Populism arises amidst American workers abandoned by both Left & Right

Summary: Populism has arisen from the lower middle class, Americans abandoned not just by the Right (owned by the 1%) but the Left as well. Populists are the swing vote in modern elections. Who they choose to ally with might create a coalition that rules for another generation. It was the Left in the New Deal. And now? Either way, populism will last beyond Campaign 2016.

Fork in the road

Decline of the middle class in America

This report by Gallup shows the fracturing of the middle class, as they are slowly ground down. We’re near the historic moment when more Americans identify as “working and lower class” than “middle class” — a milestone in the Right’s long project to reverse the New Deal. This shows the force powering the political fires now ignited. We’re just discussing what form it will take.

Americans are considerably less likely now than they were in 2008 and years prior to identify themselves as middle class or upper-middle class, while the percentage putting themselves in the working or lower class has risen. Currently, 51% of Americans say they are middle class or upper-middle class, while 48% say they are lower class or working class. In multiple surveys conducted from 2000 through 2008, an average of more than 60% of Americans identified as middle or upper-middle class.

Gallup-: class identification in America

The Left abandons the working class

The pressure was building for an insurgency within both political parties, as their platforms increasingly side with their donors rather than voters. See “Why Trump and Sanders Were Inevitable: It was only a matter of time before we had a populist backlash to 30 years of flawed globalization policies that both parties embraced,” by Michael Hirsh, Politico Magazine, 28 February 2016. The Left’s response to this has been to spurn these working class voters, which guaranteed that their anger would surge as populist — not progressivism.

What are these people looking for? See this insightful report by Working America: “‘Front Porch Focus Group’ Explores Appeal of Trump’s Right-Wing Message to working-class voters.” Like most on the Left they’re blind to the overlap in views of Trump and Sanders.

  • While most of Trump’s support comes from the staunch Republican base, 1 in 4 Democrats who chose a candidate showed a preference for Trump.
  • Good jobs/the economy, which is historically the priority concern of Working America constituents, remains the top issue among voters we talked with, at 27%, with homeland security and terrorism next (14%) and health care as the third most frequently cited priority (10%).
  • Immigration was the top issue for only 5% of all those canvassed, but for Trump supporters it was the third–most-important issue (cited by 14%), after good jobs/the economy (29%) and homeland security and terrorism (21%). Voters for whom immigration is the priority issue are often Trump partisans (48%), but overall, those who prioritize immigration are a relatively small number.

The Left refuses to see any of this. They look at populism but sees only racism. Keep those eyes closed and lose!
The Left looks at populism but sees only racism

Thomas Frank is one of the major chroniclers of the Left’s decline in America. While most describe it as a cartoon, evil defeats the Avengers, he describes it as suicide. For an introduction see “Millions of ordinary Americans support Donald Trump. Here’s why ” (The Guardian, 7 March). For more detail see Listen, Liberal: Or, What Ever Happened to the Party of the People? (2016), which describes Clinton’s “neoliberal” achievements: North American Free Trade Agreement, expanding and filling the Federal prisons, bank deregulation, and shrinking welfare. Here’s an excerpt from a longer excerpt at Salon.

What did Clinton actually do in his eight years on Pennsylvania Avenue? While writing this book, I would periodically ask my liberal friends if they could recall the progressive laws he got passed, the high-minded policies he fought for — you know, the good things Bill Clinton got done while he was president. Why was it, I wondered, that we were supposed to think so highly of him? It proved difficult for my libs. People mentioned the obvious things: Clinton once raised the minimum wage and expanded the Earned Income Tax Credit. He balanced the budget. He secured a modest tax increase on the rich. And he did propose a national health program, although it didn’t get very far and was in fact so poorly designed it could be a model of how not to do big policy initiatives.

Other than that, not much. No one could think of any great but hopeless Clintonian stands on principle; after all, this is the guy who once took a poll to decide where to go on vacation.


