It’s Not the Economy, Stupid: Race, Identity and the White Working-Class Voter

Review of Identity Crisis: The 2016 Presidential Campaign and the Battle for the Meaning of America. By John Sides, Michael Tesler and Lynn Varveck. Princeton University Press, 2018. 215 pp.

Donald Trump’s victory in the 2016 presidential election shocked Democrats of every stripe into an orgy of self-reflection verging on self-flagellation. Especially disturbing to the losers was the overwhelming support Trump had received from working-class white voters. These were voters who should have responded to the Democrats’ program to benefit the 99 percent, or at least most of them: expanded health care, support for union organizing, defense of Social Security. How, the Dems asked, could these voters support not only Republicans, the party of the elite, but the most elite candidate of them all, the multi-billionaire of Mar-a-Lago?

“I come from the white working class, and I am deeply humiliated that the Democratic Party cannot talk to the people where I came from,” moaned Bernie Sanders.

Many pundits laid the problem at the party’s failure to address the economic stresses of lower income whites. “The core problem is President Obama’s handling of the economy,” wrote Stanley B. Greenberg in The American Prospect.The president and the Democrats heroically rescued America and the global economy, restored the soundness of the financial system and managed the economy back to a full recovery. But incomes for most Americans fell during this period and the top 1 percent took all of the income gains of the recovery — a subject that mainstream Democrats barely mentioned and did not fight to address.”

There’s little denying that Democrats have routinely failed all segments of the working class and not only whites. Their candidates talk a good game, but when it comes to governing and legislating they come up short, promising much but delivering little. Barack Obama promised universal health care but instead produced the far-from-universal Obamacare. In 2009 and 2010, with Obama in the White House and Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress, the party couldn’t even enact the most basic part of the labor agenda, the Employee Free Choice Act, which would mandate that companies recognize a union if a majority of its employees sign a card requesting it. Instead, workers trying to organize remain as subject to the boss’s intimidation and union-busting tactics as before. Most Democratic officeholders, after all, are as in thrall to corporate donors as their Republican rivals, and many are ready to push the brakes if any member of their caucus gets too far ahead of the leadership.

But there is more to white workers’ disdain for the Democrats than their party’s sellouts on economic issues — namely, race. There is reason to believe that no matter how much Democrats try to appeal to lower income whites, many if not most will vote their racial identity over their pocketbooks. Thomas Frank, in his now-classic 2004 book What’s the Matter with Kansas, explored the phenomenon of working-class whites voting against their economic interests, in that case, driven by their conservative Christian identity. Frank is now joined by the trio of John Sides, Michael Tesler and Lynn Vavreck whose new book Identity Crisis: The 2016 Presidential Campaign and the Battle for the Meaning of America delivers the dour but convincing message that for many white working-class voters, economic appeals will fall on deaf ears. For them, the Republicans represent white people, and that is all they care about.

That may sound harsh and simplistic, but the authors marshal a powerful battery of data to make their point. Armed with an arsenal of statistics and a style heavier on analysis than narrative, they break down the attitudes of Trump voters in middle America and turn Bill Clinton’s dictum of 1992 on its head: It’s not the economy, stupid.

In fact, according to Identity Crisis, the white working and middle classes don’t have that much to be aggrieved about when it comes to the economy. It requires wading through a thicket of data to reach the point, but it comes across clearly: Sides, Tesler and Vavreck show that “the combination of perceptions of the national economy and one’s personal finances was not related to Trump support.” They cite polls showing that “thanks to the slow but steady economic recovery after the Great Recession of 2007–9, Americans felt as favorably about the economy as they had in over ten years.” However, that eight years of recovery had occurred under a Democratic president who also happened to be black.

Based on extensive voter surveys, the authors conclude that voters, regardless of race or class, are increasingly voting based on identity rather than economic interest. Race is part of identity, as is gender — but, the authors argue, so is political party. This analysis helps account for the anomaly of college-educated whites, whose economic status might lead them to support Republicans but who instead consistently vote Democratic.

Racial identity has been stronger historically among minorities than whites, the authors find, because “in-group identity arises from isolation, deprivation and discrimination” that whites have not had to suffer. But even prior to the Trump candidacy, this was changing. Sides, Tesler and Varveck cite sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild’s interviews with whites in Louisiana bayou country who expressed resentment “over how beneficiaries of affirmative action, immigrants and refugees were ‘stealing their place in line,’ cutting ahead ‘at the expense of white men and their wives.’” In a 2016 survey most Republicans agreed with the statement that they believed they were making “too many sacrifices that benefit people of another race.” These and other findings are evidence of a rising tide of white resentment that Trump tapped into as he created his now-vaunted hardcore base of support. They quote one white man complaining that welfare recipients — code for nonwhites — “spent government payments on ‘gold chains and a Cadillac when I can barely afford a Cavalier.’”

And where did that white resentment come from, if economic reasons are not sufficient? The election of an African-American president explains much of it. “The ‘racialization’ of partisanship was under way before Obama became a national figure,” the authors write, but the eight years of Obama “accelerated and intensified racialization.” The book soft-pedals the shock that many whites with strong racial identity felt when Obama was elected; it was inconceivable to them that a nonwhite person could achieve the highest office in the land. Obama’s election, rather than usher in the nonracial utopia that was the giddy fantasy of some of his supporters, accomplished the opposite: It galvanized the racial resentment of the white working class.

