The Democratic Party’s betrayal of rural America has finally caught up with them.
Hillary Clinton was supposed to win the 2016 presidential election in an unprecedented landslide. Instead, a silent majority of disenchanted, white, rural, working-class voters either refused to turn out to vote or voted for Republican candidate Donald Trump. Following decades of neoliberal deregulatory policies that have favored Wall Street tycoons over working families, the Democratic Party’s betrayal of rural America has finally caught up with them.
A Historic Night… for All the Wrong Reasons
While many expected Election Night to end with the election of the United States’ first female president, Republican candidate Donald Trump, despite losing the popular vote, unexpectedly defeated Hillary Clinton in the electoral race, picking up 306 electoral votes as compared to Clinton’s 232.
Despite acclaimed statistician Nate Silver’s Election Day declaration that there was a 71.4% chance of Clinton winning the presidency, early returns from states that had been assumed to be solidly blue hinted towards a much more troubling end to the night. By the time counting had concluded, Clinton had barely eked out a win in the deep blue state of Minnesota and witnessed crippling defeats in Pennsylvania (which hadn’t gone red since 1988), Michigan (which hadn’t gone red since 1988), Wisconsin (which hadn’t gone red since 1984), and Ohio.
The industrial-era rural areas of Democratic strength, which had helped guarantee Barack Obama’s victories in 2008 and 2012, had fallen to Mr. Trump and the Republican Party.
How the hell did this happen? How did we get to this point, to the brink of catastrophe? Many liberals have been quick to ascribe Clinton’s devastating loss and Trump’s shocking victory over nativism, racism, or misogyny. Though these nefarious forces are definitely gaining ground in American political discourse, it would be dishonest to depict the Democrats’ failures in these crucial Midwestern states as a result of sheer bigotry.
There is a much more subtle but much more crucial reason for Clinton’s loss that has been ignored by most pundits and commentators. The Democratic Party’s so-called attempts to court members of the rural working class failed because of these voters, many of whom live in the key blue states that Clinton shockingly lost, feel betrayed by a “populist” party that has worked in recent years to primarily benefit the corporate class.
The Clinton/Kaine Ticket Failed to Provide Hope to a Hopeless Demographic
A CNN poll from September reveals that “white working-class and rural voters without a college degree are not the poorest of Americans, but they are the most pessimistic about their future prospects.”
This demographic is one that feels that the Democratic “establishment” cares more about appealing to Wall Street traders and Silicon Valley technocrats than reaching out to working families… and, in a way, they’re entirely correct.
Hillary Clinton and Tim Kaine were incredibly weak candidates who struggled greatly with reaching out to the working class.
Between Kaine’s support for right-to-work laws in Virginia, Clinton’s scandalous relationships with investment banks such as Goldman Sachs, Clinton’s hesitance to agree to pursue a $15 dollar minimum wage, and both candidates’ previous support for the highly controversial Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement, the working class had good reason to be concerned about the implications of a second Clinton administration.
On the other hand, Donald Trump, in between incoherent speeches and personal attacks, did at least appear to be willing to represent the American working class, as evidenced by his condemnation of free-trade deals and his calls for strengthened border security.
However, last week’s rejection of the neoliberal order can’t be explained by the actions or policies of any one politician. Instead, it is essential to review the devastating effects of the rise of neoliberalism over the course of the past forty years to understand what drove the rural working class to support a figure as controversial, demagogic, and, frankly, offensive as Donald Trump.
Out with the New Deal and In with the Third Way
Since the days of the New Deal, the Democrats have relied heavily on the support of labor unions to popularize and back their proposed reforms. In the early 1970s, though, things began to change. Following the rise of the anti-segregation, anti-war New Left, many labor unions, whose social and cultural views tended to occupy the right side of the political spectrum, began to feel somewhat alienated by the Democratic Party. Following this, the Democratic Party began to silently wage a war against organized labor.
