The Hollowed-Out Middle America

This presidential election has been described as a new realignment[1] of American politics, where social pressures mount so high that demagogues[2] appear, and politicians abruptly shift to actually mirror their constituents for a time.

First Bernie Sanders appeared[3], giving voice to the frustrations and the hope for change felt by Millenials and others who had been left behind by globalization and the regulatory capture by the banks.

Later emerged Donald Trump, who gave voice to the anger felt by blue collar white workers, who felt betrayed by decades of free trade and globalization/outsourcing/immigration[4] policies, exacerbated by trends towards more and more automation.

But they are really railing against the same issues (and these are very real issues), which is some of the reasons[5] why so many Bernie supporters are moving to Trump, even though Hilary and the Democrats[6] have basically adopted Bernie’s platform.

Much of why Trump has found such fertile ground is that *both* parties have been ignoring Middle America for decades, as Michael Brendan Dougherty says:

“To simplify Francis’ theory: There are a number of Americans who are losers from a process of economic globalization that enriches a transnational global elite. These Middle Americans see jobs disappearing to Asia and increased competition from immigrants. Most of them feel threatened by cultural liberalism, at least the type that sees Middle Americans as loathsome white bigots. But they are also threatened by conservatives who would take away their Medicare, hand their Social Security earnings to fund-managers in Connecticut, and cut off their unemployment too.”

To me, it seems that in general, anger comes from frustrated expectations, often expectations that are not conscious, where people are not encouraged to really look at the forces in play keeping their way of life the way it is. Then, when one or more of these forces change, life suddenly changes, and you get anger. (It could also be because people know exactly what is causing things, they’ve been electing politicians who say they will fix things, but never actually do, so eventually the people get angry.)

One thing I’d never really thought about (in such words) was that Middle America was really a class protected by political forces (Michael Brendan Dougherty quoting Francis):

Middle American forces, emerging from the ruins of the old independent middle and working classes, found conservative, libertarian, and pro-business Republican ideology and rhetoric irrelevant, distasteful, and even threatening to their own socio-economic interests. The post World War II middle class was in reality an affluent proletariat, economically dependent on the federal government through labor codes, housing loans, educational programs, defense contracts, and health and unemployment benefits. All variations of conservative doctrine rejected these…

and it was inevitable that this would wane, but it was in few politicians’ interest to actually confront and solve the problems.

So, here we are. Maybe, with Hillary adopting Bernie’s platform, things will get better, and we’ll work together to solve some of these problems. It will be interesting to see how the rest of the realignment works itself out.

(This other linked story talks about how the Democrats are becoming the party of globalization, as the Republicans become the party of isolationism, where):

“This difference in worldviews maps neatly into differences in policy. Nationalists support immigration and trade deals only if they improve the living standards of citizens of the nation. For the new, globally minded progressives, the mere well-being of American workers is not a good enough reason to oppose immigration or trade liberalization. It’s an argument that today’s progressive globalists have borrowed from libertarians: immigration or trade that depresses the wages of Americans is still justified if it makes immigrants or foreign workers better off.


Likewise, the current opposition of many Democratic politicians to free-trade agreements like the Trans-Pacific Partnership reflects the residual influence of declining manufacturing unions within the party According to a March 2016 study by the Pew Research Center, by a margin of 56 percent to 38 percent, Democratic voters believe that free-trade agreements have been good for the U.S. Among Republicans, those numbers are almost reversed: by a 53 percent to 38 percent margin, a majority of Republicans believe free-trade has been a bad thing. Among younger Americans, who tend to prefer Democrats to Republicans, support for free trade is high: 67 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds say trade agreements are good for the country. Even progressives who campaign against trade deals feel obliged by the logic of ethical cosmopolitanism to justify their opposition in the name of the labor rights of foreign workers or the good of the global environment.

[1]Or perhaps the end of a 50-year-long realignment.

[2]Trump for sure, but remember that Bernie Sanders appeared first, in his quiet(er) way, giving voice to the frustrations of many. In a way, both sides of the same coin, hope and fear.

[3]Yes, I know he’d been saying the same things for decades, but that was the first I’d ever heard of him.

[4]As Michael Brendan Dougherty writes in The Week:

“Chinese competition really did hammer the Rust Belt and parts of the great Appalachian ghetto. It made the life prospects for men — in marriage and in their careers — much dimmer than those of their fathers. Libertarian economists, standing giddily behind Republican politicians, celebrate this as creative destruction even as the collateral damage claims millions of formerly-secure livelihoods, and — almost as crucially — overall trust and respect in the nation’s governing class. Immigration really does change the calculus for native-born workers too. As David Frum points out last year:

[T]he Center for Immigration Studies released its latest jobs study. CIS, a research organization that tends to favor tight immigration policies, found that even now, almost seven years after the collapse of Lehman Brothers, 1.5 million fewer native-born Americans are working than in November 2007, the peak of the prior economic cycle. Balancing the 1.5 million fewer native-born Americans at work, there are two million more immigrants — legal and illegal — working in the United States today than in November 2007. All the net new jobs created since November 2007 have gone to immigrants. Meanwhile, millions of native-born Americans, especially men, have abandoned the job market altogether. [The Atlantic]

For decades, people have been warning that a set of policies that really has enriched Americans on the top, and likely has improved the overall quality of life (through cheap consumables) on the bottom, has hollowed out the middle.

[5]The other reasons are generally sexism.

[6]This would either be a terrific or terrible band.

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