“The test of a first-rate intelligence,” said F. Scott Fitzgerald, “is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time.” Understanding economic populism is simpler: You need to keep two non-opposing ideas in mind at once. The conventional wisdom in progressive circles is that economic populism is about race, not economics. Recent studies clearly show it’s about economics … but it’s also about race. Crucially, we can’t stop there.
Populism also reflects class anger about cultural disrespect, expressed as culture wars (including those waged over abortion and gender roles). None of this is surprising coming from me. To quote my husband, I can see gender in a ham sandwich; race and class, too. We’d better unpack this sandwich fast, or democracy’s days may be numbered.
Economic Populism Is About Economics
It goes without saying that wealthy conservative voters supported Trump. What’s shocking, and in need of explanation, is that many non-elite voters did.
Why? The harsh effects of economic inequality played a major role. Wages rose when productivity did in the three decades after World War II; if that had continued, wages would be over twice what they are today. Instead, the rich got richer as income was redistributed from the American middle class to the top 1 percent. Middle-income jobs disappeared as the U.S. economy polarized into jobs at the bottom and jobs at the top. One result is declining labor force participation for prime-age men, concentrated among those without college degrees, devastating both their finances and their self-image. Middle-class incomes declined at a faster rate than the nation’s as a whole, and the “great risk shift” made Americans far more vulnerable to the costs of illness, old age, and unexpected job loss formerly shouldered by their employers.
There is a geography to the harm. Localities more exposed to competition from Chinese imports saw substantially larger reductions in manufacturing, resulting in more people unemployed or not-in-labor-force. Workers without college degrees were most affected, even if they didn’t work in manufacturing. All this fueled the well-documented explosion in disability benefits and despair deaths in rural and Rust Belt areas, as humiliated not-in-labor-force men struggled to support their families.
Many, or all, of these patterns are worst for people of color. But they affect Americans of all races. Virtually all Americans (90 percent) did better than their parents in the decades after World War II, but only half do now, with the largest declines in middle-class families.
What about all those studies showing that economics didn’t drive Trump voters? Methodological problems abound. Some studies divide voters into those earning less than $50,000 and those earning more; but education, not income, drove votes for Trump. Moreover, Trump attracted not poor people but middle-income people: the tire salesman married to a bookkeeper, making more than $50,000 but still feeling the fade-out of the American dream. Another influential study coded as “status threat,” not economics, the belief that China threatens U.S. jobs. But many Americans believe China’s rise has fueled the American middle class’s fall—and work by David Autor’s team at MIT shows they’re likely right.
Other studies focus narrowly on unemployment or personal economic setbacks, overlooking the political science showing that’s not what drives people’s voting. Instead, what drove Trump voting were worries about the national economy and the sense that one’s community is left behind: Regions with lower job growth, social mobility, life expectancy, and workforce participation swung for Trump in 2016. Robert Wuthnow documents rural America’s sense of being dissed and forgotten, and Katherine J. Cramer documents how this drives the politics of resentment. Rust Belt whites show a sharp increase in both polarization and support for the GOP. Democrats’ losses in rural areas and declining factory towns outweighed gains in cities and suburbs by two to one.
What’s happening in the United States fits a larger pattern: A study of 20 advanced economies over the past 140 years found that, after severe financial crises, far-right parties increased their vote by 30 percent. The sharp rise in inequality was center stage during Occupy Wall Street. The inequality hasn’t gone away, and it’s poisoning American politics.
Does This Mean That Economic Populism Is Not About Race?
No. Right-wing populism is not just an expression of economic anxiety. It offers an explanation for whom to blame: Jews in 1930s Germany; people of color in the United States today. Studies of European nationalism find blame for outsiders a consistent pattern. Thus Trump and his allies claim the American dream has disappeared not because the business elite are stealing workers’ fair share of productivity, but because immigrants and people of color get jobs “we” deserve.
