Understanding the Rising Populist Right

Paul Krugman recently wrote a column expressing befuddlement regarding non-xenophobic reasons for the surge in support for Trump from mostly rural whites.  This is just a continuation of the liberal self-scrutiny after Clinton lost that follows from what I call the Bernie Sanders critique, that liberals need to stop playing identity politics and engage voters under the big tent of economic progress for all.

Krugman and others point out that politics is always identity politics.  For instance, identity politics propelled Trump to the White House.  Some of this identity is defined by racism, the erroneous belief that society is offering a helping hand to minorities as it leaves rural whites behind.  The other part appears to be a dissatisfaction with “elites”, both Republican and Democrat, that they believe look down upon them with disdain. Trump played on both of these, positioning himself as an outsider and fueling racial resentment.

I also don’t agree that racial equality and economic equality are mutually exclusive in a rhetorical sense or in reality and in my mind they in fact build on each other in a virtuous cycle.  There is plenty of evidence from scholarship and recent elections that poor economic conditions predispose people towards intolerance.  On the other side, a better economy will free the poor and disadvantaged to engage in politics more (via the bee sting theory of poverty) which should improve support for liberal policies and express the appropriate amount of opprobrium towards racism and xenophobia.

Let me return to Krugman’s befuddlement.  First, Krugman is not actually ignorant of the positions of the Populist Right, he is more confused about how they got from resentment of nonwhites and elites due to dissatisfaction with current culture and economic circumstances to voting for Trump because they think he can fix it.  He cannot follow the logic and neither can I or other liberals.  Now some would just dismiss this as the irreconcilability of the conservative and liberal world view, but throwing up our hands in despair is never the answer.

From a policy perspective, Democratic policy has been and will continue to be geared toward addressing income inequality through progressive tax structure, government benefits and regulation to curb the excesses of corporate and moneyed elite.  Trump policy in this area is fairly orthodox Republican policy: cut taxes for rich, deregulate and cut government benefits.  The only satisfaction this will give the many Trump supporters in the low and middle classes is that many minorities they perceive as undeserving will be hurt.  But this is classic cut off the nose to spite the face behavior.  Trump’s sole policy contribution is a more extreme antagonism towards immigration, but there is little evidence that immigration is a contributor to the economic malaise felt by Trump supporters.  There is an even more tenuous relationship between Trump’s suggestions in this area and economic prosperity.

Thus, the conclusion is that most people don’t care about policy or at least the details of policy, which I believe was always obvious.  Conservatives realized this long ago and I am not sure why so many on the Left still labor under the false belief that policy informs voting decisions.  Maybe it is a charitable assumption about voters or an inability to see that not everyone thinks like them.  Or maybe they all know it, but refuse to lower themselves to a political discourse that revolves around “feelings.”

I cannot understand the white working class dissatisfaction and what they see as their future.  The picture emerging is that they want to live their small town lifestyles, as they seem to have a strong distaste for city life, but want the economic progress and perks of modernization.  However, human progress is built on the back of the agglomeration benefits of cities and it is very hard to see how you export that out of cities.  There was a short period of prosperous small manufacturing towns dotted around the country, but that era is over and it is not coming back.  Even if globalization trends downward, robots will continue to erode manufacturing positions.  The irony of course is that manufacturing has been in decline so long that many of these voters aren’t even pining for a nostalgic past they experienced, but merely one they imagined their parents living.

Therefore, when Krugman writes that these people are voting against their interests he seems exactly right.  He is not engaging in liberal paternalism or disdain.  He is writing from the perspective of an expert in economics engaging in an economic analysis and his conclusion is that they haven’t thought beyond their immediate anger and resentment.  This is also how democracy works, people vote for representatives that are hopefully better informed and can therefore make better decisions, decisions that may not align with popular opinion.

Which is not to say that there is not a strain of disdain among the liberal camp, a feeling I all too often succumb to as well.  For me, this mostly springs from what I perceive is the blithe dismissal of evidence and empiricism by the conservative half of the country.  WHY DON’T THEY JUST LOOK AT THIS GRAPH AND AGREE WITH ME?  THEY MUST BE MORONS.  It’s very hard to tamp down on that particularly because logic and data have been my language through school and into my post-graduation career.

However, there is a particular faction of liberalism, most readily seen on social media that are very judgmental about their opponent’s culture or lack thereof.  They mock their food and clothing styles or even their methods of speech.  It dovetails with a general surge on the internet of a belief in the infallibility of personal preferences and culture and a need to project them onto others.  In the Democratic party this appears to mostly be driven by the younger, whiter, more affluent and college educated demographic.  The irony is that the real Democratic base of the poor and minorities probably has more in common with Midwestern Trump supporters than they do with this privileged minority of the Democratic Party.  And yet it is likely that this outspoken minority draws the ire of so many Trump supporters that feel a real disdain coming from the liberal camp.

The rallying cry of the Democratic party should not be about adherence to some specific set of cultural mores or even a grounding in facts and empiricism.  It is about compassion for humanity, all of it, any race or socioeconomic status and even those outside our own political boundaries.  And around that core of compassion, we construct a solid theory, backed by as much data as we can muster, of governance and policy.  And it just so happens that theory suggests that government is not always the problem and that the market is not always right.  Democrats are not the party of big government.  They are the party of better government that cares for all people.




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