I’ll turn the microphone over to anthropologist Maximilian Forte for an excerpt from “Terminal Condition: Neoliberal Globalization” (at Zero Anthropology, 13 March 2016).

The neoliberal elites …are seized by an absolute panic as they see the fundamental tenets of neoliberalism come under mass, electoral repudiation in the heart of the international capitalist system, the US itself. Discussion of the collapse of the neoliberal imperial disorder is therefore far from premature; it is overdue.

Nobody should have believed that the end of neoliberalism would be smooth, peaceful, harmonious or pleasant. There is absolutely nothing to say that movements that are politically right-wing cannot be the ones to bring an end to this order. Once we put these two forms of wishful thinking aside, that is, that there will be a peaceful transition and it will be led by “progressives,” we can be better prepared to grasp current realities.

…What has brought neoliberal globalization to a terminal point is that now the inequality in the social spread of benefits from this system has become more or less evenly spread, meaning that even in the global economic centres such as Europe and North America, poverty, decline, and despair have become visible and palpable.

The real challenge to this order is not in finding economic solutions to economic problems — but to find political solutions to the power imbalances that created these economic inequalities.

…For several years now on this site, I have offered the opinion (often in passing), that in the US the most successful and direct challenges to both US military interventionism abroad, and neoliberal free trade, would come from the political right and not the left. I am seeing nothing to challenge the foundations for that opinion. If correct, then another schism will likely result where “the left” is concerned: one either commits to supporting the left (whichever left), no matter what, as if support for the left is an end in itself, or one works to support the most likely avenue of success in defeating the neoliberal free trade regime and global military expansionism.

Much depends on which path the Left takes, as populists cannot win alone. If the Left continues to see them only as racists, they will ally again with the Right — perhaps forging an anti-New Deal coalition that rules for another generation. This might be a pivotal time for America.

Danger - Deep Water

“It is impossible
to know how deep the water is
just by looking at it.”

For More Information

Also: Trump’s foreign policies are those of populism, with deep roots in our past. See “Trump’s 19th Century Foreign Policy: His views aren’t as confused as they seem. In fact, they’re remarkably consistent — and they have a long history,” by Thomas Wright, Politico Magazine, 20 January 2016.

Please like us on Facebook, follow us on Twitter. For ideas about what you can do see Reforming America: steps to new politics. See all posts about Campaign 2016, and especially these …

To understand the coming reformation of American politics I suggest starting with David Harvey’s A Brief History of Neoliberalism and Thomas Frank’s Listen, Liberal: Or, What Ever Happened to the Party of the People? (2016).

A Brief History of Neoliberalism
Available at Amazon.
Available at Amazon.

9 thoughts on “Populism arises amidst American workers abandoned by both Left & Right”

  1. While free trade is the obvious villain in the decline of the US middle class, I think automation is the larger culprit. It is bad when your factory job that pays nice wages moves overseas. It is worse when a lot of the other jobs you could do with minimal training have been automated. This puts you in competition with a lot of other people for the remaining jobs and lowers wages for everybody.

    To continue the example, Chinese labor costs have risen to the point where it makes sense to bring some factories back to the US but only a very few jobs are coming back because the factory owner is using automation to keep his costs low (which he needs to do to stay competitive with China).

    But similar things are happening to the professional class as well. I entered the IT job market at a bad moment and spent 3 years doing very menial jobs so I could get enough experience to apply for the better jobs. All of those menial jobs have long since been automated so that door is closed to modern job seekers. The same is true in most other professional fields.

    To link my point back to the article, Trump and Sanders are whipping up support by arguing against free trade but nobody has yet addressed the other, bigger problem. I wonder what political slogans will be popular in 8 more years.

    The only rational strategy for dealing with this issue is a radical reorganization of society to give everybody the rewards of capital investment and I cannot see the 1% being happy with that. It is a greater challenge than the leftists urging us to radically change our life styles to prevent global warming but at least this challenge will have a firmer basis in both science (although economics is still not very solid) and the common good.

