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Why the white working class feels like they’ve lost it all, according to a political scientist

“They’re consumed by nostalgia.” — Justin Gest, author of The New Minority

President Elect Donald Trump Holds Victory Rally In Pennsylvania Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images

The white working-class voter is a subject of excessive interest these days. Having helped swing the election in Donald Trump’s favor, pundits and academics are scrambling for insights into their motivations. This is particularly true of Democrats, who learned, rather painfully, that a national election strategy has to include white working-class voters.

Justin Gest is a professor of public policy at George Mason University and the author of The New Minority: White Working Class Politics in an Age of Immigration and Inequality. A product of six months of fieldwork, mostly in Ohio, the book is a badly needed primer on Middle America’s political rebellion.

Gest’s thesis is that white working-class voters have been radicalized by a sense of loss. Suspended “between the vestiges” of their power “and its perceived loss,” poor whites are alienated from a system that previously advantaged them but now is seen as “overcompensating” for its historical missteps.

The ascendant nativism, on Gest’s account, is the result of lower-class whites seeing themselves as victims. If they’re angry at ethnic minorities, he claims, it’s not so much due to racism but rather to a belief, a perception, really, that those minorities are afforded social advantages at the expense of the white underclass. Gest doesn’t discount the role of racial animus in white working-class politics (it’s real and no doubt a factor), but he does contend that it’s only a part of the broader story.

I sat down with Gest earlier this week to talk about his new book and about the failures of both parties to productively engage white working-class voters.

Sean Illing

What’s the most counterintuitive finding of your book?

Justin Gest

If you'd have asked me that a year ago, there would be a number of them. But given the overexposure of this group of people (the white working class), a lot of my findings now meet a lot of people's intuitions, especially after Brexit and Donald Trump. For so long people didn't understand the nature of white working-class people's frustration, and they didn't really understand how that could be justified.

So when I would say to people that the nature of white working-class people's marginality is that they feel outnumbered and they feel external from government and power-brokers, and they feel discriminated against — this is mind-blowing and incredibly counterintuitive. I think now people are starting to get a grasp of this, however, as the plight of the white working class becomes more apparent.

Sean Illing

I think it might help if you unpack this term “marginalized” a bit more. In what ways are the white working class marginalized?

Justin Gest

For several decades, the mainstream political parties in the US and the UK really treated white working-class people with enormous caution. From the left's perspective, they're cool with white working-class people's protectionism, but their nativism causes big problems for their desire to build a broad coalition. From the right's perspective, they were fine with nativism, but they had problems with the protectionism, and that undermined the coalition they wanted to build.

So white working-class people were left, not necessarily dismissed, but they've received a lot of lip service from both political parties over the years who were never truly prepared to go all in on the things they most cared about.

But perhaps even more importantly, neither party did much to symbolically represent white working-class people in terms of the candidates they selected and the language they used. And so white working-class people felt that sense of marginality, both substantively and symbolically.

Sean Illing

I don’t deny the suffering in these regions, but there’s a bit of persecution mania going on here. This is still a numerical majority that behaves like a beleaguered minority. How inflated is this sense of marginalization?

Justin Gest

Politics is all about perceptions, and perceptions are so much more important than reality in terms of predicting voting behavior. And so in many ways, I find it unproductive to even attempt to get into discussions about who has it worse, because everything is contextualized and relative. When we compare the plight of the white working class to the plight of refugees who are fleeing Syria or stranded in camps in Turkey, it puts things into greater perspective.

But the truth is that if we're trying to understand the political behavior of white working-class people, their sense of marginality and beleaguerment is real, and in their minds it's meaningful — and that's what matters in terms of our efforts to make sense of it.

Sean Illing

You say working class whites are radicalizing due to an “acute sense of loss.” What, exactly, have they lost? And who took it from them?

Justin Gest

From their perspective, they've lost it all. They look back into the mid-century and they see white working-class communities, people who never finished university degrees or even high school, who were able to get stable 9-to-5 jobs that paid a livable wage and allowed them to support a family of four. And they lived in communities that they perceived to be stable and safe and middle class.

As a result of that middle class status and their numbers, white working-class people were largely in the center of the political world. Their votes were coveted by both political parties and their voices seemed to matter. That economic and social and political standing has all been undermined in the time since the end of the manufacturing era, and they seem\ themselves as politically alienated and, in some cases, vilified — and this is in a country they once defined.