The key research shows that white Republicans are far more likely than Democrats or independents to believe that white people get disadvantaged for being white. This is demonstrably untrue. My team’s six studies of racial bias document that white men today report the least bias in industry after industry, while women of color report the most. Don’t even get me started on how many studies show that people have never had equal access to the American dream—and still don’t.
Elites throughout U.S. history have tapped workers’ racism to deflect blame from bosses’ theft of workers’ fair share. W.E.B. Du Bois described what has been called the wages of whiteness strategy, noting that even when working-class whites “received a low wage [they are] compensated in part by a … public and psychological wage”: You might be “white trash,” but at least you have the privileges associated with being white.
Working-class whites know they’ve been screwed, and the far right is telling them it’s because they’re white. Progressives should be connecting with working-class anger and explaining that non-elites have gotten screwed not because they’re white but because they’re working-class. You can’t do this without a language of social class.
If Trump and his crew are busy sculpting economic resentment into racial resentment, the key question is how to sculpt it back. Unions make people less racist, presumably because they successfully communicate that white people are losing ground because of class, not race. For politicians, the race-class narrative is crucial, as is a 2018 survey in which a progressive group found that three-quarters of rural respondents agreed with this message: “Instead of delivering for working people, politicians hand kickbacks to their donors who send jobs overseas. Then they turn around and blame new immigrants or people of color, to divide and distract us from the real source of our problems.” Focus on economics and don’t let the far right be the only ones talking about race. This is very different from the narrative that writes off all Trump voters as racists and denies their economic woes, which just strengthens the hand of the far right.
So many depressing studies document the fact that racial resentment drives populism. I can’t cite them all, so we need to be clear about whom we’re targeting. A 2017 study differentiated between “preservationists,” the 20 percent of Trump voters for whom being white and Christian was front and center, and “anti-elites,” the 19 percent of Trump voters who have progressive economic views and feelings toward people of color as warm as those of non-Trump voters. A coalition with anti-elites is compatible with insistent condemnation of racism.
Economic Populism Is Also About Class Anger Expressed as Culture Wars
Understanding the class dynamic in American politics requires understanding that class is not just about economics; it’s also about cultural differences. As the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu pointed out, class status is enacted through cultural distinctions between elites and non-elites. Conservatives have weaponized the resulting class culture gap into bitter culture wars over everything from Covid to climate change. Progressives need an effective response: “Cultural voting” accounts for much of the shift to the right among non-elites since World War II.
Culture wars deftly deflect anger against exploitative business elites by directing non-elites’ anger toward cultural elites instead. Cultural voting helps explain disturbing trends that muddy the narrative that populism is just a defense of white privilege. In 2020, votes for Trump increased among noncollege voters of every racial group, winning about a third of the votes of nonwhite, noncollege men; Republicans now have gained so much support that recent polling warns that Latino voters could soon be evenly split between the parties. People of color still vote Democratic far more than white people, but we need to act now.
Too many idealistic progressives fail to appreciate the ways their politics reflect their worldview, and their worldview reflects their privilege. Close to half of college grads of all racial groups say they are liberal, but that’s true of only one-quarter of white and Latino noncollege voters, and about one-third of Black and Asian American ones.
This plays out over a wide range of issues. Americans who didn’t attend college are 26 percent less likely to support gay marriage, 25 percent more likely to think immigrants threaten American values, and 16 percent more likely to believe that abortion should be illegal than those with postgraduate degrees. These differences occur in every racial group; shockingly, 32 percent of Latino noncollege grads support reducing even legal immigration. Religion is another key class divide: Two-thirds of Americans without high school degrees say religion is very important in their lives, but less than half of those with postgraduate degrees say this.
Understanding the class culture gap starts from two principles: Parents raise their kids to succeed at the jobs available to them, and people use what tools they have in the eternal scrum for social honor.
