There’s been an interesting conversation going on here on BMG concerning Democrats and the working class (especially members of the white working class). A big part of the conversation is the claim, like that of Thomas Frank’s, that Democrats’ embrace of neoliberal policies has pushed away white working class voters and led at least some of them to the Republican Party. In a similar vein, a number of BMG’ers (including the always perceptive jconway) have argued that Democrats can — and must — win back these voters by doing more to seriously address their economic anxieties.
I agree that Democrats should pursue policies of social justice and take seriously the concerns of those who feel especially economically insecure. However, there is good reason to believe that much of the white working class that have abandoned the Democrats in recent years won’t be coming back anytime soon — and that we shouldn’t want them back. Backing up both of these claims is the real reason why so much of the white working class has abandoned Democrats. It’s not because of Democrats’ embrace of neoliberal policies (which Republicans have done to a greater extent), or because the Democrats have jettisoned their commitment to issues like the minimum wage, protection of Social Security, or trying to reign in health care costs (all of which are central parts of the Democratic platform). Instead, the real reason can be summarized in one word — authoritarianism.
Political scientists have done considerable work on Americans’ authoritarian tendencies in recent years. Amanda Traub of Vox summarized some of this recent work in a terrific piece last week: The Rise of American Authoritarianism. I’d encourage you to read the whole thing, if you haven’t already. But the main point is that there has long been an authoritarian streak in American politics. What do these American authoritarians want? Well, among other things, “authoritarians prioritize social order and hierarchies, which bring a sense of control to a chaotic world.” When there are challenges to that social order, authoritarians “favor forceful, decisive action against things they perceive as threats” and flock to leaders who promise decisive action. The article’s point is that Donald Trump has very much tapped into this authoritarian strain in this election.
But there’s a broader context too. In the past, American authoritarians (many in the Populist and Democratic Parties) may have been convinced that the threat was coming from bankers, capitalists, industrialists, Northerners, and so forth. This was likely the group leftist populist (and demagogue) Huey Long tapped into back in the 1930s, when he attacked FDR from the Left. But that’s not what motivates many American authoritarians today. Instead, as the Vox article illustrates, it is exaggerated fears of terrorism, of increasing racial diversity, and of social change more generally. It is these attributes that have driven many American authoritarians to Trump — who promises to “bomb the hell out of ISIS,” attack “P.C. culture,” and build a giant wall on the Mexican border to keep out Mexican rapists (which he and many supporters see as one and the same).