Between Hell and High Water

By Mike Koetting      May 2, 2017

Below is the first post in my new blog, Between Hell and High Water.  It was actually written in September, 2016, shortly after I saw the move “Hell or High Water”, which obviously is the inspiration for the title of this blog.  As I was watching, I thought: “Uh-oh.  The Democrats are in trouble.”  To be fair, I didn’t see the unraveling going as far as electing Trump.  But I did see a problem.

Hell or High Water Small

Although the blog borrows a name from this movie, it will not be focused on explaining the rage of the white working class.  The issue comes up, particularly in the first several posts, but the blog will really be about how most political and policy choices are really choices among a tangle of plus and minusesMy essential aim is to explore how countervailing vectors impact choices and how in order for politics and public policy to become more progressive, we must take account of the difficulties that must be overcome.  In short, about how the choices we have to make are not simple, but require us to somehow thread the needle between hell and high water.


The attraction of economically embattled whites for Donald Trump has been well documented.  Much of the commentary contains an undercurrent that he is attractive to these voters because they have been neglected, or even abandoned, by the Democrats.  While I can see how this might seem to be the case, it really doesn’t square with facts.  It does, however, illustrate a conundrum facing the Democrats.

The malaise of economically anxious whites has two sources—economic stagnation and loss of hope.

The economic stagnation and anxiety about the future is common knowledge.  In the popular mind, a portion of this is attributed to trade deals signed by President Clinton.  While this obviously has face appeal, the reality is much more complicated.  First, virtually all serious economic analysis shows that the net effect of the globalization associated with these deals is, at worst, very slightly negative but more likely positive.  But that’s on balance.  No question there are situations where particular pockets seem to have been materially hurt.  Also, it is not at all clear how much of that damage is actually caused by the treaties themselves, as opposed to the broader trends of globalization and improved productivity, over which the Democrats (or Republicans for that matter) had little material control. Finally, it is peculiar to lay these deals at the door of Democrats.  There was much greater support for these deals from Republicans than Democrats.  Still, even if not a real cause of American economic stagnation, support for these agreements did not turn out to be good politics.

A more realistic issue, because it was in fact potentially in the control of Congress, was the paucity of counter-cyclical spending in the face of the 2007 recession.  But to blame Democrats for that is so absurd as to need no further comment.

No doubt the Democrats, which is to say the Obama administration, should have done more to aid home owners during the foreclosure crisis.  Whether they could have actually done so in the face of Republican obstructionism is a fair question—Republicans wouldn’t vote for infrastructural expenses everyone in America knows we need because it would have given Obama a win.  But this is an area where Democrats should have tried harder.  Maybe there would have been some value in making it clearer who were the culprits, however much people seem to have been impervious to counter facts.

It is indisputable that in the thirty-five years since Ronald Reagan was elected, Republicans have at every turn opposed expansions of the safety-net proposed by Democrats, such as the Earned Income Tax Credit, educational funding, support for unions and the ACA.  Ironically, many economically frustrated whites see expansions of the safety net, proposed and actual, as part of the “betrayal” by Democrats.  Even though, measured absolutely, the largest share of these benefits go to white people, they are too often seen as props to blacks, immigrants and others who threaten the white working class.  Realistically or otherwise, the white working class world view is shaped more by dreams of reclaiming their good incomes and strong benefits than settling for improved safety net benefits.

Which gets to the second issue, loss of hope.  Economically distressed whites don’t see a way out of their current situation.  (A character in Hell or High Water says:  “I’ve been poor my whole life…it’s like a disease, passes from generation to generation.”)  So they are looking for someone to blame and someone who will throw them a lifeline.

Apparently, blaming Democrats seems more plausible to this group then expecting a lifeline.  This is the case less because of specific Democratic policies—Democratic policies are obviously more friendly to anyone who is not rich–but stems more from profound, and growing, cultural differences.  While racially tinged, it’s not necessarily pure racism.  Rather it is a suspicion that the Democrats cannot be trusted, tied as they are to active inclusion of those who are suspect to embattled whites.  One can only imagine how ridiculous a phrase like “white privilege” would sound to the hardscrabble, bank-screwed character in Hell or High Water.  This doesn’t mean “white privilege” is an issue that Democrats should not legitimately be concerned with.  But, by the same token, it does offer a window into why economically anxious whites might not be full of warm and fuzzy for the Democrats.  They feel the opposite of privilege.  So why not go for Donald Trump?  He will promise them what they want to hear and spare them the stuff that in their mind belongs not to them, but to some other who is already taking over their country.  Trump may not be able to deliver on these things, but no one else is now either.  The desire to go where you at least feel welcome is not mysterious.