There’s no doubt that Obama’s election also fueled the rise of the Tea Party, which exploded onto the scene shortly after he took office. While the Tea Party emphasized conservative economic policy, there was plenty of racial animus behind it. Identity Politics, unfortunately, shortchanges this connection, although other analysts of US politics have connected the dots.

Political scientist Christopher Parker, for one, put his finger on the racial underpinnings of the Tea Party in his book Change They Can’t Believe In: The Tea Party and Reactionary Politics in America. Mark Potok of the Southern Poverty Law Center, in an interview with McClatchy, commented that “anyone who's looked at some of the signs at the various ‘tea parties’ knows perfectly well that race is a significant part of this backlash.”

Racial resentment fed white opposition to government programs that would help all members of the working class; they had no interest in helping minorities and feared they would be stuck with the bill. As a result, exhortations to economic interest tended to fall on deaf ears: When they heard “Medicare for all,” lower-income whites heard “Medicare for black people that we have to pay for.”

For the white working class, Identity Crisis argues, racial identity was already becoming synonymous with devotion to the Republican Party well before 2016. However, Trump’s full-throated appeal to racist attitudes during his campaign represented a new fusion of white identity and Republican voting. “No other factor appeared as distinctly powerful in 2016, compared to prior elections, as attitudes about racial issues and immigration,” the authors conclude. “They were, unsurprisingly, the factor most strongly activated by a racialized campaign.”

Identity Crisis sheds rare light on the phenomenon of Trump’s base, that unshakable corps of supporters that hangs on every tweet, believes every lie, forgives every insult, ignores every assault on decency. As such, it is an indispensable tool to understanding the Trump phenomenon. Trump himself, even before he won the Republican nomination, famously said, “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody, and I wouldn’t lose any voters,” and subsequent events seem to have proven him right. He captured the hearts of voters who cherish their white identity above all else as no national political figure ever did — over the past half-century, only George Wallace came close — and it is not clear what, if anything, would cause them to abandon him.

In addition to analyzing Trump’s appeal to white voters, the authors take a rather less compelling look at the Democratic primary campaign and how identity shaped it. In their view, “the results of the individual state contests could be explained in large part with only two factors: the percentage of African Americans in the state and the percentage of Democrats in the primary electorate.” High percentages in both of these factors went to Hillary Clinton’s advantage, the authors argue, notwithstanding that Bernie Sanders’ platform emphasized economic equality and other issues that should have attracted more minority support. The authors minimize the appeal of Sanders’ progressive message and his open embrace of socialism and fail to account for the fact that he effectively challenged Clinton. It could be argued that much of Sanders’ appeal was his running against the politics of identity.

So where do we go from here? Is so much of white America so irredeemably racist that nothing can be done except hope the next generation is more tolerant? There are two levels to the question of what’s next: the short-term problem of how the Democrats can oust Trump in 2020, and the more fundamental question of how to address the stubborn persistence of racism in society. On the first question, Sides, Tesler and Varveck would advise candidates to take a page from Trump’s playbook: Mobilize, don’t persuade. That is, don’t waste time in this age of identity politics trying to persuade the opponent’s voters to switch to you, for they are largely unmovable. Rather, activate your own core supporters — in the case of Democrats, blacks and other minorities, younger and more affluent voters, the majority of women, union members and voters with college educations — and turn them into a voter base that can challenge Trump’s. Of course, that works best with the right candidate. Trump proved to be nectar to white-identity voters, whereas the bland, poll-driven Hillary Clinton was the wrong choice for energizing a Democratic base. Bernie Sanders, had he won the nomination, might have been the anti-Trump who could have rallied progressives to the Democratic banner, although the authors suggest that his weakness among minority voters would have limited his ability to go toe-to-toe with Trump in appealing to voter identity.

Nevertheless, the authors argue that Democrats can win by also playing the identity game, only better. “For Democrats, the divisions on issues related to race and immigration that have historically splintered their party are weakening, allowing Democratic politicians to advocate for racial and ethnic minorities with less risk of backlash,” they write.

On the bigger picture — how to attack the cancer of racism in America — the authors are largely silent. And I am not about to try to resolve this at the end of a book review. But just as Identity Crisis counsels Democratic politicians to mobilize their allies rather than persuade their enemies, those who envision a nonracist America must unite with like-minded activists before taking on the enemy, which is racial hatred itself. And that process has started: with the mobilization of the Black Lives Matter movement, the counter-demonstrations to neo-Nazi rallies, and events such as the Women’s March, which transcended gender and became a call for inclusiveness and solidarity.

Perhaps demographics will be the solution after all. In the January issue of In These Times, Joel Bleifuss notes that “67 percent of millennials (age 18 to 29) gave their votes to Democrats” in the most recent midterm election, which also points to the weakening of racial identity among whites in this group. Perhaps the days of the Republican Party as a vehicle for white identity are numbered, but its “death throes are ugly and the moribund creature is still dangerous,” Bleifuss says, rising in reaction against minority empowerment by backing the likes of Trump. And, of course, whites have been declining as a percentage of the U.S. population for decades, and the United States is on track to become “majority-minority” by midcentury. Demography might not be destiny, but America’s ever-increasing diversity is a hopeful counterweight against white identity politics.

But we can’t wait for demographics to save us. Fighting racism will continue to be an ongoing struggle for the foreseeable future. While Identity Crisis doesn’t provide a road map for the battle, it lays out with unusual clarity the magnitude of the challenge facing us.

Related Entries