Presidential Campaign

The temper-tantrum election

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I grew up in Middletown, Ohio, a mid-sized city where billowing smokestacks once dotted the landscape. Thanks to a working mom and card-carrying union member dad, my family of six was part of the yawning blue-collar middle class — a species close to extinction now.

As the only one of my siblings to graduate from college, I’ve witnessed firsthand the economic unraveling of a once comfortable white working class. The pipeline that once allowed two generations to leap right out of high school into the middle class is unwinding, and the pipeline into college is narrowing as well, as states cut funding, tuition skyrocketed and five-figure debt became required for a working-class kid to get a college degree.

{mosads}This pain isn’t new. It wasn’t ginned up by Donald Trump, but it was deeply and irrevocably exploited by him in the time-honored tradition of undermining economic solidarity among the struggling by arguing that progress for people of color comes at white people’s expense. And for white men, their loss is even greater due to progress for women.

Trump beat Hillary Clinton among white women in this year’s presidential race, a win fueled overwhelmingly by white working-class women casting their ballots for a man whose misogyny was eclipsed only by his racism. Race trumped gender. Race trumped class.

It’s white privilege that allowed so many struggling and affluent whites the ability to essentially flip the bird to the establishment without any real fear of blowback. What a luxury to throw all caution to the wind by casting your ballot for such a deeply flawed and bitter old man. Nearly a quarter of Trump voters said he was not qualified to be president, yet still voted for him to lead the county.

Clinton won narrowly among white college-educated women, which isn’t too much of a surprise when one considers that this group is the only demographic for whom this generation is clearly better off than the last. It is the only group of people aged 25-34 for whom earnings are higher today than they were for their parents, in 1980. For these women, of whom I am one, gender and class trumped race because there was no need for a scapegoat, no anger to be exploited and no poke in the eye for the establishment. White college-educated women have made steady and real economic and cultural gains.

Working class people of color, men and women, couldn’t afford a rebel vote. The establishment remains the only protection from white resentment, growing nativism and stubborn structural and systemic racism. The establishment — our governing structures and institutions — is all that millions of Americans can count on to stand between them and deportation, them and exclusion, and them and danger.

There is no luxury of a middle-finger vote, even though for far too long the Democratic Party has abandoned pocketbook issues, sidelining working-class concerns at the very time when the quality of life for those without college degrees plummeted.

Trump’s votes came from people for whom the good stuff used to be available and largely uncontested. And that divide, between the used-to-haves and the never-really-had-it-to-begin withs, is greatly determined by race, and then further defined by gender.

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So one of the significant differences between Trump voters and Clinton voters is this:  If you are an American who once was entitled to the good stuff — the best jobs, healthcare, schools — and now no longer enjoy those perks all to yourself or at all, you went for Trump. If you are an American who is still striving for an equal seat at the table or are protective of progress made over the last half century, you went for Clinton.

This was a temper-tantrum election. As any parent knows, the child who has a toy ripped out of their hands will be angry, sad and hurt. The child who never got to play with the toy or never knew it was available remains optimistic that the day will come when they get the toy.

The voting divide between the never-hads and the used-to-haves can also be seen in the large generational gap. Clinton won the votes of millennials under age 30, the only age group in which she won the majority of votes. This is the generation for whom three decades of failed economic policy in the form of disinvestment and deregulation sharply curtailed upward mobility and tightened the vise of despair for those unlucky enough to be born near the bottom of America’s yawning income distribution. Millennials, who once gave support to Bernie Sanders, stayed with the Democratic Party as the only optimists in a raging sea of resentment.

Clinton won the popular vote, which as a nation of strivers isn’t too surprising. She ran on the future, on the idea that as Americans we are always marching toward progress. That vision resonates with slightly more than half of the electorate, those never-hads who will never stop believing and working for a better tomorrow. Let us take some solace in that.

So what’s ahead? I cannot and will not sugarcoat it: a challenging time is ahead of us. We face a fork in the road, at which we must choose between our worst instincts and our better angels. At that juncture, we will reckon with the forcible deportation of millions of people. We will face the potential of 20 million people being thrown off their health insurance. The culture of rape and violence that hurts all of us will continue to benefit from “Don’t ask, don’t tell” blind tolerance, and the belief that it really must mean nothing to any of us.

And throughout it all, Trump’s phony populism will fail to put money back into working-class pockets and put democracy back into the hands of the people — even though that was the exact reason why so many claim to have selected him as our president-elect.

Meanwhile, those who cast their vote for Clinton will have the unenviable but all-important responsibility that strivers and optimists must always bear: try and try again, and bring along anyone who is willing to put their shoulder to the wheel.

 

Tamara Draut, vice president of Policy and Research, Demos, and author of “Sleeping Giant: How America’s New Working Class Will Transform America.”


The views expressed by Contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.

Tags 2016 Presidential race Bernie Sanders Donald Trump Hillary Clinton income gap middle class

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