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.
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 minuses. My 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.