicago, and Minneapolis — as in the effectively suburbanized enclaves of Manhattan and Washington, DC — Clinton’s vote total far surpassed Obama’s mark four years ago.
Nate Silver has compiled tables that show the huge shift from Obama to Clinton in America’s most educated counties. But his confident gloss that “education, not income” guided the electorate somewhat overstates the case, even according to his own data. A look at affluent suburban returns on a district and town level suggests that some combination of income, education, culture, and geography — in a word, “class” — drove Clinton’s most dramatic gains.
Incomplete returns in wealthy, suburban West Coast areas — like Orange County, located outside of Los Angeles, and Marin and San Mateo counties, outside of San Francisco — reveal a similar Clinton surge.
Much of this, no doubt, reflects elite aversion to Trump rather than pure affection for Clinton. But that’s not the whole story. After all, these affluent and expensively credentialed suburbs also delivered Clinton huge margins during the Democratic primary.
Bernie Sanders’s style of class politics — and his program of mild social-democratic redistribution — did not gain much favor in New Canaan, Connecticut (where he won 27 percent of the vote) or Northfield, Illinois (39 percent). For some suburban Democrats, Sanders’s throttling in these plush districts virtually disqualified him from office: “A guy who got 36 percent of the Democrats in Fairfax County,” an ebullient Michael Tomasky wrote after the Virginia primary, “isn’t going to be president.”
Clinton was their candidate. By holding off Sanders’s populist challenge — and declining to concede fundamental ground on economic issues — the former secretary of state proved she could be trusted to protect the vital interests of voters in Newton, Eden Prairie, and Falls Church. They, more than any other group in America, were enthusiastically #WithHer.
To some extent, Clinton’s appeal even carried over to wealthy red-state suburbs. In Forysth County outside Atlanta, and Williamson County outside Nashville — the richest counties in Georgia and Tennessee — Clinton lost big but improved significantly on Obama’s performance in 2012.
But wealthy, educated suburbanites were never going to push the Democrats over the top all by themselves. Despite Clinton’s incremental gains, in the end, most rich white Republicans remained rich white Republicans: hardly the sturdiest foundation for an anti-Trump majority.
So what about the other, much larger wing of Clinton’s primary coalition?
Cracks in the Firewall
Many assumed that the fear of Trump would make nonwhite Democrats — who were at the heart of Obama’s victories in 2008 and 2012 — rush to the polls in huge numbers. Despite various warning signs, from Ohio to Florida, the Clinton campaign seems to have shared the same assumption.
But they were disastrously wrong. Exit polls report that Trump did even better with Latino voters than Mitt Romney in 2012. While some experts have disputed those findings, county-level results suggest that at the very least, the Clinton campaign did not generate anything like the wave of Latino voters that Democrats were expecting.
African Americans, meanwhile, strongly preferred Clinton. While she didn’t match Obama’s historic margins, Clinton still won 88 percent support from black voters.
But it was largely uninspired support.
Black Americans have seldom had the luxury of choosing between two parties equally interested in winning their votes. The modern Republican Party’s increasingly warm embrace of white identity politics — an odious evolution culminating in the Trump campaign — has made lonely black Republicans lonelier still.
A choice between the Democrats and a party that flirts with the Ku Klux Klan is no choice at all. But African Americans can still opt to stay home — and this year, it appears many people did just that.
Republican efforts at voter suppression, including new restrictive laws in key states, likely blocked some African Americans from casting a ballot. But in many locations, the drop in Democratic turnout seems too large to be the product of ID laws and voter purges alone.
In Detroit, which is 82 percent African American, no major voting restrictions have been instituted since 2012. Yet Clinton tallied forty-seven thousand fewer votes than Obama, a decline of more than 16 percent. In St Louis’s northwestern wards, where African Americans comprise over 85 percent of the population, the Democratic vote fell by between 25 and 30 percent from 2012. (Overall population decline might account for some of these dips, but probably not all of them.)
