Donald Trump is the wrong man, but he seems to be nailing the concerns (perhaps unwittingly) of angry Americans who feel left out of the politics of recent decades. Robert W Merry explains why political commentators have failed to understand what is happening.
What these commentators and many others didn’t see was an underlying development in American society destined to send shock waves through the nation’s politics. It generated a rumbling within elements of the electorate that presaged an inevitable political volcano, which now is in eruption.
Much has been written about the so-called hollowing out of Middle America, the decline of the working class, the impact of the “culture wars” on ordinary Americans with traditional views, the loss of factory jobs, the fallout from unchecked immigration, the disintegration of traditional values among population groups that once personified those values. These are the losers of globalization, and their experiences in today’s global economy have been stark. Commentator David Frum, writing in the Atlantic, points out (based on figures from the Center for Immigration Studies) that since the collapse of Lehman Brothers, 1.5 million fewer native-born Americans are working than in November 2007. Meanwhile, during that same time span, some two million immigrants—legal and illegal—have gained jobs in the country. “All the net new jobs created since November 2007 have gone to immigrants,” writes Frum.
Indeed, as social scientist Charles Murray notes, for white working-class men in their thirties and forties, participation in the labor force dropped from 96 percent in 1968 to 79 percent last year. The percentage of these men who were married also dropped—to 52 percent last year from 86 percent in 1968. Out-of-wedlock births and the drug scene also take their toll among these people, once a solid source of civic stability. Writes Murray, “Consider how these trends have affected life in working-class communities for everyone, including those who are still playing by the old rules. They find themselves working and raising their families in neighborhoods where the old civic culture is gone—neighborhoods that are no longer friendly or pleasant or even safe.”
Meanwhile, the political and financial elites are doing just fine under the prevailing system. And they are not above evincing a certain contempt toward those who issue their plaintive protest at their reduced circumstances. As Michael Brendan Dougherty, writing in This Week, puts it, “The political left treats this as a made-up problem, a scapegoating by Applebee’s-eating, megachurch rubes who think they are losing their ‘jerbs.’” Murray adds that mainstream Americans are “fully aware of [the] condescension and contempt” the elites feel toward them and are “understandably irritated by it.”
Both Murray and Dougherty argue that American conservatism, as it has evolved since Barry Goldwater’s 1964 presidential quest, has little to offer these frustrated Americans. Conservatives tout free trade, but free trade is part of globalism, and working class Americans see globalism is a big part of their problem. Conservatives want to attack governmental entitlements, such as Medicare and Social Security, but those programs remain among the few federal programs that help Middle America. Conservative institutions such as the Wall Street Journal favor mass immigration, while Middle America regards immigration—for good reason—as a major economic threat, as well as a threat to some of its traditional values. Conservatives tend to be outraged by the cultural direction of the country on such issues as abortion and gay marriage, whereas working-class Americans are too financially strapped to put those issues at the forefront of their concerns. Conservatives have turned the GOP into a party of military adventurism, but the working class knows it will bear the brunt of fighting those wars. Conservatives habitually tout the legacy of Ronald Reagan and swear fealty to his memory, while Middle Americans want solutions to the problems of today, not those of a generation ago...
The traditional parties and their hardened ideological positions on issues have contributed mightily to the crisis of deadlock in American politics. The solution isn’t to work through the tired, old political structures to split the difference on issues, but to build new coalitions, based on new clusters of political thinking, that can break up the logjams and move the country in new directions.