What Paul Krugman Gets Wrong About the Working Class

Jim Naureckas November 29, 2016

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.

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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