The Middle Class Is Waking Up

Summary

I spent a few hours digging in to the data from my home state of Ohio, which is a bellwether for US presidential elections. Combined with data that the middle class is being gutted, I think we have the beginnings of a middle class revolt. The middle class is finally waking up to the reality that post-world war II America is gone, is not coming back and they need some significant political change to help.

The writing was on the wall
The working, middle class has voted for change since 2008 and against Clinton (aka the establishment) consistently. They voted in 2008 for Obama against Clinton, in the 2016 primary for Sanders, and in 2016 they voted against the Republican establishment for Trump. They were very consistent that Clinton represents the system that screwed them in the first place and they do not believe she will radically change the system. Without a radical change these people are going to stay screwed. And even if Trump messes it up for everyone else, they aren’t much more screwed than they are today. Thus many voted for Trump and many stayed home, as evidenced by lower voter turnout where Clinton needed it.
The Trump Coalition
There are four groups in the Trump coalition:
  1. Hardcore Republicans like Newt Gingrich or Paul Ryan
  2. Evangelicals
  3. Bigots  (racists/xenophobes/homophobes/misogynists)
  4. White, middle class Workers
The reality is that groups 1-3 would never vote Democratic. Group #4, however, has historically voted for Democrats in states like Pennsylvania and Ohio. In this election many stayed home and many voted Republican.
The system is failing the middle class

Because the election was so close, any thing that tipped the election is technically “the reason Trump won.” Voter ID laws, FBI investigation, media coverage, inaccurate polling, etc. are all part of it.  However, there is an underlying trend that is going to cause even more chaos in the future if we don’t address it. Trump won Group 4 in key states like Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Michigan because they need to change the system that is not working for them. Some in group 4 stayed home but many switched away from the Democratic party.

Look at the differences between how votes were cast in 2012 vs. 2016 in Ohio.

  • Union households: 60% supporting Obama to 42% supporting Clinton.
  • People old enough to have gotten screwed in the workforce, aka 25-29 year olds 63% to 47% voting Democratic and 30-39 year olds from 55% to 43%.
  • People who make less than $50k went from 59% to 52% support.

There are similar trends hold across Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Michigan. And the trend is the key thing here. Maps that show how millenials would have overwhelmingly voted for Clinton do not capture the trend. If these trends continue, millennials will not be voting overwhelmingly Democratic in the Midwest.

2012 is on the left, 2016 on the right

The State of the Middle Class

This election is a symptom of the underlying disease. The wealthy have gotten much wealthier but the middle class is getting destroyed.
People who were part of a middle class in the US had a great run after World War II. But since the 70s, the middle class has been eroded away for a variety of reasons while the rich have gotten much richer. For a while it looked like maybe everyone was benefiting with the rich just benefitting more. But increasingly it looks like the rich are benefitting at the expense of the middle class.
share-of-adults-living-in-middle-income-households-is-falling
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u-s-_income_-_changes_by_income_group_1979-2011
u-s-_income_shares_of_top_125_and_0-125_1913-2013

us_real_household_median_income_thru_2014

151208173919-chart-middle-class-share-of-income-780x439

u-s-_household_debt_relative_to_disposable_income_and_gdp

I believe the middle class is finally waking up to the fact that they’ve been left behind.

Their local economies are not growing, they don’t have the skills to be globally competitive, and the institutions that were supposed to help them have failed. The military sends their children off to fight but doesn’t train them to do something useful so they end up unemployed. Local governments can’t keep their drinking water safe. State governments couldn’t keep predatory lenders and for profit colleges from exploiting their hope for a better life, so they are now buried in debt. The federal government can’t seem to punish wall street elites for destroying the economy and can’t seem to tax the wealthy to actually invest back in the economy.

Every institution that should help the middle class has failed to meaningfully help them. And unless we start to see some systemic changes to address these trends, I do think the middle class will be increasingly frustrated and will be willing to take increasingly drastic measures. Trump is just the beginning.

The Qualitative Perspective

Read “What So Many People Don’t Get About the U.S. Working Class

It is a far better summary than I could write. Some choice quotes:

One little-known element of that gap is that the white working class (WWC) resents professionals but admires the rich. Class migrants (white-collar professionals born to blue-collar families) report that “professional people were generally suspect” and that managers are college kids “who don’t know shit about how to do anything but are full of ideas about how I have to do my job,” said Alfred Lubrano in Limbo.

Manly dignity is a big deal for most men. So is breadwinner status: Many still measure masculinity by the size of a paycheck. White working-class men’s wages hit the skids in the 1970s and took another body blow during the Great Recession. Look, I wish manliness worked differently. But most men, like most women, seek to fulfill the ideals they’ve grown up with. For many blue-collar men, all they’re asking for is basic human dignity (male varietal). Trump promises to deliver it.

“The thing that really gets me is that Democrats try to offer policies (paid sick leave! minimum wage!) that would help the working class,” a friend just wrote me. A few days’ paid leave ain’t gonna support a family. Neither is minimum wage. WWC men aren’t interested in working at McDonald’s for $15 per hour instead of $9.50. What they want is what my father-in-law had: steady, stable, full-time jobs that deliver a solid middle-class life to the 75% of Americans who don’t have a college degree. Trump promises that. I doubt he’ll deliver, but at least he understands what they need.

“The white working class is just so stupid. Don’t they realize Republicans just use them every four years, and then screw them?” I have heard some version of this over and over again, and it’s actually a sentiment the WWC agrees with, which is why they rejected the Republican establishment this year. But to them, the Democrats are no better.

Important aside: Emboldened Bigots

There’s a lot of fear and anger from people who are worried about Trump’s bigotry. I think this is all very real and very understandable. But we should separate our own fears and values from the fears and values of those who voted for him. I don’t believe  Trump won the swing states JUST because he convinced the bigots to vote for him. Maybe they turned out in higher numbers this time, though I have yet to see that data.

Nor do I think all Trump supporters are bigots — they recognize what he says and made a hard tradeoff. I grew up with many of these people in West Carrollton, Ohio where the median household income is $40k/yr. In my opinion, Trump convinced a lot of these good people to vote for him DESPITE their needing to vote alongside racists, xenophobes, misogynists, and homophobes. Don’t forget that these same places voted for a Black president, Iowa was one of the first states to recognize gay marriage, and 2/3 of people in Ohio believe you shouldn’t defund Planned Parenthood.

We are going to have to deal with the consequences of racists, homophobes, anti-Semites, xenophobes, and misogynists feeling emboldened. The silver lining may be these people were already out there and it’s better that we deal with them, rather than letting them lurk in the shadows.

Resources/Data