What Paul Krugman Gets Wrong About the Working Class

Jim Naureckas

Only if we see economic stratification and racial resentment as interrelated—rather than presenting them, as Krugman does, as mutually exclusive explanations—do we have a viable strategy for dealing with either one. (Photo by Mark Makela/Getty Images)

This article was first posted at FAIR​.org.

In the wake of a disastrous Election Day, does the Democratic Party need to present economic policies that have more to offer the majority of voters? Don’t bother, argues New York Times columnist Paul Krugman (11/25/16).

Krugman begins by acknowledging what some have denied — that class played some role in what happened on November 8: What put Donald Trump in striking distance was overwhelming support from whites without college degrees,” he writes. So what can Democrats do to win back at least some of those voters?”

The columnist says that Bernie Sanders — not one of Krugman’s favorite people—suggests it needs

candidates who understand that working-class incomes are down, who will stand up to Wall Street, to the insurance companies, to the drug companies, to the fossil fuel industry.”

But Krugman doubts this would do any good. First off, there’s the media:

Any claim that changed policy positions will win elections assumes that the public will hear about those positions. How is that supposed to happen, when most of the news media simply refuse to cover policy substance?

The corporate media aversion to covering substantive election issues that Krugman cites is very real; FAIR has been documenting it for decades, and it was in full effect in 2016.

But as for how voters might hear about parties’ economic proposals despite media disinclination to cover them, the roughly $300 million the major party candidates spent on campaign advertising—three-fourths of which was spent by Hillary Clinton — provides an obvious answer. Candidates’ self-serving policy claims are no substitute for independent media examination of issues from the voters’ point of view, but ads do give well-funded candidates an opportunity to deliver any kind of message they choose.

Clinton, as it happens, mostly chose not to deliver messages about issues. UCLA political scientist Lynn Vavreck did an analysis of 2016 presidential campaign advertising that she wrote up in the New York Times (11/23/16), and the results were striking:

Both candidates spent most of their television advertising time attacking the other person’s character. In fact, the losing candidate’s ads did little else. More than three-quarters of the appeals in Mrs. Clinton’s advertisements (and nearly half of Mr. Trump’s) were about traits, characteristics or dispositions. Only 9 percent of Mrs. Clinton’s appeals in her ads were about jobs or the economy. By contrast, 34 percent of Mr. Trump’s appeals focused on the economy, jobs, taxes and trade.

But from Krugman’s point of view, it doesn’t matter that Clinton mostly chose not to make economic arguments to the voters; his larger point is that economic arguments don’t really matter in politics:

The fact is that Democrats have already been pursuing policies that are much better for the white working class than anything the other party has to offer. Yet this has brought no political reward.

His example of the political uselessness of improving people’s lives is Obamacare:

Consider eastern Kentucky, a very white area which has benefited enormously from Obama-era initiatives…. Independent estimates say that the uninsured rate [in Kentucky’s Clay County] fell from 27 percent in 2013 to 10 percent in 2016. That’s the effect of the Affordable Care Act, which Mrs. Clinton promised to preserve and extend but Mr. Trump promised to kill.

Mr. Trump received 87 percent of Clay County’s vote.

Now, one of the basic ideas behind Obamacare is that people who think that they can’t afford health insurance should be forced through increasingly heavy fines to buy it anyway. While this may or may not be good economics, it shouldn’t be surprising that it’s bad politics: When asked for their judgment on the ACA, people tend to disapprove more than they approve by about a 10 percentage point margin.

Yet this is Krugman’s main example of the help Democrats have delivered to ungrateful workers.

Let’s look at the bigger picture: Over the past 40 years or so, median income in the United States has stagnated while income going to the very wealthy has soared; inequality of wealth has climbed to the point where the top 0.1 percent own as much as the bottom 90 percent. This has proceeded under Republican and Democratic presidencies alike; the US’s GINI coefficient, the standard measure of inequality, has shown a more or less constant increase since the late 1960s.

It’s hard to imagine a population so disinterested in material wealth that this kind of dramatic redistribution of resources would not have an impact. And indeed, there are signs of profound trauma among the white working class, in the form of increasing mortality from addiction and suicide (FAIR​.org, 2/3/16).

But Krugman joins in the widespread presumption that, in fact, these large-scale economic shifts have had no real political consequence. Let’s be serious here,” he says assuredly. You can’t explain the votes of places like Clay County as a response to disagreements about trade policy.” Based, apparently, on the fact that voters in Clay County weren’t excited about being compelled to buy health insurance.

You get rather a different picture if you look at the exit polls — which, imperfect as they are, are the best evidence we have for who voted for which candidate. The results for 2016 are not too surprising: Like a typical Republican, Donald Trump did better with voters who were white, male, older (45+) and more affluent ($50,000+/year).

The more interesting results come if you compare the exit polls for 2016 with those for 2012 — in other words, a year where the Republican won the electoral college vs. one in which they lost. (The New York Times has a handy interactive feature that allows you to see shifts in voting patterns from election to election.) Here we see that the changes that gave Trump the victory are not the ones you’d expect: Among all white voters, he did only 1 percentage point better than Romney — who lost the popular vote by 3.9 percentage points. This is because Trump’s 14-point gain among whites without college degrees was almost canceled out by a 10-point loss among college-educated whites.

No, the real secret to Trump’s success is that while he did poorly among voters of color, he did less poorly than Romney did — he was beaten by 7 fewer points among African-Americans, 8 less with Latinos and 11 points less with Asian-Americans. This is despite running a campaign that echoed white supremacist themes and was openly endorsed by neo-Nazis. Why? As Christian Parenti, a progressive journalist who watched weeks of Trump’s speeches, related (Jacobin, 11/22/16):

Contrary to how he was portrayed in the mainstream media, Trump did not talk only of walls, immigration bans and deportations. In fact, he usually didn’t spend much time on those themes…. Choppy as they were, Trump’s speeches nonetheless had a clear thesis: Regular people have been getting screwed for far too long and he was going to stop it.

Was it that message that resulted in voters making less than $30,000 shifting by 16 percentage points in the direction of Trump? Or was it the lack of a compelling economic message from Clinton that caused left-leaning poor people to stay home, allowing Republican gains by default? Either way, the striking class-based shifts in voting are glossed over by analyses like Krugman’s, which prefer to see working-class voters as driven by entirely irrational resentments.

The flipside of economics not causing the Democrats’ problems, of course, is that you don’t have to change economic policies to solve those problems. In part, this is because the economic woes of working-class America are insoluble; as Krugman says:

Nobody can credibly promise to bring the old jobs back; what you can promise — and Mrs. Clinton did — are things like guaranteed healthcare and higher minimum wages.

This is a very attractive cop-out. The reality is that the loss of jobs and upward transfer of wealth were the result of conscious choices by Washington policy-makers, and those policies could be changed. (Economist Dean Baker has written a book about this, aptly named Rigged.) But acknowledging this means abandoning the Democratic Party’s attempts to build a winning electoral coalition of wealthy whites and people of color — serving the economic interests of the affluent and addressing only the social and cultural concerns of people of color.

As Michael Lind put it in a New York Times piece (4/16/16) declaring that this new coalition (dubbed Clintonism”) was the future:

The Clintonian synthesis of pro-business, finance-friendly economics with social and racial liberalism no longer needs to be diluted, as it was in the 1990s, by opportunistic appeals to working-class white voters.

As I pointed out at the time, though (FAIR​.org, 4/25/16), voters of color are interested in economics as well as civil rights issues — suggesting that corralling [Democratic voters] up again for a Clintonist future is going to be more difficult than Lind and his colleagues in corporate media want to believe.”

Krugman ends his column with a shrug, presenting the attraction of Trump for working-class voters — characterized as white working-class” voters, the better to pigeonhole them — as a mysterious phenomenon that needs to be puzzled over:

Democrats have to figure out why the white working class just voted overwhelmingly against its own economic interests, not pretend that a bit more populism would solve the problem.

It’s far from clear what figuring this out” this would do for the Democrats — give them clues for better messaging,” enable them to deploy the right celebrity endorsements? When you get down to it, to attribute voters’ choices to irrational resentments is to put them beyond the reach of rational persuasion — in other words, to give up on them.

To do the opposite — to refuse to concede working-class voters to the right wing — does not mean ignoring the role of white nationalism in Trump’s victory. Racism and xenophobia are key ideologies in Trump’s coalition, which disproportionately attracts believers in racial superiority.

Finding racial and cultural enemies is the natural tendency of far-right movements that gain strength from economic dislocation. They will likely continue to grow without a strong counter-argument from the left that solidarity and not scapegoating is the solution to workers’ problems. Only if we see economic stratification and racial resentment as interrelated — rather than presenting them, as Krugman does, as mutually exclusive explanations — do we have a viable strategy for dealing with either one.

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Jim Naureckas is the editor of FAIR​.org, the media criticism website, and has edited FAIR’s print publication Extra! since 1990. James Weinstein gave him his first job in journalism, when he hired him in 1987 to write about the Iran/​Contra Scandal for In These Times. He is the co-author of The Way Things Aren’t: Rush Limbaugh’s Reign of Error, and co-editor of The FAIR Reader. He was an investigative reporter for In These Times and managing editor of the Washington Report on the Hemisphere. Born in Libertyville, Illinois, he has a poli sci degree from Stanford. Since 1997 he has been married to Janine Jackson, FAIR’s program director.
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