Non-elite parents value obedience more than creativity: Being disruptive may help Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, but among non-elites, it just gets you fired. A huge amount of political science literature encodes this as “authoritarian personality,” unselfconsciously interpreting lack of social privilege as a character flaw.
People in the middle of status hierarchies are more conformist than those above and those below, motivated by fear of status loss; Barbara Ehrenreich called it the fear of falling. While elites feel free to chase unicorns, the fragile middle class worries about losing what it has, leading to rarely understood, class-linked differences on taxation and social redistribution. Americans who didn’t attend college are 24 percentage points less likely than college grads to favor increasing the maximum tax rate. Middle-income voters are less likely than either the rich or poor to think that government should provide more assistance, so it’s not surprising that noncollege voters in households earning $30,000 to $80,000 opposed making Biden’s childcare tax credit permanent. Racism plays a role, but so does class: People working very hard at not-very-fulfilling jobs resent paying taxes to support those who aren’t working. About two-thirds of white and Latino noncollege voters (and nearly 60 percent of Black and Asian-Pacific Islander ones) support work requirements for those on food stamps … yikes. As a progressive, I favor empowering the middle class rather than starving the poor, but Americans typically think the GOP is better at creating good-paying jobs and conveying respect for hard work. That’s political malpractice, especially since many Latinos and Asian Americans came to the United States precisely to pursue the American dream through hard work.
The class culture gap extends to “social” issues. It takes self-discipline to show up, on time and without “an attitude,” to blue- and pink-collar jobs, so non-elites of all races highly value the traditional institutions that anchor self-discipline: religion, the military, and “family values.” My crowd in San Francisco scorns such institutions and stresses instead its “sophistication,” a.k.a. the way elites display their cultural capital to others in the elite class through artisanal spiritualities and teeny, tiny portions of labor-intensive food. While elites look down on non-elites as unsophisticated, non-elites look down on elites as insincere and place a higher value on their own unadorned “straight talk.” Trump taps into this brilliantly. His own personal fury at elites is sincere—he was never accepted by New York society—and the coarse and transgressive tropes that so revolt me feel delicious to his followers for precisely that reason: Trump’s their middle finger.
The scrum for honor also helps explain why non-elites highly value traditional masculinities and femininities: Those are social ideals they can fulfill to assuage the hidden injuries of class. Thus hegemonic masculinity predicts Trump voting in both men and women; yet another class effect. All this fuels attitudes toward abortion; “pro-life” reflects non-elites’ pride in placing “family before work: You can always get another job, but you can’t get another family.” It also fuels their critique of elites’ obsessive focus on their careers.
Other studies show that elites are more individualistic, while non-elites place a higher value on community and solidarity, which explains the soul pain of people in rural and Rust Belt America who are seeing their communities wither. The scrum for social honor also explains why non-elites are more patriotic and protective of “American values”: Being American is one of the only high-honor categories they belong to, and everyone emphasizes the high-honor categories they inhabit. That’s why elites stress their high-status careers.
Scorn down, anger up: the emotions that cement hierarchies. If we want to stop the anger, we need to stop the scorn. Building a bridge to noncollege voters will require more than just going big on redistribution. I felt chastened when Leah Daughtry, twice CEO of the Democratic National Convention Committee, whose father was an early mentor of New York’s Mayor Eric Adams, commented tartly after Adams defeated more progressive candidates in the primary, “Is it that Black and brown people are not as progressive as some people want to say they are, or does the definition of ‘progressive’ need to be looked at?” This sentiment was recently echoed by San Francisco’s African American Mayor London Breed.
I’m not saying, as Ruy Teixeira does, that the Democratic Party should abandon cultural leftism. If it does so, I will leave it. My point is that culture wars, combined with economic and racial strife, are fraying the social bonds that cement democracy. We’re close to the point of no return. College-educated Americans need to increase our cultural competence and treat non-elites with the respect that is due to coalition partners whose lives and values often differ from our own. Progressives need to listen more and demand less—not because we’re moderates but because we’re progressives.