Some of the links available in Thomas B. Edsall’s column in the New York Times yesterday have moved me to try to envision a broader political landscape for the U. S. I don’t know if this is sophisticated or naive. I know it can’t be both.
I do know that it isn’t very satisfying from a finger-pointing point of view and I take that as a good sign.
I am accustomed to saying that people who harbor unreasonable prejudices against black people in the U. S. are racists and are to be deplored. I don’t want to go away from that as an importnat premise, but today, I don’t want to start there. I want to start here. (You will see this paragraph again at the end of the argument)
Many of the U.S. counties that moved toward Trump in 2016 and 2020 experienced long-run adverse economic conditions that began with the 2000 entry of China into the World Trade Organization, setbacks that continue to plague those regions decades later.
But even before that, there was NAFTA, which hardly needs to be spelled out anymore, but which is the North American Free Trade Agreement. Here is the citation and the conclusion from Edsall’s article.
“In “Local Economic and Political Effects of Trade Deals: Evidence from NAFTA,” Jiwon Choi and Ilyana Kuziemko, both of Princeton, Ebonya Washington of Yale and Gavin Wright of Stanford make the case that the enactment of the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1993 played a crucial role in pushing working class whites out of the Democratic Party and into the Republican Party:
“We demonstrate that counties whose 1990 employment depended on industries vulnerable to NAFTA suffered large and persistent employment losses relative to other counties. These losses begin in the mid-1990s and are only modestly offset by transfer programs. While exposed counties historically voted Democratic, in the mid-1990s they turn away from the party of the president (Bill Clinton) who ushered in the agreement and by 2000 vote majority Republican in House elections”.
What do these changes mean? Here are three things they mean. David Autor and his colleagues specifically cite:
“an ideological realignment in trade-exposed local labor markets that commences prior to the divisive 2016 U.S. presidential election.” More specifically, “ trade-impacted commuting zones or districts saw: a) an increasing market share for the Fox News Channel, b) stronger ideological polarization in campaign contributions and c) a relative rise in the likelihood of electing a Republican to Congress.”
So there is the structure of the problem as I am trying it on today. The internationalization of trade (as opposed to protectionism) hit a certain segment of the U. S. population very hard. Autor et. al. call these “trade-impacted…districts.”
It not only reduced their incomes; it reduced their prospects. Thus, according to Katherine Russ et. al.,
“…trade induced economic downturns “affect entire communities, as places with the lowest fractions of high-school or college-educated workers are finding themselves falling with increasing persistence into the set of counties with the highest unemployment rates.”
So here’s where they are:
“Eroded social standing, the loss of quality jobs, falling income and cultural marginalization have turned non-college white Americans into an ideal recruiting pool for Donald Trump — and stimulated the adoption of more authoritarian, anti-immigrant and anti-democratic policies.”
And not only that, but:
“Lea Hartwich, a social psychologist at the Institute for Migration Research and Intercultural Studies at Osnabrueck University in Germany wrote in an email:
“Those falling behind face a serious threat to their self-worth and well-being: Not only are the societal markers of personal worth and status becoming unattainable but, according to the dominant cultural narrative of individual responsibility, this is supposedly the result of their own lack of hard work or merit.”
So the “societal markers” of personal worth and status are severely eroded and, even worse, according to the dominant cultural narrative of individual responsibility—which they themselves insist on—all this is their fault.
So let’s review. This identifiable group of voters has had a really rough time since and because of the internationalization of trade. They have lost income and status and both those trends appear to be continuing for the foreseeable future. The group that has benefitted from these changes has made alliances with the groups these voters are accustomed to feeling superior to, so our losses are not only absolute, but also comparative losses.
These voters need someone to blame in the very worst way. Changing the issues defining our situation from economic to cultural seems like a good move. That means that the class that is benefitting from these changes and their “projects,” the people we have always thought of as below us, cannot be opposed in economic terms but there are lots of cultural terms available.
The effect of this culture war will be to ridicule the rising class above us, the managerial class, and to deplore the class below us, the even poorer whites, and the darker hued minority groups. Programs like Affirmative Action are perfect for that purpose because they are race-based systems of preference. The Black Lives Matter protests that keep getting out of hand are nearly ideal and, combined with Defund they Police, they are entirely ideal. The schools where these voters send their children are a hotbed of left-wing ideology.
And so on. These are Fox News watchers, if you remember the reference from David Autor and his colleagues, so justifications of these grievances are ready to hand and I have used some of the language here.
What should such a person do?
Here is where I started, you will recall.
“I am accustomed to saying that people who harbor unreasonable prejudices against black people in the U. S. are racists and are to be deplored. I don’t want to leave that as a valued premise, but today, I don’t want to start there. I want to start here.”
I started with changes in international trade and found up with “unreasonable prejudices against black people.” These easily visible prejudices are now seen as the last step in a long line of steps, none of which have been their choice. They can’t change the shift toward international trade and the skills that fit best with it. I can’t—“I” in that sentence is used to refer to the group of people who have been disadvantaged by the shift—acquire those skills myself and even if I could, the number of such jobs being shifted from human beings to robots will continue to grow. The groups below me are receiving unfair help from the groups above me and they are claiming these advantages as their right. The anger I quite naturally feel because I am ridiculed by those above me and reviled by those below me, needs to find an outlet of some sort.
The Republican party is cueing up a list of causes I can legitimately be angry about. They are offering me leadership that supports and frames my grievances as public policies. What have you got to offer me that can compete with that?
Some will say, of course, that I ought not to pursue my own welfare, but the welfare of the country, but that’s not what anyone else is doing. Every group I have named is out for personal benefits, whether moral credit or economic advantage, so I don’t think I ought to be the only one foregoing personal benefits of “the greater social good.”
What else have you got?