Election 2016

Krugman Gets to the Bottom of Why the White Working Class Votes Against Its Own Interests

It's a headscratcher.

Paul Krugman is still puzzling out why so many working-class whites voted for billionaire snake oil salesman Donald Trump in this election.

In Friday's column, Krugman respectfully disagrees with Bernie Sanders' recent suggestion for how Democrats can win back these voters by going "beyond identity politics" and by running "candidates who understand that working-class incomes are down, who will 'stand up to Wall Street, to the insurance companies, to the drug companies, to the fossil fuel industry,' Sanders said."

Well, ma-a-a-yybe, but of course then we would need a mainstream media that actually covered such policy proposals. "Over the course of the 2016 campaign, the three network news shows devoted a total of 35 minutes combined to policy issues — all policy issues," Krugman reminds us. "Meanwhile, they devoted 125 minutes to Mrs. Clinton’s emails."

Another reason for doubting the Sanders hypothesis, Krugman says, is that the Dems already have better policies for working-class folks, namely higher minimum wage proposals and expanding affordable healthdare. Has not done them much good. 

Consider eastern Kentucky, a very white area which has benefited enormously from Obama-era initiatives. Take, in particular, the case of Clay County, which the Times declared a few years ago to be the hardest place in America to live. It’s still very hard, but at least most of its residents now have health insurance: Independent estimates say that the uninsured rate fell from 27 percent in 2013 to 10 percent in 2016. That’s the effect of the Affordable Care Act, which Mrs. Clinton promised to preserve and extend but Mr. Trump promised to kill.

Mr. Trump received 87 percent of Clay County’s vote.

Now, you might say that health insurance is one thing, but what people want are good jobs. Eastern Kentucky used to be coal country, and Mr. Trump, unlike Mrs. Clinton, promised to bring the coal jobs back. (So much for the idea that Democrats need a candidate who will stand up to the fossil fuels industry.) But it’s a nonsensical promise.

Where did Appalachia’s coal mining jobs go? They weren’t lost to unfair competition from China or Mexico. What happened instead was, first, a decades-long erosion as U.S. coal production shifted from underground mining to strip mining and mountaintop removal, which require many fewer workers: Coal employment peaked in 1979, fell rapidly during the Reagan years, and was down more than half by 2007. A further plunge came in recent years thanks to fracking. None of this is reversible.

When Donald Trump does not bring back all those manufacturing jobs he promised to, will there be a backlash? Maybe not, not if he and the Republicans can keep feeding the whitelash, resentment toward others in similar or worse boats. Krugman suggests that the real identity politics right now in America are being played by the white working class, which he defines as "some combination of white resentment at what voters see as favoritism toward nonwhites (even though it isn’t) and anger on the part of the less educated at liberal elites whom they imagine look down on them."

That last part is a headscratcher, since it is conservatives who blame the economically disadvantaged for their moral failings. Go figure.

In Krugman's view, populism's not the answer.


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