And so it's this sense of loss that motivates so much of their frustration and so much of the political energy we're seeing right now. They are consumed by nostalgia.

Sean Illing

Do you think they have an accurate sense of who or what is responsible for all of these negative transformations?

Justin Gest

I think if you ask 10 white working-class people who's to blame, you're likely to get 11 answers. There's plenty of blame to go around. People will blame politicians, steel barons, and big businessmen. They'll blame the unions or black people or immigrants. It really does depend on each individual's perspective and life experiences. Many of these people have resigned themselves to the fact that the world has transformed in multi-dimensional ways and there is no single source of this change.

Sean Illing

Given the nature and depth of these grievances, it’s rather easy to see why Trump won. The nativism, the nationalism, the isolationism — this plays perfectly to the anxieties you’re describing.

Justin Gest

In hindsight, it's perfectly clear why Trump won among white working-class voters. I wrote a piece in August 2015, about six weeks after Trump declared his candidacy, noting what strange bedfellows he and the white working class are and why they work so well. What I think is so surprising about this victory is the way he was able to motivate non-working-class people to support him, and I think that was always the question.

For those of us who study white working-class voters closely, there was never a doubt that Trump would dominate amongst this demographic. The question was, where was the ceiling? There are only so many white working-class voters out there. He was always going to need more, and the question was where would that come from?

Sean Illing

You mentioned a second ago that working-class whites are motivated by a nostalgia for a bygone era. I think that’s absolutely right, and it explains the psychological appeal of Trump’s promise to make America great — again.

Justin Gest

If Trump didn't have "again" at the end of that slogan, it's a completely different campaign. That word "again" suggests that the times were once better and that we're going to get back to that place. It just taps brilliantly into that sense of nostalgia.

Sean Illing

There’s still a sense that Trump’s success, while not quite a fluke, was somehow unique, a product of his bizarre cult of personality. But your research suggests Trumpism is about much more than Trump.

I know you polled white Americans to gauge their support for a hypothetical third party (modeled on some of the right-wing parties in Europe) devoted to “stopping mass immigration, providing American jobs to American workers, preserving America’s Christian heritage, and stopping the threat of Islam.”

What were the results?

Justin Gest

The results are that there's a substantial number of white Americans who would support a nativist third party. I should mention some caveats: that third party doesn't exist yet, which means it's not subject to scrutiny yet; there's no personalities associated with it; it can't be linked to any scandals. But this gives us an idea of what the ceiling is for a nativist European-style third party.

Sixty-five percent of my respondents said yes, I'd consider supporting a party like that, a party that sought to preserve Christian's heritage, condemned Islam entirely, capped mass immigration, and preserve American jobs for American workers. That kind of nationalist, protectionist party was very attractive to a lot of white Americans.

Sean Illing

If that’s true, it would appear the GOP is confronting an existential dilemma: Their base is now fully committed to Trumpism, and so either they embrace and become a European-style right-wing nativist party or they can double down on traditional Republican values and die as a national party.

Justin Gest

Well, they wouldn't necessarily die, but they would risk an enormous insurgency inside the party who is frustrated by their insistence on establishment politics. They may secede or they may create that third party or they'd just have an unwieldy coalition.

All of this is ironic given that it's true of the party currently holding majorities in both chambers and the White House. So you have a party that's in power, but the question is, how much of a party is it? These forces are inevitably going to pull the GOP to the right, particularly as more and more candidates get elected with nativist and protectionist ideas in mind.

And so the question is how can Republicans reconcile these very different perspectives?

Sean Illing

I think Republicans are quite comfortable with nativism, provided it’s reasonably covert. But what about the protectionism? This seems to me the least compatible part of Trump’s platform.

Justin Gest

Absolutely. It's the protectionism that really unnerves Republicans and makes them wonder what's happening to their party. So much of what Republicans understand to be their hallmark issues and principles come from things like promoting global trade or pro-business policies or engagement with international allies. Trump's ideas really contradict those principles.

Sean Illing

Is the political center evaporating in this country, as it is in Europe?

