There are some voters politicians don’t understand, and there are some voters politicians don’t want. In a rather amazing interview, Hillary Clinton basically admitted that she neither understood, nor much cared for (in any sense of term) the people who switched from supporting Obama to supporting Trump. It is both sad and funny, but Republicans and conservatives should not get complacent. There is a reason those voters didn’t support a knowledgeable and personally decent fellow like Mitt Romney.
Clinton said that Trump was “quite successful in referencing the nostalgia that would give hope, comfort, settle grievances, for millions of people who were upset about gains that were made by others.”
That wasn’t what Stanley Greenberg and Nancy Zdunkewicz found when they interviewed Michigan Trump voters who had previously supported Obama. These voters feel that their jobs are more precarious, their health care has become more expensive, and both business and politicians would gladly sell them out.
Clinton’s smearing of these voters is more than just self-justification. It is also explanation. She is saying out loud what these voters probably already knew she thought about them. Voters are often more perceptive than political commentators assume.
For example, look at Mitt Romney. His most famous gaffe was his calling 47 percent of voters deadbeats who are incapable of learning “that they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.”
This story dominated the news for weeks, and Romney’s support in the Real Clear Politics average of polls fell from 45.5 percent, all the way to . . . 44.6 percent. Given how many news cycles were lost to this story, you would have expected a bigger Romney drop, even if the “gaffe” had been mismatched socks.
My guess is that the voters already knew. Romney had built his entire campaign around the idea that the people who really mattered were the “job creator” business owners who “built that,” and that wage-earners were basically just along for the ride. It didn’t matter when he explicitly insulted wage-earners, because they had already read between the lines that Romney was insulting them all along.
It was much the same with the Clinton campaign. Clinton never actually said that she hated working-class whites. Sure, there were some gaffes, like the one about putting coal miners out of work, and her dismissal of the “racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamaphobic, you name it” deplorables was a sign of what she thought about Trump-curious swing-voters in general.
But, as with Romney’s 47-percent comment, it probably didn’t matter. These voters could have listened to the content of Clinton’s speeches and known that they were nowhere on her list of priorities. Even before she admitted that she thought their problems were phony and attributed their alienation to resentment about “gains that were made by others,” they could guess that her strategy was built around hoping enough Macomb County Democratic voters would die of heroin overdose before election day. And now she is bitter that it didn’t happen.
It isn’t enough to mock Clinton’s lack of insight—because those same voters are just as dissatisfied with conventional Republicans, whom they see as shills for globalist business.
That isn’t quite true. If forced to choose between say, Silicon Valley and the rest of the GOP coalition, most Republican officeholders would swallow hard and attack Silicon Valley. Conventional Republican politicians tend to be shills for local business interests, such as building contractors, hoteliers, and restaurant franchise owners. These people aren’t billionaires. They want lower regulations, low taxes, and plentiful, low-leverage workers in order to avoid having to raise wages or accommodate workers on working hours.
The irony is that the keys for a more inclusive politics are within the Greenberg and Zdunkewicz report. These Obama-Trump voters were open to populist, redistributive candidates like Bernie Sanders. Their problem with Clinton was that she wasn’t redistributive enough. With Clinton trying to be the candidate of both Wall Street and left-wing identity politics, they feared (probably correctly) that they would be left out. A more expansive (and expensive) politics of redistribution looks to these voters like it might have a place for them. That is a lesson for the Democrats.
There is also a lesson for Republicans. One of the Obama-Trump voters says:
I mean we need to take care of home first. We need to take care of the veterans, we need to take care of the elderly, we need to take care of the mentally ill, we need to take care of everyone. Instead of us worrying about other people in other countries, we need to take care of our house first. Get our house in order, then you know what, you need this and this and then we'll help you.
The wisdom here is that our poorest, most troubled people need more help. Their health insurance is too precarious, their children are too weakly tied to the labor market, and their family lives are too disorganized. There are limits to what the government can do to remedy those situations, but those things the government can do will cost money. Expanding market-oriented health insurance through catastrophic coverage and pre-filled health savings accounts will cost money. An expanded child tax credit and wage subsidies will cost money.
What those Obama-Trump voters understand is that helping our low-skill workers will be easier and cheaper if they are a smaller proportion of our population. It is too bad that the default of our conventional Republicans is to combine unpopular (but necessary) entitlement cuts with tax reductions for high-earners and increased low-skill immigration. The conventional Republican default is to increase the numbers of struggling, low-skill workers, leave them more on their own during their working lives, make them retire years later, and give a tax cut to their boss’s boss.
Over the medium term, Republicans can put together a reformist, pro-work, pro-family agenda with slightly higher taxes than we had under George W. Bush. Or we can acquiesce in the sharply higher taxes and regulation that we will get from a radicalizing Democratic Party. But before Republicans can learn, they must be able to see things from the perspective of someone other than a business owner.
Pete Spiliakos is a columnist for First Things.
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