How the decline of the working class explains Trump

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Organized labor’s last, best chance at renewal in the United States slipped away in the Senate on June 15, 1978, when Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) and Richard Lugar (R-Ind.) successfully led a filibuster against a pro-union reform bill which failed 58-39 on a cloture motion. Subsequently, union membership declined through the 1980s at its fastest rate since the 1920s; and at the same time, real wages for working Americans stagnated and middle-class incomes began a decades-long erosion. Economists such as Thomas Piketty have convincingly documented the extent of income redistribution and its relationship to union decline.

{mosads}Out of the economic maelstrom, presumptive GOP nominee Donald Trump has emerged as the improbable, and self-proclaimed, savior of American workers. Trump has failed to articulate substantive policy positions regarding labor issues, other than generic railing against foreign competition and bad trade deals, and the AFL-CIO has officially voiced its support for presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton. Still, the views of the union leadership may be insufficient to squelch the enthusiasm for Trump among its membership.

According to 2015 data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, white males between the ages of 45 and 64 make up the dominant segment of American union membership. Recent polling reported in The Washington Post shows that “Trump leads Clinton 76 to 14 among white men without college degrees, while Clinton leads 57 to 34 among white college-graduate women.” Trump exacerbates that division with his incendiary rhetoric attacking the Obama administration, ethnic minorities, women and any other target that floats into view.

A similar phenomenon occurred last month, when British citizens voted to exit the European Union. According to an analysis by the Financial Times, the vote was driven largely by economic factors. Stagnating wages and disposable income convinced many less-educated voters outside the large urban areas that leaving the EU would offer solutions to problems of lower earnings and declining levels of public services. The story concludes that “the likely economic effects of Brexit hold out little hope for these voters.”

To what extent does the influence of white working-class resentment explain the Trump rise to power, and, relatedly, the Brexit vote? By now, it is obvious that Trump is not a political candidate at all, but a cultural symbolist. He delivers an emotionally resonant message that has the power to communicate feelings about politics and society that evade reasoned discourse. Through image and metaphor, Trump deftly plumbs the depths of the cognitive chasm that fractures American society.

An important psychological theory known as cultural cognition argues that we “think” through cultural filters biased toward a predetermined perspective on such issues as guns, abortion, nationalism, religious belief, transgender bathrooms and other matters that are powerful proxies for our foundational narratives. Persons with a hierarchical and individualistic (HI) worldview believe that resources, rights and roles should be attached to traditional social differences like gender, race and class. Trump fits into this category.

Those with a collectivist and egalitarian (CE) worldview, exemplified by Sen. Bernie Sanders (Vt.), favor government intervention to ensure that race and gender discrimination, poverty, education and inequality are politically addressed. The red states identified by political analysts reflect the HI opposition to government, antipathy toward ethnic minorities, deep religious commitment, resistance to nontraditional sexuality and hostility to collective workplace action.

The link to unions is straightforward. In 1947, conservative forces launched a massive legislative campaign against organized labor. That movement found its greatest support in Southern states, advocating an anti-union agenda grounded on the failure of unions to organize industries in the region. The cornerstone of retrenchment was Section 14(b) of the Taft-Hartley Act, which allowed states to enact “right to work” laws banning the compulsory payment of union dues. Supported by influential figures such as the Koch family, right-to-work spread across the country, and as of 2016, 25 states have such laws.

Compelling evidence shows that right-to-work is a primary driver of union decline in this country and can explain much of Trump’s appeal to working-class white male voters. The Tea Party’s influence in the 2010 elections led to conservative takeovers in a number of state legislatures and the passage of right-to-work laws in Indiana and Michigan in 2012, Wisconsin in 2015, and West Virginia in 2016. Those laws splintered union solidarity in former Democratic strongholds and revealed the deep disillusionment among working-class voters who had, between the early 1950s and mid-1970s, comfortably maintained a middle-class standard of living. Economic problems beginning in the Carter presidency destroyed growth in real earnings and signaled the onset of spiraling inequality which persists up to the present.

This, then, is the conundrum of Donald Trump. He has no workable plan to relieve the economic anxiety of his major constituency, yet those voters are convinced they have no viable alternative to Trump. He thrives in a media universe of Twitter blasts and television soundbites, where every utterance is amplified, repeated and parsed. Under those circumstances, why would Trump want to deliver policy speeches that have some factual content? Trump’s great talent is that he makes no sense — he makes true believers.

Brexit happened. Trump could be next.

Hogler is professor of labor law, labor relations and human resource management at Colorado State University and author of “The End of American Labor Unions” (Praeger, 2015).

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