Reflections on the Election and the White Working Class…and Some Links Worth Reading

Stephen Herzenberg |

Like many of you, I’ve spent the last 10 days reflecting on the Presidential election and devouring countless commentaries. The end of this blog includes some links I found helpful.

In any presidential election this close, changes in a large number of factors “coulda, woulda, shoulda” changed the outcome. That said, the margin by which Trump won the the white non-college vote—64% to 32% in Pennsylvania, not far off the 67 percent to 28 percent national gap—seems too big to ignore.

It’s not as if this is a new challenge. Back in 2000, we wrote in Pennsylvania’s Forgotten Majority about the volatity of voters in the state without a four-year college degree. In these earlier years we didn’t have exit polls split by race as well as education level, so we used the total non-college vote to gauge shifts among whites. As a point of comparison, Trump won the total Pennsylvania non-college vote by 52%-45%.

President Clinton carried Pennsylvania by winning non-college voters 48%-33% over George H.W. Bush in 1992 and 51%-38% over Bob Dole in 1996. A more than 20-percentage point swing among non-college Pennsylvania votes compared to 1992 carried Republican Rick Santorum to victory over Democrat Harris Wofford in the 1994 Senate race. Swings among non-college voters also contributed to a large increase in the Republican majority in the Pennsylvania Senate in 1994 and to swings towards Republicans State House races—swings which have never been fully reversed.

The volatilty and anger of white working class voters is not that mystifying to anyone who spends as much time looking and wage and income statistics as we do. This year’s The State of Working Pennsylvania 2016 shows the large wage declines among white non-college men going back to 1979. (The wage decline among black non-college men has been even larger.)

KRC’s analyses of intersecting economic and political trends focus too exclusively on economic trends. The sense of grievance felt by many voters can’t be reduced simply to wage declines and lower employment rates. Economic struggle has been accompanied by a loss of place in the community and a sense of being disrespected. Trump mixed accessible ideas about how to improve the economy (with new trade policies and investment in infrastructure) with a validation of the sense of grievance within his white working-class base. The criticism heaped on Trump for “behaving badly” almost played into his hands by reinforcing the identification with him of voters who feel disrespected. Going forward in Pennsylvania, policy prescriptions and political messaging need to respond to white working-class voters’ need for respect and a redefined sense of place (which, contra Trump, doesn’t require diminishing or attacking other groups).

Reflecting further on the election, we at KRC (and perhaps other progressives) need to get out more. We get out some—talking to local unions and central labor councils, and even to the occasional “Tea Party” chapter (which was great fun by the way—thanks Berks County Patriots). Giving talks to working people plus our immersion in grim economic trends make us less insulated than some in Harrisburg. But we need to spend more time listening to people talk about their economic struggles and frustrations—including people who disagree with us—and asking them which answers they find most compelling.

We have some initial ideas on how to get out more, and how to serve more effectively as Pennsylvania’s think tank for an economy—and a politics—that works for all. But let us know your ideas…and what you’re reading (email or call 717-805-2318).

Now, finally, here are a couple of links: