The Working Class, the Election, and Trump: An Interview with Sean Posey

Brenan Daniels

 

Given the talk of the role of the white working class in the recent election I decided to do an interview with Hampton’s Urban Issues Chair Sean Posey on the white working class, seeing as how he is from such an area. In it, we discuss the media, the Democratic Party’s relation to the white working class, and end with what the left can do from here.

There is constant talk of how the Democrats lost the white working class. What do you think of this narrative? It seems especially strange when the media rarely if ever brings up the working class and especially the white working class.

It’s true. As the New York Times put it, “In the end, the bastions of industrial-era Democratic strength among white working-class voters fell to Mr. Trump.” Basically, voters in the Rust Belt states of Wisconsin, Ohio, Michigan and Pennsylvania allowed Trump to breech Clinton’s “blue wall” and win the election.

But yes, it’s interesting that working class voters-white working class voters, anyway-were a significant part of the media’s presidential coverage for the first time in many years. The media’s focus on the white working class is predominately because of Trump and the kind of campaign he chose to run.

Trump honed in on what he called “forgotten Americans,” largely working class people in “flyover country,” as it’s often derisively called. Somehow Trump understood the enormous malaise that exists in wide swaths of America where local economies-and cultures-have disintegrated. He tapped a vein of populist rage and channeled it back into his campaign. It seemingly took everyone by surprise, especially the media and the political elite.

It’s important to remember how concentrated the media is now-mostly on the coasts around Washington, New York City, Boston, places like that. So it comes as no surprise that many journalists are deeply puzzled by Trump’s rise. It’s far less surprising to those of us rooted in what you might call “Trump Country.”

Although poorly covered by the media, white working class support buoyed Obama in 2008 and 2012. As the New York Times put it, Obama’s “key support often came in the places where you would least expect it. He did better than John Kerry and Al Gore among white voters across the Northern United States, despite exit poll results to the contrary. Over all, 34 percent of Mr. Obama’s voters were whites without a college degree – larger in number than black voters, Hispanic voters or well-educated whites.”
There are those that argue that those who voted for Trump are all racists/sexists? Now, it would be foolish to say that racism and sexism didn’t play a role, however, how true would you say these accusations are, being from an area that voted for Trump?

As you mention, it’s foolish to discount the importance of race-and racial appeals-along with sexism. However, those who attempt to reduce Trump’s win to matters of race and gender alone are kidding themselves. Whites actually lost a net total of 700,000 jobs in the aftermath of the Great Recession-the only racial/ethnic group to experience such losses. White workers aged 25 to 54 lost nearly 6.5 million jobs during those nine years, while Asian, Latino and black workers in the same age bracket gained millions of jobs.

And there are now almost nine million more jobs than in November 2007.

According to an analysis by the Wall Street Journal, during the primary, Trump won 89 of the 100 counties most affected by trade with China. And most disturbingly, life expectancy for whites, predominately in the working class, is actually declining. There’s nothing similar in the West to compare it to. It’s no wonder that so many found Trump’s appeals, which aside from race, centered on trade, jobs, national and cultural renewal.

My home state of Ohio suffered immensely after China’s entry into the WTO; that’s in addition to the deindustrialization that began in the 1970s. The inability or unwillingness of the Democrats to address the pain of the “hollowed out American Heartland,” as I call it, brought them disaster on November 8. Trump won HALF the union vote in Ohio. That’s unprecedented for a Republican candidate.

Some would say that those who voted for Trump are getting exactly what they deserve, as they voted Republican. While understandable, isn’t that line of thinking a bit of a problem seeing as how these very same people didn’t really have any other options besides Republicans or neoliberal Democrats, both of which would have damned them?

Those who say that Trump voters get what they deserve are actually feeding into the Trump movement. It’s important to understand where many of these people are coming from. Now, I’m not talking about the Alt-Right or the Klan elements, but I’d clearly place them in the minority. If we write off a huge chunk of the working class, how are we ever going to build a movement of working people?

In his book, Listen, Liberal: Or, Whatever Happened to the Party of the People? Thomas Franks dissects the decades-long movement of the Democrats into the neoliberal camp. The Democratic Party is America’s left party; it’s why the party exists. Yet Democrats increasingly represent a tiny fraction of Americans, not the top 1 percent, but the top 10 percent. Unions, industrial workers, service workers, etc., have no place left to turn. Many ran to Trump’s campaign. Condemning those voters as completely stupid or as a “basket of deplorables” will simply give us eight years of Donald Trump. Liberals would do much better by looking in the mirror.

There seems to be something of a stereotype of poor whites who voted for Trump as these dumb, backwards people who can’t figure out their own interests, which doesn’t seem true, as Washington Post reported in November that people voted for Trump as they saw him as vital to securing their economic interests . Seeing as how you are from an area that voted for Trump, how would you characterize the people there?

The Washington Post article you mentioned gets to the heart of it. Obama actually carried Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin-twice. The idea that Hillary couldn’t win these states is pretty laughable. Trump is the first Republican candidate in 30 years to be really competitive here in Ohio’s Mahoning Valley, and he became competitive by running a populist campaign. By contrast, Clinton couldn’t even elucidate a reason why she wanted to be president, other than the fact that she wanted to be president. The deindustrialized communities of the Rust Belt voted for disruption. Why? They’ve clearly gained little from the status quo. Perhaps the Democrats should listen…
What are your thoughts on the attempt by Jill Stein and others to engage in a vote recount or try to pressure the electoral college to vote for Clinton?

Stein’s recount effort proved to be a waste of time and resources. It represents one of several misguided efforts (such as the attempt to influence electoral voters to defy Trump) to derail the Trump Train. I see it as one more effort to avoid building a real movement for change. Say what you want about the right, but they understand how to organize and influence power. Liberals and progressives? Not so much.
There is large amounts of anger and frustration at the election of Trump, however, it seems to be being put into marching and backing other Democratic candidates, some of whom such as Bernie Sanders, have said they would work with Trump. Why do you think that people are still pushing for the same old solutions, when those clearly have not worked?

The left is badly fractured and demoralized. The failure of the Democratic Party and the failure of movements such as Occupy have left many on the left confused and bewildered. For decades, communism served as the one great unifier for many leftist movements, but communism is dead. No coherent competing philosophy has emerged to counter capitalism and neoliberalism. You can see this in Europe where nationalism and right-wing populism are on the rise. The left across the West is perplexed about how to deal with it.

What is to be done? No one seems to know at this point, and we don’t have time much time left to figure it out.

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