I’m not going to waste time explaining why I think Donald Trump should not be president. That dead horse has already been thoroughly pulverized. Instead, I’d like to discuss why Trump’s candidacy matters, and what we ought to learn from it and do about it.
Even though the press narrative this week is that Trump’s support has “collapsed,” he is still currently projected to receive 42.6% of the popular vote, to Hillary Clinton’s 49.1%. And this is despite running an incompetent, amateurish campaign with almost no local organization and no advertising spending. Clearly, his message resonates with a significant number of voters.
Trump’s strongest base of support are white voters without a college education. After the Republican National Convention, his lead over Clinton with this group approached 40%, better than any Republican candidate since Ronald Reagan in the 1984 election, which he won in a historic landslide. The difference is that in 1984, these voters made up 62% of the electorate; today, that figure is about 34%. So why does his message resonate so well with them?
I would characterize Trump’s message as largely negative; he is anti-immigration, anti-globalization, and anti-establishment. The message he sends to his voters is that the establishment has betrayed them, and has pursued policies that hurt their standard of living.
The scary thing is that he’s right. Immigration does appear to hurt the wages of low-skill workers. American manufacturing jobs continue to decline, and globalization appears to play a role. And the two major political parties tend to focus on issues that just don’t help uneducated whites. They don’t believe in the pro-business policies of the Republican Party, or the identity politics of the Democratic Party. Even if they agree with some of the socially conservative positions of the Republican Party, these are far less important than the economic pain they feel.
The fact is, whites without college degrees have had a terrible couple of decades. They have declined economically (“From 1979 to 2012, the median-income gap between a family headed by two earners with college degrees and two earners with high-school degrees grew by $30,000, in constant dollars”) and demographically (“Since 2010, racial and ethnic minorities have accounted for 91.7 percent of all population growth in the US. The share of the US population that is foreign-born is four times what it was in 1970, having risen from 4.7 percent then to 13.1 percent in 2013”).
And most of the wealthy, educated elites of the country don’t seem to care. Or more precisely, we don’t have any exposure, and thus empathy for this group. In 2015, the unemployment rate for Americans with a professional degree (like, for example, a Harvard MBA) was just 1.5%. The figure for a those with just a high school diploma was 5.4%, and for high school dropouts, it was 8%. The median income for professional degree holders was nearly four times that of the dropouts. That’s like the proportional difference in per capita GDP between the United States and Bulgaria.
The problem is that the wealthy, educated elites, who are concentrated on the coasts, and in big cities, are a tiny minority. Educational attainment in the United States is at an all-time high, yet only 32% of those 25 and older have graduated from college. College graduates are a minority, and by a wide margin. Yet this minority controls the media, the government, and most of the wealth of the country.
Imagine if you lived in a country where a small minority controlled all the wealth and power, dominated the media and entertainment world, and seemed to revel in looking down on you as if you were a lower form of life that deserved nothing better than your squalid existence. I suspect that’s how it might feel to be a white person without a college education in the America of 2016.
Now imagine that you had a chance to stick it to that stuck-up ruling class, simply by voting for a particular candidate. Yes, their propagandists might write endless editorials about why no one should vote for this candidate, but why would you listen to them? They don’t seem to care about, respect, or even consider you an equal. Screw them.
It’s at this point that many people start muttering about the dumb, “information-poor” voters who vote against their own economic interests. The implication seems to be, “Isn’t it a shame that we let those dumb hicks vote?” If you believe that, you’re betraying the very principles of democracy.
True democracy is based on a simple rule: One person, one vote. You don’t get more votes for being rich, or for having a fancy degree, just like you don’t get more votes for belonging to a particular ethnic group. Disenfranchising people for their education level is no better than disenfranchising them for the color of their skin.
This is as it should be! This is the way that democracy reflects the fact that all humans have equal rights, even if they don’t have equal abilities. When we say that everyone has the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, the right to vote is what helps them keep that right.
If 42.6% of people plan to vote for Trump, the answer isn’t to belittle them and try to berate them into changing their minds; it’s to try to actually understand their motivations and desires.
People are voting for Trump because they feel like the system is rigged against them, and thus they don’t see it as legitimate. That’s no different than feeling like the police are targeting you because of the color of your skin (because they are), or that you’re less likely to get a promotion because you’re a woman (because that’s also true).
I believe we need a better social safety net, including higher-quality public education, and universal healthcare. This doesn’t mean socialism; mankind has tried socialism and capitalism clearly kicks its ass. It makes zero sense to pay taxi drivers vastly more than doctors. But you don’t have to take away the incentives to excel in order to treat those who don’t excel with compassion. The United States is one of the richest countries in the world. Our per-capita GDP of $53,000 is more than sufficient to reward the creators and builders, while keeping people from starving in the streets.
Donald Trump’s supporters believe the system is rigged. They’re right. The question is what we’re going to do about it, since voting for Trump obviously won’t help.