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A mere six weeks away from the 2020 election, the polls remain in flux. Some suggest that Biden is performing better than Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, and John Kerry did, while other polls place Biden behind Clinton. Evidence of the race tightening with Hispanic and white working-class voters suggests an ever-closer contest. Add Trump’s enduring advantage in the Electoral College to his efforts to undermine types of voting relied on most of all by Democratic voters, and nobody on the Left should be complacent about November.
It’s time to wake up. Unless the Democrats act quickly and decisively, Trump may win the Rust Belt and be re-elected by the Electoral College – perhaps by the same miniscule margins of victory as before, just 0.1% to 0.5% of the vote in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania.
Anyone who believes that Biden’s advantage in the polls is real and stable should remember that polling failed to reveal Trump’s popular support last time around—until it was too late, that is. Throughout much of August, September, and October of 2016, Clinton enjoyed a decisive 4-7 point lead over Trump in the polls. But that lead shrunk to 1.3 points between the end of October and the first few days of November. By November 8, Clinton’s lead had increased again to just over 3 points, but even her roughly proportionate 3-million vote victory nationwide was insufficient to prevail in the Electoral College.
So here’s what we suggest that the Democratic Party consider now, before it’s too late. Trump’s outrageous rhetoric about socialists vs. patriots, and mob rule vs. law and order, is not the whole story. Nor are his efforts to undermine the integrity of the 2020 election or to prevent voting altogether. Even if all that fails, Trump still has one legitimate path to victory—the same one that the Democratic Party overlooked in 2016.
Although Trump’s policies disproportionately benefit the rich, he still represents a populist alternative to the Washington establishment. Russian interference, vote suppression, fake news, racism, sexism, and xenophobia promise to play a role again this November, but they are not the underlying causes of Trump’s rise to power. The Democratic Party needs to take a hard look at the economic distress of the working class in this country, and the political non-response to this distress. These problems are driving a critical mass of voters away from moderate politicians, into the clutches of an illiberal and authoritarian regime.
Trump wasn’t elected by just the usual Republican coalition of rural voters, religious voters, older voters, white voters, and voters without a postgraduate degree. He also won the support of those people who were concerned, above all else, by economic decline. Of voters who said the ability of a candidate to “bring needed change” mattered most, 82% voted for Trump in 2016.
Voters’ desire for change wasn’t a simple function of wealth or income per se: the wealthy broke nearly evenly for each candidate; those who earned $50,000–$99,000 preferred Trump by a slim margin; and those who earned under $50,000 narrowly voted for Clinton.
But when voters were asked whether their families’ financial situation was better or worse in the present compared with a year ago, a radical divide emerged. Of those who said their families were doing better financially than the year before, 72% voted for Clinton. Of those who said they were doing worse, 78% voted for Trump.
In other words, voters who felt their financial situation was declining broke decisively for Trump.
Economists and others have documented this geographically: distressed areas moved decisively toward Trump. This was not a one-time fluke. Between 2000 and 2016, labor markets exposed to international trade underwent an “ideological realignment” against moderate Democratic candidates.
Predictions of additional decline also worked decisively to Trump’s benefit in 2016. Of those who believed the next generation of Americans would have similar or better lives to their own, fewer than 40% voted for Trump. But of those who believed that life for the next generation of Americans would be worse, over 60% voted for Trump.
Targetting these “needed change” voters, Trump’s 2016 campaign read the electoral map better than Clinton’s campaign. Economic anxiety had been supercharged by the Great Recession. As recently as 2010, some 46 million Americans were living in poverty, the highest level ever recorded by the Census Bureau in its 52 years of tracking. Another 51 million Americans were near poverty, meaning that about one in three Americans were poor or in serious risk of becoming poor.
Now, thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, another 21 million Americans may join the ranks of the poor. At a minimum, the poverty rate is expected to return to the levels recorded during the height of the Great Recession. No wonder the very first moves at the Republican National Convention were to blame others for the pandemic (“while others criticized without solutions, President Trump’s swift action saved lives”) and remind voters that Trump’s main purpose is to bring needed change:
For decades, ruling class leaders in both parties sold out our future to China, to faceless corporations, and to self-serving lobbyists. They did it to preserve their own power and enrich themselves, all while rigging the system to hold down the good, decent middle class patriots striving to build a family and pursue a decent life. All of this changed dramatically in 2015, when a billionaire named Donald Trump put his own life of luxury on the line. From that moment he came down that famous escalator, he started a movement to reclaim our government from the rotten cartel of insiders that have been destroying our country.
We should take note that the first speakers at the RNC emphasized Trump’s message of economic populism before embarking on inflammatory narratives about socialists and vengeful mobs pillaging America. Economic populism remains Trump’s only legitimate path to victory.
Even after the pandemic had spread rapidly throughout the United States in May, 83% of Republicans and Republican leaners still believed Trump cared about their needs; and in terms of economic issues in general, Trump has been polling about as high or higher than Obama and G. W. Bush when they stood for (and won) re-election.
These numbers should ring an alarm bell. In 2016, Trump prevailed in the Electoral College despite having just 25% of registered voters on his side and a 3-million vote deficit to Clinton nationwide. This year, Biden needs to win approximately 4.5 million votes more than Trump in order to have excellent odds of winning the presidency. Make no mistake about it: “needed change” voters in the Rust Belt could give Trump another Electoral College victory in 2020.
Biden and Harris must address the role of needed change in Trump’s rise to power before it’s too late. But this isn’t an exercise that the opposition enjoys.
