Two years ago, Professor Martin Gilens created one of the simplest, saddest graphs in the nation. It represents the degree to which the policy preferences of ordinary Americans affected policy making when their desires differed from those of the political elite. The graph is a straight line: Since 1981, ordinary Americans and the mass organizations they joined had no effect on policy. Instead, Gilens found, the 1,779 policy choices he studied had all been most decisively influenced by economic elites and organized business groups.
This election was a scream of anger from millions of people who had never read Gilens’ research, but felt it in their bones; who felt they had more voice on TripAdvisor than on trade, more say in “American Idol” than in American policy.
The media has suddenly rediscovered the white working class — those Reagan Democrats whose support handed the former Hollywood actor the presidency. It’s true that these same voters came out in large numbers for Trump in the few states that mattered to give him the same office. Places hardest hit by manufacturing losses to China were surprise areas of Trump support, and many Trump voters had been hurt personally by such job losses or by the economic wallop of rising Obamacare insurance premiums.
But Trump’s coalition was not just angry, unemployed whites. In fact, Hillary Clinton won among voters who said the economy was their biggest concern, and she won the struggling working class most strongly. The people who voted for Trump had jobs — he did 4 percent better among those earning $50,000-99,000 a year, and 1 percent better among those in the $100,000-199,000 income range — but they may have lost the dignity that went with their work.
Nor were Trump voters all racist or ignorant. Only 1 percent more whites voted for Trump than came out for Reagan and Romney, while 29 percent of Latinos picked a man who wants to build a wall between the U.S. and Mexico. Yes, Clinton supporters were better educated, but Trump garnered 45 percent of all voters with a college degree and 37 percent of those with graduate degrees.
In other words, the people who voted for Trump were not voting from their pocketbooks — they were voting from their sense of pride. They were people from the working class, middle class, and even upper middle class whose dignity had been denied, whose views had been denigrated, and whose lifestyles had been deteriorating thanks to the choices of “others.”
The greatest differentiation between those voting for Trump versus Clinton was that Trump voters overwhelmingly felt their country was going downhill. They may have been doing OK, personally. But they walked through leaking airports, they sat in stopped trains, they watched manufacturing move to China, they saw their country bumble into adventures abroad that we seemed to fail at over and over again.
Emotions don’t stay in tidy policy boxes. For some, these feelings of decline were rooted in racism, nativism and sexism. We were doing worse because other countries were doing better, and were leaving their problems for us to deal with. Our country was going downhill because we had too many people with the wrong color skin, too many immigrants, or we had pandered too much to women.
And who was at fault?
The elites who had rigged the system, who were running America for themselves, who belittled and ignored the “flyover states.” So the more nearly every media outlet in the nation exhorted them to vote for Clinton, the more they doubled down on their belief that she was part of the problem. Trump was a billionaire — but the issue wasn’t money per se. It was oligarchy — the cozy relationship between money, media and politics. Trump was clearly hated by the elites, so he was exempted from that system. Instead, his supporters hoped his wealth would shield him from the corruption they felt in Washington, the favors owed, the cozy inner circle.
Why didn’t the media pick up on this?
For the same reason the media missed Brexit and the Colombian referendum rejecting its peace deal with the FARC. When there is a loud social force setting the tone of what is acceptable, people prefer to keep quiet rather than express views they fear will get them ostracized. German social scientist Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann described this phenomenon as a “spiral of silence.”
The polarization of views and the failure to pick up on them are symptoms of the fact that many of our longest-standing democracies are, in fact, moving closer and closer to oligarchies. Or, in the modern language of academia, they are tending towards economic-elite domination. This tendency is greatest in the United States, where inequality has grown to Gilded Age proportions. But the sense among European voters that they have so little control over their lives, that decisions are being made by bureaucrats in Brussels to benefit cozy insiders, is also driving right-wing sentiment on the continent. And there are a series of important elections coming up that could turn more countries towards the path of Poland, Hungary and, now, the United States.
In other words: the problem is much greater than Trump. We have created political systems that denigrate the wishes of major portions of citizenry. The elites have ignored those desires because they — we — think they are wrong and misguided. But rather than attempt to change minds, understand preferences or meet in the middle, those in power have simply sidestepped the conversation entirely. And so these views have erupted, unvarnished, into the middle of our public lives. The problem is greater than the U.S., or even the West. It is such fear of the same majoritarian backlash that led the elites of Egypt to back General Abdel Fatah Al-Sisi and turn their backs on democracy in the Middle East’s largest country.
Democracies cannot be afraid of their citizens. Nor can they afford to ignore them for decades. As a Democrat, I’ll be fighting Trump’s policies and his ugly brand of politics. But as a democrat, I’ll be working to reconnect with my fellow citizens, to listen, argue and seek what common ground there may be to rebuild their sense of voice and dignity. We are stuck with this demagogue. To prevent another, we must have more democracy, not less.