I read with interest this column at RCP asking whether Clinton has written off “working class white men.” Yesterday, I was asked to participate in a round table of conservative thinkers and writers about the future of the GOP, and one of the questions that was asked was what the GOP could do to reach the “blue collar male white voters” Trump is attracting without alienating growing minority communities in the process.
First of all, I think describing these voters as “white working class voters” or “blue collar white voters” vastly oversimplifies the demographic Trump has had success with during the course of this election. There are plenty of blue collar white folks who are immune to the bovine fecal material that Trump has been slinging, but there is a particular segment of voters that Trump has had a lot of success with, and those are people who punish politicians for telling them the truth. They are workers who work in fields where the demand for human labor has dropped precipitously, and is unlikely to ever recover. What these people want is not an actual solution to their current economic woes, but someone who will lie to them and say that things can go back to the way they were.
One good example of this is coal miners. Hillary got destroyed in West Virginia (and some other places) because of an offhand comment to the effect that many coal jobs are never returning. This is true beyond a shadow of a doubt. Even if all EPA regulations pertaining to coal were lifted overnight, coal could still not compete on price with natural gas as a result of fracking and other energy technologies, and even if it could, coal takes way less human labor to mine than it used to. New coal mining techniques allow companies these days to remove the entire top of a mountain in just a couple of years using less than 20 workers. The days where hundreds of people went down into a mountain day after day to dig coal are just gone.
Likewise, many people who work in the manufacturing sector are unwilling to face the reality that fewer and fewer humans period are required to make things anymore. The false perception has taken hold that the United States does not manufacture things anymore; this is patently untrue. U.S. Manufacturing output is at an all time high, it’s just that fewer people are involved in creating that output.
Now look, the reality is that these people need to start finding something else to do with their lives, and the sooner the better. I’m not trying to sound like a calloused jerk here, because I can definitely relate to the problem. I graduated law school in 2008 with about $200,000 in debt that it’s going to take me at least 20 years to pay off and entered a job market that was in the middle of a similar permanent recalibration. When I went in to school at Vanderbilt it was pretty much assumed that everyone who came out of a decent law school with a degree would be on track for partnership at a law firm in 7 years and a comfortable lifetime income, but those days are gone apparently forever. While other sectors of the economy have recovered to some degree, the legal field appears to have permanently changed and so now I have a very expensive law degree so that I edit a political website. I’m not bemoaning my fate – life sucks, get a helmet, as they say, and I actually find my work now more rewarding than I used to.
But the people who Trump is reaching right now are not interested in hearing any of this. If you tell them the truth – that the economy has changed permanently and they need to either change careers or face permanent negative economic consequences, they will punish you en masse at the voting booth. What they want is someone who will put on a coal mining hat and tell them that when they are elected, the coal miners are going back to work, or that the reason their manufacturing jobs are gone is that the damn Mexicans (or Chinese or whoever) have stolen them, and that we can put a stop to that if only you elect me. In other words, they demand lies and punish the truth.
These workers are by no means the only voters who demand magical thinking. A huge portion of America demands to be lied to about the financial solvency of our current government-provided retirement security net – a security net that was predicated on an average American life expectancy of about 55 and has consistently avoided any changes to the retirement age even as American life expectancy has creeped towards 75. While Hillary Clinton might not be willing to lie to the coal miners, she’s plenty willing to lie to baby boomers and tell them everything is fine with the program that is threatening to cripple the entire nation’s financial solvency.
Personally, I’m tired of the think pieces that ask how to “reach” these people – all of whom seem to be based on the idea that what’s required is good messaging to mollify their concerns with lies. A far more important concern for the actual health of our country is how we can convince these people that it’s not the government’s job in the first place to magically fix their economic problems that have been created by the natural operation of the free market. Until that becomes the goal, our politics will just fall further down the well of pleasant-sounding lies that cripple our ability to meet the challenges of tomorrow in any sort of sustainable fashion. These people do not need to be reached, they need to be taught.
But teaching people is hard, and lying to them is easy, especially when teaching is punished and lying is rewarded. In other words, the problem is not just or even mostly the candidates, the problem is us.