Justin Gest

There are a lot of forces at play that are pushing politics increasingly to the fringe. In the book, I mention a number of them. One is that the media has a voracious appetite for controversy. It's the most extreme voices that dominate headlines because they are the most extreme and unusual and so they get more air time. Then there's also the campaign finance problem in the US. We only support politicians when they raise enough issues that are polarizing to make people fear that they not get their way. If there's agreement, people aren't scared and so not enough money is raised.

One of the things I want to emphasize in this book is that the white working class for so long occupied the center, and with their drifting to the periphery, it's unclear what demographic voting bloc really does occupy the political center.

Sean Illing

Do you think our constrained two-party system can survive or absorb these political transformations?

Justin Gest

The question isn't whether it can survive — it clearly will because we make it so hard for third parties to emerge. The electoral institutions here make it very difficult to create third parties. And when you have a two-party system, there's effectively a detente because if one would ever be split, the one that remains intact has an enormous advantage in terms of winning seats.

The Republicans have very strong incentives to maintain this insurgent, divided coalition that they have because it will mean their demise if they do get split. And so look for them to find issues where they can agree. But look for Democrats to prod them where they don't, because in many cases Democrats will agree with some of the protectionist stances of a Trump administration.

Sean Illing

Where did Democrats go wrong? It’s simply not true that Democrats don’t speak to the issues white working-class voters care about, so what’s the disconnect?

Justin Gest

Democrats speak to these core issues, they just don't speak particularly well. In politics, it's not enough to tell, you have to show. Democrats aren't telling very well, but they're also not showing. Democrats don't use white working-class or even working-class language. They don't nominate working-class candidates. They simply do not visibly represent the people they claim to be helping.

It's frustrating to hear for many Democrats, but Hillary Clinton was an inherently weak candidate. Her unpopularity ratings, her unfavorable ratings, were sky high throughout the campaign. What's worse, her turnout — even in the primaries — was so abysmally low that there wasn't enough energy behind her candidacy to match the energy that Trump brought.

That was abundantly clear early on.

Sean Illing

You make an interesting point about the decline of labor unions in the Midwest. Why does that matter and how has it hurt the Democratic Party?

Justin Gest

What I observed in Ohio, where I conducted a lot of my research, is that there was a phenomenon of a union hangover. For so long, white working-class people in the manufacturing industry relied on unions to be their political voice, to organize them, to bring them together around political messages. The problem is that when you do that, when you rely on others to be your political muscle, your own muscles atrophy.

When unions declined with the manufacturing sector, the former employees who remained were unable to build a coalition or the sense of solidarity that once infused their politics. And so there is this hangover phenomenon where white working-class people have had trouble developing a collective consciousness.

What Trump has done is give them an identity, for better or worse. We just don't know how ephemeral that is. We don't know whether it's dependent upon Trump's personality or whether it's here to stay.

Sean Illing

So what’s the strategy moving forward, both for the Democrats and the Republicans? Is there a productive way to reintegrate white working-class voters into a broader coalition?

Justin Gest

Well, right now I think Democrats are distracted by the truths of their defeat. In any election postmortem, the losing party is going to say, where are the swing voters that we lost this time that we had last time? In this case, they're right to be focusing on white working-class voters because that is the pivotal swing voter that they lost.

However, this presumes that there isn't some electoral realignment underfoot, and I think that that's foolish. I don't think the white working-class voters that Democrats lost are going to come rushing back if next time around they just organize a better campaign.

I think there's a cult of personality that's now backing Trump among white working-class voters, and the realignment I'm speaking of really creates vulnerabilities for the GOP. If Republicans do in fact embrace Trump, or are forced to by his presidential politics, it leaves the political center wide open for the taking by the Democrats if they play their cards right.

So I don't think the Democrats should be distracted by the loss of white working-class voters because that loss creates opportunities for new gains if they run the right candidates. As a matter of strategy, then, Democrats need to be opportunistic and seize the center where Republicans are willingly evacuating.

And the second strategy is to poach as many working class people back from Trump when he's unable to actually affect and change their trajectories. Because so many of Trump's promises will not come to fruition, and the question is how many working class people will be disappointed by that?

From my perspective, because of that cult of personality, Trump will retain much of his support simply because of the symbolism that he embodies. However, there will be others who never really believed what Trump was selling but believe that he actually makes the country worse once he's in power, and it's on the Democrats to seize those opportunities to take white working-class voters back.

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