In New York City, whose voting regulations are controlled exclusively by Democrats, turnout in predominantly black neighborhoods also sagged from 2012. While Clinton’s vote jumped by more than 14 percent in the Upper East Side, it sank by 8 percent in East Flatbush.
No city in America was more hotly contested by the two parties than Philadelphia, the largest metropolis in any of the swing states. The Clinton campaign in particular invested heavily in media and get-out-the-vote operations in the city. But the combined result — measured by initial vote counts — was deeply uneven, mirroring the election as a whole.
In Center City’s wealthiest neighborhoods, Clinton rode a wave of enthusiasm, adding 25 percent to Obama’s vote totals in genteel Society Hill and tony Rittenhouse Square. But in the working-class and mainly black wards of West and North Philadelphia, Democratic turnout fell across the board — in some areas by more than 10 percent.
For some observers, this was the predictable upshot of Obama’s absence from the ballot: African-American turnout returned to something approximating its pre-2008 levels. But this view sits uneasily alongside an analysis in which racial identity politics — Trump’s blatant appeals to whiteness — played a much larger role in 2016 than during Obama’s campaigns. It is a perverse logic that suggests Westport, Connecticut somehow had more to fear from white supremacy than West Philadelphia.
A better explanation, as Ezekiel Kweku has argued, is that the Clinton campaign simply failed to generate excitement from working-class voters of all races.
We should avoid reading too much into county or district vote counts, which cannot divulge the identities or the motivations of individual voters. Still, FiveThirtyEight’s findings suggest that among nonwhite voters, an enthusiasm gap opened along class lines: Clinton surpassed Obama in highly educated majority-minority counties, but struggled in poorer and less educated places. Election returns in the majority-nonwhite wards of Washington DC fit this interpretation, too.
In rapidly gentrifying Ward 1, home to Howard University and prosperous, diverse neighborhoods like Adams Morgan and Columbia Heights, Clinton’s performance matched her strong showings in the District’s rich white areas: registered voter turnout grew 8 percent from 2012, and Clinton gained 17 percent more votes than Obama. In Ward 4, largely black and middle class, overall turnout also rose from 2012, while Clinton matched Obama’s vote totals. But in Ward 8, which encompasses poorer and working-class neighborhoods in Southeast DC, turnout dipped from 2012: Clinton received 13 percent fewer votes than Obama.
Clinton’s struggles with unenthusiastic black working-class voters were hardly limited to Washington. “I’ve been bearing the bad news for some time,” Detroit pastor Charles Williams told Mlive.com. “The Clinton machine relied so heavily on old relationships to deliver them a win . . . What I heard way too much of was — I feel like I’m just voting for the lesser of two evils. That doesn’t give you the push to vote.”
Sabrina Tavernise’s New York Times profile of mostly black nonvoters in Milwaukee, where turnout plunged from 2012, told a similar story. Cedric Fleming, a barber in Milwaukee’s working-class District 15, put his frustrations this way:
“Give us loans, or a 401(k),” he said, trimming the mustache of Steve Stricklin, a firefighter from the neighborhood. His biggest issue was health insurance. Mr. Fleming lost his coverage after his divorce three years ago and has struggled to find a policy he could afford. He finally found one, which starts Monday but costs too much at $300 a month.
“Ain’t none of this been working,” he said. He did not vote.
In pursuit of professional-class Republicans, the Clinton campaign made a conscious decision to elevate questions of tone, temperament, and decorum at the expense of bread-and-butter issues like health care or the minimum wage. This wasn’t just a tactical move away from some culturally distinct group of “white working-class” voters. It was a strategic retreat from the working class as a whole.
Clinton’s final TV commercial exemplified the spirit of her campaign. Planted sedately behind a desk in a comfortable, well-furnished room, the Democrat condemned “darkness” and “division” as the camera slowly zoomed inward. Her gold necklace and bracelet twinkling in the softened light, she spoke for two full minutes about work ethic and core values without ever uttering the words “jobs,” “wages,” or “health care.”