However, this is hardly the Democrats abandoning poor whites.  It is rather a side-effect of Democrats embracing a culture of inclusiveness at the same time a contracting economy is buffeting poor and middle class people.  Meanwhile, the Republicans, sometimes with Democratic acquiescence, have acted to free economic elites to capture as much of the pie as they could possibly carry away and, conversely, to hobble programs that would have helped spread the wealth, thereby actually worsening the plight of the entire working class—white, black, and whatever.

Whether or not blaming Democrats for the current economic situation of poor and middle class white people makes sense, it appears to have some momentum.  And maybe it is the case that Democrats should have been arguing harder and louder for steps that would have benefited middle class whites. After all, those steps would have benefited all poor people, who are the natural constituency of Democrats. Hard to say whether that would have had different policy results—or political results for that matter.  But it might have created a different moral field.

In any event, this suggests where Democrats need to go next, however difficult that might be.

Author: mkbhhw

Mike Koetting’s career has been in health care policy and administration. But it has always been on the fringes of politics. His first job out of graduate school was conducting an evaluation of the Illinois Medicaid program for the Illinois Legislative Budget Office. In the following 40 years, he has been a health care provider, a researcher, a teacher, a regulator, a consultant and a payor. The biggest part of his career was 24 years as Vice President of Planning for the University of Chicago Medical Center. He retired from there in 2008, but in 2010 was asked to implement the ACA Medicaid expansion in Illinois, which kept him busy for another 5 years.

9 thoughts on “Between Hell and High Water”

  1. Count me among the number who underestimated the appeal of Donald Trump. Perhaps, and I hope, I’ve also underestimated what he and his administration will do for the working class whites who supported him. But, as your blog points out, the Democrats weren’t seen as offering or having delivered anything better. In what some (you and I at least) see as a messy, nuanced situation, President Trump and his “make America Great Again” baseball cap offered a clear message. We’ll see.


  2. It is always a winner in some circles to tell the people what they want to hear, that they would be doing great were it not for the (fill in the villain group of choice) and promise them what they most desire. If you are a reality based party and you want to make actual improvements in society the message is much more complicated and less appealing. It is an uphill battle but is the only way to sustainable positive change.


  3. Trump might not even have to deliver on anything. Those feeling left out might not have any hope that their economic position will improve. So it may be enough to make to make them happy to hear somebody bash the government programs and bureaucrats, the privileged elites, and supposedly pampered minorities. They believe things won’t get better for them, but at least they like what they hear from The Donald.


  4. Mike,
    The working class feels betrayed by the Democrats because the Democrats betrayed the working class. “Income inequality” is a class issue and the Democrats give lip service to it in campaigns but have done little to address it and some have argued that Dems have undermined the working class’ desire to reduce income inequality (i.e., NAFTA, TPP). Hell hath no fury like a working man betrayed. One of Trump’s advisors must have seen the white working class as low hanging fruit. They went with the wild card rather than another well-educated liberal who has no history of helping them. There was a time when organized labor had a voice in the party. Walter Mondale was the last candidate who even cared about labor’s concerns. Dukakis, Clinton, Gore, Kerry, Obama and Hillary have ignored labor just as surely as Republicans have. Only the Republicans never pretended they cared.


    1. Nothing untrue. But I think the story is more complicated. (1) Working class also started to wimp out on Democrats in the Sixties. Cultural issues. By mid-seventies, Dems were finding it almost impossible to reconcile their minority base with working class indifference–or hostility–to civil rights and other cultural issues; the working class commitment to “equality” was as qualified as the Democratic commitment, just in different ways. Unrealistic to think labor could keep the same voice when they were not willing to lift on reciprocal issues.(2) Inequality, which is VERY REAL and terribly serious, is less NAFTA/etc and more changes in the larger world. Not sure Dems have responded sufficiently but we will make wrong conclusion if we don’t understand the real world constraints. (3) Dems never lost interest in reducing inequality, but–as you correctly point out–lost passion on the issue because it became so damn complicated. Still, it was plain dumb for the working class to pin its hopes on Republicans, Trump or no Trump. Which reinforces my theory that what really happened was culture trumped class.


      1. “From Party Nations To Class Coalitions,” my dissertation manuscript not formally submitted for complex reasons, traced voting patterns in Wisconsin from the 1850s through the 1950s. It took the Great Depression and FDR’s support for unions to elevate class above culture re voting and party identification. Prior to that the Wisconsin Democrats were essentially the party of Irishmen, the Republicans of Yankees and Protestant immigrants, the Socialists of German and Jewish intellectuals who combined class(unions) with culture(party youth and leisure programs).


  5. I had the opportunity this past December to introduce Cardinal O’Malley to room of 600-700 labor management folks for their annual dinner. He told the people that we had heard a lot about income inequality in the 2016 campaign but that the institution that is most important to the elimination of income inequality is the labor movement. He might have said the Democratic Party but he chose not to.


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