Backgrounder: Trumpism and the Invisible Man

February 13, 2016

by Tom Huston

If you are a reasonably successful member of the professional class – a doctor, lawyer or accountant, a school teacher or other government worker, a nurse or pharmacist, financial consultant, real estate broker or entrepreneur – you have likely not had reason to give any thought to the implications of the chart below. It is quite likely, in fact, that you don’t know anyone with the demographic characteristics of the men described in the chart unless some such fellow does occasional odd jobs around the house, hauls away your trash or carries the groceries to your car.

As the social scientist Charles Murray points out in The Wall Street Journal, “In today’s average white working-class neighborhood, about one out of five men in the prime of life isn’t even looking for work; they are living off girlfriends, siblings or parents, on disability, or else subsisting on off-the-books or criminal income. Almost half aren’t married, with all the collateral social problems that go with large numbers of unattached males.”

In these communities, about half the children are born to unmarried women, with all the problems that go with growing up without fathers, especially for boys. Drugs also have become a major problem, in small towns as well as in urban areas.”

Back during in the era of Richard Nixon, we talked about these people as “Middle Americans.” That was in 1970 when, as the chart indicates, more than 96 percent of white working-class males in the prime of their lives were in the workforce and 86 percent of them were married. A good share of them were veterans of our armed services, lived in ethnic-based urban neighborhoods, were union members and voted Democratic.

This segment of the electorate was the subject of many hours of discussion at the Nixon White House among a handful of us who served on the “Middle America Working Group.” President Nixon charged Secretary of Labor George Schultz with responsibility for developing programs designed to meet their special needs in an environment of rapid change in the neighborhoods in which they lived, the schools their children attended and the job markets in which they competed. In the campaign of 1972, the President reached out to these Middle American families and many of them, for the first time in their lives, voted Republican.

We often hear about “Reagan Democrats,” but for the most part these were actually Nixon Democrats who in 1980 came back to the Republican Party after having defected to Jimmy Carter in 1976. Whatever the case, it is clear to anyone who looks at the record that among Republicans little attention was directed to the needs (as opposed to the voting preference) of these voters after Richard Nixon was chased from the White House. The decline in labor participation and marriage rates among the white working class commenced in the first year of the Reagan administration and has continued downhill during 20 years of Republican and 15 years of Democratic administrations. This decline has not precipitated any Republican Policy Summits featuring Paul Ryan or other Compassionate Conservatives. In fact, until Donald Trump came onto the scene, no Republican politician of any stature had anything much to say about the problem.

What we have on our hands today is a class of people who are not merely ignored by the elite but who for all intents and purposes are invisible to decision-makers. These people have had no effective voice in the political process since the Nixon administration. As the rich have gotten richer and the poor have gotten more government assistance, the white working class has slowly collapsed into itself.

It may be shocking to the comfortable that the uncomfortable are standing up and cheering the only presidential candidate who acknowledges their existence and offers them some prospect of relief. It may be true that he is a demagogue, but if so, it is all the more inexcusable that not one of the credentialed political class had figured out before Donald Trump that a vast number of voters had tuned out the professional politicians because they didn’t have anything to say that was relevant to their lives as they actually live them.

Donald Trump may ultimately fade away, but the response among the white working class to Trumpism is not going to dissipate through neglect. This segment of the electorate has been awakened, and it is not going back to sleep.

Tom Huston, an adjunct scholar of the Indiana Policy Review Foundation.


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