The Working Class, The Election, and Trump: An Interview with Sean Posey
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.
1. 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
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
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."
2. 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
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.
3. 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.
4. 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…
5. 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.
6. 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.