In the end, Clinton had no trouble convincing Ezra Klein that she was running a populist campaign, but a hell of a hard time convincing people in East New York and North St Louis, never mind western Pennsylvania.
That division — deeper than a mere messaging failure by Team Clinton — is the Democratic Party’s central problem. As Lily Geismer and Tom Frank have argued, wealthy professionals have been gaining power and influence within the Democratic Party for decades. With organized labor in retreat, the party has grown more and more dependent on voters, and political leaders, from prosperous metropolitan districts.
The Clinton campaign only accelerated this gradual transformation; Clinton’s defeat, by itself, is not likely to reverse it. Amid the rubble of the 2016 election, the two Democrats poised to lead the party in Congress are Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco and Chuck Schumer of New York City.
The Whole Class
Election Day cataclysm or not, the Democrats remain a party of two distinct groups: a wealthy, motivated, and highly resourceful professional class that supplies the party its leadership and ideological compass; and an unenthusiastic, unorganized, and largely nonwhite working class, whose chief reason for voting Democratic is that the other major party is packed full of racists.
What are the implications of such a starkly bifurcated coalition? One consequence is the ongoing disfigurement of the liberal political imagination. In a world where Ivy League students — the sons and daughters of Fairfax and Marin — vote for Clinton at a clip of more than 80 percent, elite Democrats find it exceedingly difficult to identify any tangible common interests they share with most American workers.
Instead, their attitude toward working-class Americans tends to take two forms. On the one hand, a growing contempt for the (white) workers who have slowly drifted away from the Democratic Party; on the other, an essentially philanthropic if not paternalistic concern for “the most vulnerable” (nonwhite) workers who ostensibly remain within the Democratic camp.
This has given us an elite liberal discourse that grows eloquent about questions of “privilege” and “empathy,” but cannot seem to imagine a politics of power and solidarity. It has given us a liberalism that adores means-testing and looks askance at universal goods — not because universal goods are too expensive, but because they might benefit someone who isn’t deservingly deprived.
The Clinton campaign carried this brand of liberalism faithfully forward. It represented the apotheosis of a Democratic Party leadership that primarily envisions the working class as a downtrodden group in need of help, rather than a sleeping giant in need of organization. A leadership that views politics as a room where clever experts hash out benevolent policies for the neediest, rather than a field of mass struggle in which everybody’s basic welfare is at stake. A leadership that may be genuinely tolerant, inclusive, and compassionate, but whose own class blinders make it almost impossible for them to think about progressive politics in terms of collective self-interest.
These Democratic leaders, to be sure, may be able to reclaim the presidency without attracting more working-class support. In the aftermath of Clinton’s defeat, some analysts are already urging Democrats to abandon the Rust Belt once and for all, while focusing on college-educated voters in the Sunbelt.
But even if this version of the Democratic Party somehow retook Congress and the White House, how would it govern? Why should we believe that a party ever more dominated by affluent professionals — no matter how virtuous their intentions — will ever be able to address the material concerns of voters like Cedric Fleming?
The true political strength of the Left is not that it has a monopoly of virtue, but that it has a monopoly of numbers. Justice for the most vulnerable is not possible, and will never be possible, unless we recognize that our fight is about justice for all.
This does not mean submerging every group identity, and every distinct lived experience, into an undifferentiated mass. But it does mean working to build a coalition that is yoked together not by empathy or patronage but by common goals and common enemies.
Simply put, the lesson of the 2016 election is not that that the Democrats should “appeal” to the “white working class.” It is that left-wing politics will never get anywhere if we cannot harness the passionate self-interest of the entire working class.
The obstacles to building this kind of diverse democratic coalition are, of course, enormous. But it happens to be the only thing that can save us.