Jimmy Carter, the first Democratic president since Johnson, began to listen to and be influenced by advocates of deregulation. Alfred E. Kahn, Advisory to the President on Inflation under Carter, is quoted as saying that the country must work “to eliminate a situation in which certain protected workers in industries insulated from competition can increase their wages much more rapidly than the average without regard to their merit or to what a free market would do.”
Following the Reagan-Bush era of rampant assaults on the working class, Bill Clinton, elected in the fall of 1992, picked up where the Republicans had left off. In 1994, Clinton passed the North American Free Trade Agreement, which has, since its inception, cost the United States about 700,000 manufacturing jobs.
In 1996, Clinton signed the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act, eliminating the Aid to Families with Dependent Children and Job Opportunities & Basic Skills Training programs and fulfilling his promise to “end welfare as we know it.” In 1999, Clinton signed the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act, removing barriers that prevented any one institution from acting as any combination of an investment bank, a commercial bank, and an insurance company. The Democratic assault on working people dragged into the twenty-first century, following the Great Recession that was at least partially caused by financial deregulation under Clinton, as President Obama put forward a stimulus package that ensured that the financial sector continued to flourish while homeowners were left behind.
The effects of this betrayal by a party once led by a man who said that “this country will not be a good place for any of us to live in unless we make it a good place for all of us to live in” have been truly devastating.
A 2015 study by Princeton University economists Anne Case and Angus Deaton found that, though death rates among the general population have been declining steadily since 1999, the death rate of white working-class Americans between the ages of 45 and 54 has increased dramatically. This problem is especially acute amongst those living in rural areas who don’t have college degrees. Leading causes include overdoses (tied heavily to increased rates of opioid use), liver disease (tied to increased rates of alcoholism), and suicide.
A loss of manufacturing jobs was said to be a leading cause for this general notion of despair. Mark Levinson of the Congressional Research Service notes in a 2016 study that “the United States’ share of global manufacturing activity declined from 28% in 2002, following the end of the 2001 U.S. recession, to 16.5% in 2011.” Furthermore, he notes that in 2010, China displaced the United States as the top manufacturer in the world. Moreover, Levinson writes that “manufacturing output… has grown more slowly in the United States over the past decade than in China, Japan, Germany, and Mexico.” People are suffering, but Hillary Clinton, rather than communicating with and working with communities to develop solutions while on the campaign trail, falsely assumed that rural white voters in Midwestern states would vote for her while continuing to push for neoliberal policies of deregulation.
Neoliberalism is Finally Dead. Now, Democrats Must Pick Up the Pieces.
Donald Trump is destined to disappoint his working-class base. Trump, a member of the very elite class that his supporters have rallied against over the course of the election cycle, has proposed policies that leading economists say would devastate the economy and could even cause another recession. Furthermore, there is little that Trump–or anyone–would be able to do to reverse the effects of free-trade policies on rural American communities, regardless of what he promised on the campaign trail. Despite this, the rebellion of the rural working class against members of the corporate class is precisely the phenomenon that led to Brexit back in June.
Trump, through his unabashed demagoguery, provided hope to American workers by slamming trade partners in Asia, blaming trade deals for job loss, blaming immigrants for a devastated economy, and calling out Hillary Clinton for her ties to the financial elite.
It wasn’t necessarily that Trump was saying anything worth listening to; however, as the Democrats (post-convention) weren’t saying much of anything at all on the campaign trail (as President Obama was preparing to pass the Trans-Pacific Partnership), what Trump offered was enough to convince rural American voters that his brand of leadership was what the country needed.
To defeat Trumpism, the Democrats will need to figure out how to work in the interests of the working class once more. Under the leadership of progressive firebrands such as Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, and Keith Ellison, it may be entirely possible to gain the trust of the rural working class again in the near future. Until then, though, Trump has a monopoly on the trust of rural workers, and to say that his win was based solely on misogyny and racism would be a gross oversimplification. This one is on the Democrats.