The white working class sold their votes cheap. Back when they were the stalwarts of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal coalition, the southern and working class voters of the industrial Midwest were living the dream. Their votes mattered. The members they sent to Congress, particularly the southern Democrats, sat atop the most powerful committees and brought home the bacon. Then things began to change. Somewhere between the integration of the army under Truman, the Democratic Party embrace of civil rights, and the social upheaval of the 1960s, those white working class voters left their ancestral homeland and began their migration to the GOP. Whether one views that political shift as the denouement of the 19th century post-Civil War struggles or a rear guard action to resist the multicultural world to come in the 21st century, those voters left behind the political and economic power they wielded in the Democratic Party for what they thought would be a better deal as part of the Republican Party.
For the better part of a half a century, the Republican Party leadership has kept the modern Republican coalition together. They have been strange bedfellows — traditional Republican, Main Street business people and Wall Street bankers finding common cause with less educated workers from the south and industrial Midwest drawn to the GOP by Richard Nixon’s Southern Strategy and as Reagan Democrats — but they have stuck together with few defections. Sure, many liberal Republicans found they could not vote for John McCain if it meant putting Sarah Palin one bullet away from the Oval Office, and Wall Street was seduced for a while by Bill Clinton’s commitment to financial deregulation, but through it all, those white working class voters held true. They were the rock, the immovable base of the modern GOP.
As it turned out, if you look at who got what out of the deal, the white working class voters got the short end of the stick. For decades now, the GOP has made good on its commitment to those voters and delivered a strong commitment to national defense, gun rights and a range of social and faith-based issues. For their part, Wall Street Republicans were more than willing abandon traditional Republican liberalism on social issues and embrace a coded racial appeal in each election cycle in exchange for support for a wide-ranging pro-business regulatory and economic agenda that was in other respects hostile to the white working class and middle class voters that joined their ranks. Put another way, the middle class white voters bought support for their conservative social positions by selling off their economic position. It was a deal with the devil that ultimately cost those voters dearly.
The members of Congress those working class voters sent to Washington, DC voted for legislation year after year adverse to the interests of their constituents. They voted for bankruptcy reforms that made it increasingly difficult for consumers to get out from under massive debts sold to them by predatory lenders. They voted to increase the cost of student loans and similarly make those debts increasingly difficult to discharge in bankruptcy. They voted for financial deregulation that further advanced financial interests at the expense of consumers. They voted for intellectual property laws that extended patent protection and increased the costs of prescription drugs. They approved legislation that tightened Monsanto’s grip over the farming industry. Then there was the most important change of all, expanding international trade and the facilitation of corporate outsourcing, as American jobs and wages were undermined by international competition. One step after another, the transformation of the American economy was made possible as those white working class voters conspired in their own demise.
GOP leaders argued that each of those changes were in the broader interest of economic growth and efficiency, and certainly they were a boon to corporate profitability. But if you were at the receiving end of those changes, those families and communities whose livelihoods were built around farming and manufacturing that were undermined, and who watched as the rich got richer and their own families got poorer, you might come to a different conclusion. Over the course of three decades, white working class families watched in increasing shame and despair as their incomes first stagnated and then declined in real terms, and their hopes for the future faded.
Now, it has become apparent that many in those communities are literally killing themselves. Last fall, two Princeton economists published a paper documenting the rising death rate among less-educated, white, working class Americans in their 40s and 50s — primarily as a result of poisoning, suicide and drug and alcohol abuse. When marine mammals begin killing themselves as they have in recent years, it makes news. The scientific community dives into the problem, and environmental groups posit theories and suggest courses of action to ameliorate the concerns for the impacted species. But when it became apparent that the base constituency of the Republican Party was in a state of existential pain leading to massive numbers of suicides, the study made news for a day or two, but there has been no noticeable rush within the party to diagnose the problem and find solutions.
As illustrated in this graph from that paper, the data is quite stark. In contrast to a consistent pattern of declining death rates across other industrialized countries — and among other groups in the US — that cohort of less-educated whites (USW) are literally killing themselves off. Over the period from 1999 to 2013, the number of deaths were almost 100,000 higher than would have been the case had mortality rate held constant. Had the rate continued to decline as it had during the prior decade — and as it did in other countries as shown here — a half a million deaths would have been avoided — a number comparable to the number of Americans who died due to the AIDS epidemic.
This year, that cohort of less-educated, white working class Americans are overwhelmingly supporters of Donald Trump. While much has been written about their anger, there has been little outpouring of concern for their existential plight. Instead, they are being widely decried as bigots and racists for supporting the billionaire real estate developer who is now crushing the Republican field in the presidential nomination battle. There is growing consternation among the leadership of the Republican Party about how those voters can be pried away from Trump in favor of a candidate acceptable to the GOP establishment, but even in the face of the dramatic mortality statistics the GOP leadership has shown little interest in the linkage between the Trump phenomenon and the evident depths of depression and pain afflicting the base of their party.
Much of the Republican establishment has little but disdain for the suffering of their compatriots, as Jeb Bush suggested succinctly. “We have people that mope around thinking ‘my life is bad, my children will not have the same opportunities that I had.’ What a horrible notion in America, the most optimistic of places.” Faced with the very real anger and pain — evidenced by a half a million deaths that might have been avoided — none of the leading Republican presidential hopefuls have any meaningful prescription for what ails a large swath of their party’s base. No mention is made of decades of policies that served the interests of the party establishment, while eviscerating the livelihoods of its base. The only policy prescription any of them have to offer is tax cuts, which are largely irrelevant that cohort of Americans who pay little or no income tax.
It is against that backdrop that the passionate embrace of Donald Trump makes sense. Trump gives voice to their deep anger, and also, at some level, their shame. They made a bad deal, and Trump is touting himself as a deal man who will change that. No one else in the Republican Party — even as they fight to replace him — will acknowledge the things Trump will acknowledge. That our politics have been corrupted by corporate and financial interests seeking special favors. That the past decade and a half of war has devastated military families and the nation’s treasury, and stolen resources from badly needed domestic investment. That free trade and corporate outsourcing has been a bad deal for working men and women. No one in the GOP but Trump is willing to talk about those things that have afflicted the white working class, because they do not believe any of those things are bad. As much as the GOP depends on the votes of the Republican base, establishment Republicans are with Jeb on this: Americans have no business whining. They are blessed to live in land of unparalleled opportunity. If they don’t like their lot in life, they should pull themselves up by their bootstraps and do something about it. A half a million deaths, and there is little but contempt.
Perhaps the Trump voters have finally woken up to realize that the people they are in bed with have been screwing them over all these years. The Republican Party that they signed on to was and remains the party of the wealthy, of corporate America, and of Mitt Romney and his cabal of hedge fund managers. The GOP establishment needs them for their votes on election day — after all, that was why Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan sought them out to begin with — but after that they don’t want to be in the same room with them. That is not true about Trump. Those Republican voters are rabidly pro-Trump, because he is the only person who is rabidly pro-them. He is an old time economic populist of the Huey Long school. Screw the fat cats and their holier than thou attitude, it’s our turn. His words are the opposite of the disdain Jeb has shown them. Trump strokes his followers at his rallies.“I love you people, I love you. I love you…. I’m winning with the smart people,” he continues. “The people are smart. The people that are representing them are either dishonest, not smart, incompetent, or they have some other agenda that we don’t even know about.”
They love Donald Trump because he says he loves them. No one else loves them, no one else cares about their pain.