Democrats don’t seem to recognize that “Make America Great Again” hit home not only with racists and xenophobes, but also with millions of ordinary voters who were experiencing economic distress or insecurity. Trump took a militant stand on trade deals, promised to bring back manufacturing jobs, funded a critical part of his campaign with his own money, and promised to “Drain the Swamp.” Although his business career was rife with corruption, he came across as a populist outsider willing to back working class Americans against the establishment.
In 2016, the Clinton campaign and the Democratic party failed to mount a credible response. It wasn’t enough to advocate (rather weakly) for entitlements and better wages, while focusing on identity politics. The party as a whole should have taken a tougher stance on trade agreements, manufacturing jobs, and corporate power. Hillary Clinton should have thought ahead and refused speaking engagements at Wall St. banks, sworn off large campaign donations and superPACs, and distanced herself as much as possible from apparent conflicts of interest at the Clinton Foundation.
The Democratic establishment just couldn’t seem to grasp the connection between economic decline and political inequality. But most of the country understood that connection all too clearly. By 2016, over 80% of Americans had come to believe that the government is run for the benefit of “a few big interests,” not “the benefit of all.” Nearly 95 percent of Americans had concluded that “elected officials listen more to deep-pocketed donors than regular voters.” And Gallup reported that 75% percent of Americans perceived corruption as “widespread in the country’s government”. That figure had risen substantially since 2007 (67%) and 2009 (66%).
Democrats must learn to separate the legitimate demand for needed change from Trump’s illegitimate sources of support—such as racism, sexism, xenophobia, and authoritarianism. Although identity politics certainly explains part of Trump’s support, subsequent findings suggest that racism, sexism, and xenophobia are for the most part proximate causes, and that cultural backlash is fuelled, deep down, by economic distress. Beyond economic anxiety per se, voters react strongest against economic distress arising from the abuse of public power for private gain, which many identify with business as usual in Washington. If Rust Belt voters see Biden and Harris as representing the establishment, and Trump as representing ordinary people in the face of uncaring economic, political, and foreign elites, we are likely to see a repeat of 2016.
By owning up to facts that are fueling political disenchantment, Democrats might recapture the legitimate populist demand behind Trump’s rise to power. Here are three systemic threats to democracy that Biden and Harris ought to address more candidly and forcefully:
Economic inequality reached dangerous levels prior to 2016. As Thomas Piketty demonstrated, the United States became the most economically unequal of all advanced democracies as of 2010. By that year, the top 10 percent of U.S. wealth holders had captured 72 percent of all national wealth. How much wealth was left over for the bottom half of the country? The poorest 50 percent—150 million Americans together—were left with just 2 percent of national wealth. That’s a lot of voters; and most of those voters understand that such lopsided economic outcomes aren’t the natural consequences of capitalism. Rather, they’re the result of government capture, of law and policy responding to private interests.
Similarly, political inequality had reached dangerous levels shortly before 2016. Examining policy outcomes across nearly 2,000 issue areas, Gilens and Page established empirically that “policymaking is dominated by powerful business organizations and a small number of affluent Americans.” Their 2014 study showed that “mass-based interest groups and average citizens have little or no independent influence,” while “[e]conomic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on US government policy.” Subsquent analysis only reinforces this troubling conclusion. Just as most Americans suspect, the data point to a system of government by and for the wealthy—not a democracy.
American plutocracy – we had better get used to the term – has been maintained for decades by upper-class biases in campaign finance, outside political spending, lobbying, and the revolving door between public and private employment. Between 1992 and 2016, the great majority of donations to political parties and political campaigns has come from less than 1% of the American population. SuperPAC financing is even more exclusive. Plus, the overall balance of lobbying overwhelmingly favors big money over average citizens.
Beyond speaking more powerfully to these realities, there are several specific actions that Biden and Harris should take to prevent a repeat of 2016.
First, go for the jugular. Trump’s corruption is much worse than what came before, so hammer away at his nepotism, conflicts of interest and self-dealing, inner circle of profiteers, treasonous betrayal of American sovereignty—and of course, his efforts to undermine the 2020 election.
Second, vigorously advocate the economic policies that have been blocked for years – including serious help with jobs and wages, fair taxation of the wealthy, and strict regulations on big banks, high tech, and other corporations. Their platform touches on these issues, but Biden and Harris must make them salient enough to rival Trump’s economic appeal.
Third, they should show integrity by purging their campaign of corporate lobbyists, big donors, and superPACs, and focusing on small donations and union support instead. In order to attract those small donations and “needed change” voters, Biden and Harris should aggressively pitch themselves as working-class defenders and democracy reformers. This would mean making campaign finance reform a central pillar of their 2020 bid, not just including it on their website.
Nearly two years after Trump’s election, 66% of Republicans still supported a constitutional amendment to address corporate power over American elections. They were joined by 85% of Democrats. A 2019 Gallup poll showed that Americans are even less satisfied with the state of campaign finance law than they are with race relations, gun laws, the availability of affordable health care, and the federal tax rate. Voters of all political stripes understand that government responsiveness and economic progress depend on political integrity. And this concern is now all the more urgent, given that the 2020 presidential election is playing out alongside a historic high in income inequality.
As the desire for “needed change” peaks once again, Biden and Harris need to forcefully address the ongoing, systemic growth of economic and political inequalities. The undue influence of concentrated wealth has derailed the American promise of liberty, equality, and self-governance for all. This is Democrats’ chance to seize the mantle of reform, become once again the party of working-class Americans – and win in 2020.
Timothy K. Kuhner is the author of Tyranny of Greed: Trump, Corruption, and the Revolution to Come (2020).
Benjamin I. Page is the co-author, with Martin Gilens, of Democracy in America? What Has Gone Wrong and What We Can Do about It (paperback ed. 2020).