Drowning the American Dream, Part 2

Posted on October 9, 2018

Our last blog argued that America’s rich and powerful have rigged the economic system over the past 40 years. As a result, average citizens have gotten nowhere while the top five-to-ten percent have taken all new wealth created by the economy. No matter how hard average people strive toward the American Dream, an economic riptide holds them back and pulls them down.

That blog also argued that “The failure to understand and empathize with the economics of the average American family was the progressives’ greatest preventable mistake in 2016.” But does that suggest that “economic anxiety” was a bigger factor than racism and sexism?

No, it does not. Many polls show that the impact of “cultural anxiety” surpassed “economic anxiety” in that contest. White non-college voters were largely motivated by racism and sexism, politely called a fear of “cultural displacement.”

But this is not an either-or issue. Group hostility doesn’t happen in a vacuum; it is bound to perceived injury. When pundits talk about “tribal” politics, they usually ignore the racists’ strong belief that those “others” are victimizing them. And that links economics to victimization to hate. It’s the immigrants they say, driving down your wages. It’s the people of color they say, taking your money for welfare benefits. Blaming “others,” usually without the slightest justification, is a form of politics that’s as old as humanity.

Political scientists John Sides, Michael Tesler and Lynn Vavreck describe this as “racialized economics” in their recent book, Identity Crisis: The 2016 Presidential Campaign and the Battle for the Meaning of America, and in accompanying articles. As they wrote:

Both in the Republican primaries and in the general election, white voters’ attitudes about African Americans, Muslims and immigration were more closely associated with how they voted than were any strictly economic concerns. In fact, racial attitudes were the prism through which voters thought about economic outcomes — something we call “racialized economics.” For example, after Obama became president, attitudes toward blacks suddenly became linked with people’s views on the economy: the less favorable their view of blacks, the less favorable their view of the economy. Scholars who did extensive interviews with whites in Youngstown Ohio and rural Louisiana reported many racially loaded statements about economic circumstances. One Youngstown factory worker said people who received government assistance had “gold chains and a Cadillac, when I can barely afford a Cavalier.”

During the 2016 campaign, the most potent political sentiment held that “people like me” were not getting ahead because of “people like them.” In the primary race, support for Trump among white Americans was weakly associated with whether people were worried about losing their jobs but strongly associated with whether people believed that employers were giving jobs to minorities instead of whites. [emphasis added]

Another important thing to remember is the economic suffering of White non-college citizens is not about the last few years or the recession of 2007-09, it is a slow, long-term crushing of dreams and expectations. Because these Americans don’t understand what happened to them, they cannot be expected to cite it in a poll.

In sum, people who are engaged in the argument of economics versus race think they are comparing two distinctly different things—apples and oranges. But the two are completely intertwined. Progressives cannot successfully address one without the other.