    1. Pluto,

      Free trade is a factor. But immigration is probably a larger factor than free trade wrt depressing wages, as it affects almost all kinds of employment except those of upper middle class protected by licensing and class distinctions. See The numbers about immigration that fuel Trump’s campaign.

      Re: automation

      I agree, and have written extensively about this trend — which has barely begun, & will almost certainly hit like a hammerblow in the next generation. An AI beating the world champion at GO is just another signal of what’s coming.

  2. Mr Maximus, I’d love to see you write a game-plan about specifically how the populists on the Left could ally with those on the Right to form this potential new political movement you describe, maybe similar to the plan you wrote for Trump: http://fabiusmaximus.com/2016/01/07/trump-how-he-wins-how-he-rules-92717/
    Whoever ends up being elected as President this year will be an important bellwether for sure, but I think it’s the 2018 elections for House, Senate, and state governors, that could really change things if properly organized.

    1. Todd,

      It would be an interesting exercise, to be sure, but why bother? Even these posts about populism get little traffic (far below average for the FM website). Americans want to read that their team are angels, bold revolutionaries — and their foes are demons from Hell. It’s much the same way fans watch sports, and reflects our interest in politics as entertainment. It shows our disinterest in actually running the Republic.

      I agree that what comes after 2016 will be important, as the forces unleashed are unlikely to disappear soon. I’d like to make predictions about that, but have no useful visions of this future.

  3. It is an elitist conceit to group “working class” with “lower class.” The power to dictate “official categories” in “authoritative” surveys and polls is similar to the power to count the votes or to print the currency.

    The separation between skilled labour and unskilled labour is a crucial one that is ignored by the conflation above. The distinction between self-supporting unskilled labour and the government dependent underclass is just as crucial. Also ignored by the arrogant fools who designed the survey. Members of the three groupings experience significantly distinct views of their own prospects in the world.

    Modern intellectuals are due for a comeuppance if they cannot rein in their unlimited arrogance and endless grasping for power via manipulation of speech and writing. We’re gonna need a lot more guillotines!

    1. alfin,

      There are two issues you raise. First, my opening paragraph was sloppy. Gallup refers to “working and lower classes” (2 distinct groups). I’ve changed my text to match theirs. Good catch! Thanks for pointing that out.

      “The distinction between self-supporting unskilled labour and the government dependent underclass is just as crucial. Also ignored by the arrogant fools who designed the survey.”

      They made the distinction between working and lower classes. Its a survey of self-identification, so they use neutral terms. Asking for self-identification as “poor” and “government dependent underclass” would be daft.

      “Modern intellectuals are due for a comeuppance if they cannot rein in their unlimited arrogance and endless grasping for power via manipulation of speech and writing.”

      Wow. That’s really over the top.

    2. Over the top? Of course it is. But in case you have forgotten your own recent articles, American politics these days is way over the top. After 8 years of Clinton, 8 years of Bush II, almost 8 years of Obama . . . who can be surprised at the descent into idiocy of American politics?

      But underneath the clown-like circus of surface politics are deep layers of controlling and regulating bureaucracies and information/data manipulating intellectuals who literally shape reality for the masses who do not know better. Their frequent agenda-driven dishonesty does not speak in their favour.

      1. Alvin,

        “descent into idiocy of American politics”

        That sounds like something by someone not familiar with history. Elections are not decorous cerebral affairs.

        From Washington’s election advice — “Don’t spare the rum!” — to “Tippecanoe & Tyler too” (idiotic) to Obama’s The One Bringing Hope And Change To Transform US Politics By His Divine Presence. US elections have always had an element of competing rodeo clowns.

        As intellectuals manipulating the US politics — if you believe that explains the rise of Trump, well… OK. Not much to say to that.

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