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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
- Why the Outer Party hates Trump and will waste this opportunity for reform.
- Populism carries Trump to the nomination. He’s completed 1 of 4 steps to victory.
- Trump wins because he says some sensible things which journalists can’t conceal.
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).