Political analysts are obsessed with white people, the more disaffected the better. "Will there be enough white voters to elect Donald Trump?" "There are more white voters than people think." "Why Obama must reach out to angry whites." "Can the Democrats win back white working-class voters?" "Has Clinton written off working-class white men?"
This obsession has both fed upon and stimulated a substantial body of reporting and commentary on economic, social, and cultural change in white America — some of it richly revealing, some bordering on caricature. One development looms large in many of these accounts: economic resentment stemming from the long stagnation of white (though not only white) working-class incomes.
What is often surprisingly murky in commentary of this sort is why economic frustration should have pushed white voters toward the Republican Party or toward Donald Trump in particular. It is never hard to find some putatively typical white voter to say, "We are waiting on the election with high hopes that we do get a Republican in there who does understand about working men and women."
Liberals may find this sentiment perplexing on the grounds that Republican policies seem ill-suited to promote the economic interests of the working class. But even they do not seem to recognize how strong the economic case on their side is.
Across income levels, whites have benefited more under Democrats
The Census Bureau’s income tabulations going back to 1972 show that Democrats have presided over substantially greater income growth for non-Hispanic white households in every part of the income distribution than Republicans have. Middle-class white households have experienced about three times as much real income growth under Democratic presidents as they have under Republican presidents. For low-income white households, the partisan gap in income growth is even larger.
At the opposite end of the income spectrum, even affluent white households have fared about 60 percent better under Democratic presidents.
These figures cover 24 years under five Republican presidents (Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, and George W. Bush) and 18 years under three Democratic presidents (Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama through 2015). In order to allow time for presidents’ policies to take effect, I relate income changes in each year to presidential partisanship in the preceding year. However, the partisan pattern is qualitatively similar without the lag.
Are these long-term partisan differences merely the relic of a bygone political economy? Apparently not. White households at every income level gained ground during Barack Obama’s first six years in the White House after experiencing declines in real income under George W. Bush.
In every case, the partisan difference between Obama and Bush was larger than the corresponding difference between previous Democrats and Republicans. (Bush’s record is tarnished by the onset of the Great Recession, but even in his first six years in office white households experienced less income growth than they did under Obama.)
The media focuses on white men, but white women have shifted more this election — to Clinton
What about white men, specifically? Their privileged status as the soccer moms of this election cycle is, in itself, somewhat puzzling. As Lynn Vavreck has noted, the most significant political shifts from 2012 to 2016 have come not among white men but among white women, who are supporting Hillary Clinton much more strongly than they did Obama — a remarkable shift of 8 percentage points.
In contrast, Trump has made no gain at all among white men relative to Romney’s performance, doing a few points better among those without college degrees but 5 points worse among those with college degrees. (Notwithstanding that fact, the New York Times, characteristically, put white men in the headline of Vavreck’s piece.)
The real appeal of focusing on white men is that doing so facilitates a facile juxtaposition of real economic experience and an apparent political response — support among white men for the Republican Party and for Trump in particular. Thus, for example, political scientist Howard Rosenthal grounded an account of why "white men love Donald Trump so much" in a detailed exposition of the decades-long stagnation of their real incomes.
But when he turned to the question of why "white men relocated to the GOP" in response to this prolonged income stagnation, Rosenthal pivoted seamlessly from hard economic data to pure symbolism, blaming "a shift in the Democratic Party’s platform" rhetoric from social welfare programs to social identity. The 2016 Democratic platform, he noted, "has many economic references to women and people of color" — rhetoric that Rosenthal somehow parses as "an implicitly negative position on the relative economic fortunes of white males."
Perhaps many white men see it the same way. As Christopher Achen and I have argued, voters’ choices are often more about "validating their social and political identities" than about concrete policies and economic interests. Symbolic appeals (or perceived slights) are likely to be especially potent in hard times. But it seems worth asking: Does "implicitly negative" partisan rhetoric have any bearing at all on the actual economic fortunes of white men?
Again, the Census Bureau’s tabulations suggest a clear answer to that question. Under Carter, Clinton, and Obama, the real incomes of non-Hispanic white men have grown by an average of 0.5 percent per year — a rather anemic but economically significant upward trend. Under their Republican counterparts, real incomes declined by an average of 0.3 percent per year. Thus, any straightforward attribution of economic effects to political causes would suggest that Republican policies are a source of white men’s economic problems over the past half-century, not a plausible solution for those problems.
Curiously, it's white women whose incomes have grown more slowly under the Democrats
Ironically, the one major demographic group whose real incomes have grown faster under Republican presidents than under Democratic presidents is white women. Thus, if partisan shifts directly reflected real economic experience, we would expect to see white women becoming increasingly Republican over the past 40 years while white men became increasingly Democratic — precisely the opposite of what has actually happened. Clearly, our contemporary politics is seriously unhinged from economic reality.
One recent study of working-class people in white neighborhoods near Cleveland and Pittsburgh found that "only 8 percent of those who favored Trump said it was because of his ‘policies.’" His appeal is fundamentally rhetorical. A liberal labor leader involved in the study, Karen Nussbaum, suggested hopefully that "they want political leadership that helps them. If we move them to clarify who’s really to blame and who really will help, we can help make sense of a frightening situation."
Clarifying "who’s really to blame and who really will help" is no small task, especially in our current polarized political environment. Nonetheless, focusing on how the white working class has actually fared under Democrats and Republicans might "help make sense of a frightening situation." On the other hand, obsessively rehashing — and, in the process, probably reinforcing — misdirected disaffection will only make it more frightening.
Larry M. Bartels is a political scientist at Vanderbilt University and author of the newly revised Unequal Democracy: The Political Economy of the New Gilded Age.
The Big Idea is Vox’s home for smart, sometimes scholarly, excursions into the most important issues and ideas in politics, science, and culture — often from outside contributors. If you have an idea for a piece, pitch us at firstname.lastname@example.org.