Weekly Report – November 7, 2016
The Importance of Supporting Measure M
One of the best ways to foster job and economic growth, and improve the quality of life in the region, is to invest in our transportation system. L.A.’s network of roads, rail, highways, ports, bridges, and airports have a daily impact on not just the economy but our lives and the lives of all our residents, workers, businesses and travelers.
It is critical for our environment, access to jobs, the quality and productivity of life in L.A., the means by which goods are delivered and as a gateway for tourism, among other things.
In 2008 L.A. took a huge leap forward with the passage of Measure R, which has funded the build-out of rail and bus lines, including the Expo Line “subway to the sea” and the Purple Line, which is moving down Wilshire. But Measure R is not enough. Projected growth in population and commerce in Southern California for the next 25 years strengthens the argument that L.A. needs to expand the amount of public transportation options and also improve its aging transportation infrastructure.
That is why this November, Measure M (the “sequel” to Measure R) will be on the ballot this Tuesday November 8, asking L.A. County voters to raise the countywide sales tax permanently by a half-cent starting in 2017, to create a revenue stream to invest $120 billion into a variety of transit, road/highway, pedestrian and even biking projects throughout the region. The measure needs 2/3 of the vote. See below link to map and further information.*
The big tickets items include fully or partially funding 10 new highway projects, including a new carpool-lane interchange between the 405 and 110 freeways. The big ticket item is a $17 billion 405 Freeway tunnel for cars, trucks and rail linking the Valley through to the Westside connecting all that to LAX.
These projects would also put about $80 billion back into the local economy, create an estimated 465,000 jobs and bring in $9.5 billion in tax revenue for the city, state and federal government.
The L.A. Coalition supports Measure M not only for the above mentioned arguments, but Metro’s track record on this issue is strong.
Since the passage of Measure R, Metro has invested more than $14 billion (including some significant federal funding L.A. would otherwise not have gotten) into the region’s public rail, bus and highway system. This also accelerated the construction of the Crenshaw line to LAX, the critical Regional Connector downtown and the Purple Line Extension that will ultimately connect downtown L.A. to Century City and then Westwood.
Measure R funds are already improving traffic and the quality of life in L.A. and fostering significant investments into developments in our new transportation corridors.
The future is happening in L.A. today – from cutting edge engineering and technical innovation – rockets, cars, and medical research – to addressing complex public policy issues – affordable housing, congestion and inequality; from expanding trade and goods movement to growth in tourism and entertainment production – and we need the transportation infrastructure to support and enable this growth in the 21st century.
No matter what the outcome of the election is on this Tuesday the article below is extremely insightful on the road ahead for America.
Hillary Clinton and the Populist Revolt
The Democrats lost the white working class. The Republicans exploited it. Can Clinton win it back?
October 31, 2016
By George Packer, The New Yorker
The basement of a hotel on Capitol Hill. A meeting room with beige walls and headachy light, cavernous enough to accommodate three hundred occupants but empty, except for Hillary Clinton. She sat at a small round table with a cloth draped to the carpet. Her eyes were narrower than usual—fatigue—and she wore a knee-length dress jacket of steel-blue leather, buttoned to the lapels; its metallic shine gave an impression of armor, as if she’d just descended from the battlefield to take a breather in this underground hideout. Politics, at times so thrilling, is generally a dismal business, and Clinton’s acceptance of this is key to her power. She’s the officer who keeps on marching in mud.
I sat down across from her. With only a few weeks left until the election, I wanted to ask her about the voters she’s had the most trouble winning. Why were so many downwardly mobile white Americans supporting Donald Trump?
“It’s ‘Pox on both your houses,’ ” Clinton said. “It was certainly a rejection of every other Republican running. So pick the guy who’s the outsider, pick the guy who’s giving you an explanation—in my view, a trumped-up one, not convincing—but, nevertheless, people are hungry for that.” Voters needed a narrative for their lives, she said, including someone to blame for what had gone wrong. “Donald Trump came up with a fairly simple, easily understood, and to some extent satisfying story. And I think we Democrats have not provided as clear a message about how we see the economy as we need to.” She continued, “We need to get back to claiming the economic mantle—that we are the ones who create the jobs, who provide the support that is needed to get more fairness into the economy.”
Clinton has given a lot of thought to economic policy. She wants to use tax incentives and other enticements to nudge corporations into focussing less on share price and more on “long-term investments,” in research, equipment, and workers. She said, “We have come to heavily favor the financial markets over the otherwise productive markets,” including manufacturing, “which have been pushed to a narrower place within the over-all economy while an enormous amount of intelligence, effort, and dollars went into spinning transactions.”
As she plunged into the details, her eyes widened, her color rose, and her finger occasionally gave the table a thump for emphasis. “I want to really marry the public and the private sector,” she said. Her ideas are progressive but incrementalist: raise the federal minimum wage to twelve dollars an hour, but not fifteen; support free trade, as long as workers’ rights are protected and corporations aren’t allowed to evade regulations.
The thumps got harder when Clinton turned to the Democratic Party. In her acceptance speech at the Philadelphia Convention, she said, “Americans are willing to work—and work hard. But right now an awful lot of people feel there is less and less respect for the work they do. And less respect for them, period. Democrats, we are the party of working people, but we haven’t done a good enough job showing we get what you’re going through.” One didn’t often hear that thought from Democratic politicians, and I asked Clinton what she had meant by it.
“We have been fighting out elections in general on a lot of noneconomic issues over the past thirty years,” she said—social issues, welfare, crime, war. “Sometimes we win, sometimes we lose, but we haven’t had a coherent, compelling economic case that needs to be made in order to lay down a foundation on which to both conduct politics and do policy.”
In the nineties, President Bill Clinton embraced globalization as the overarching solution to the country’s problems—the “bridge to the twenty-first century.” But the new century defied the optimistic predictions of élites, and during this election, in a nationalistic backlash, many Americans—along with citizens of other Western democracies—have rebelled. “I think we haven’t organized ourselves for the twenty-first-century globalization,” Hillary admitted. America had wrongly ceded manufacturing to other countries, she said, and allowed trade deals to hurt workers.
Clinton has been in politics throughout these decades of economic stagnation and inequality, of political Balkanization, of weakening faith in American institutions and leaders. During this period, her party lost its working-class base. It’s one of history’s anomalies that she could soon be in a position to prove that politics still works—that it can better the lives of Americans, including those who despise Clinton and her kind.
A few years ago, on a rural highway south of Tampa, I saw a metal warehouse with a sign that said “american dream welding + fabrication.” Broken vehicles and busted equipment were scattered around the yard. The place looked sun-beaten and dilapidated. When I pulled up, the owner eased himself down from a front-end loader, hobbled over, and leaned against a pole.
He was in his fifties, with a heavy red face, dishevelled hair, and a bushy mustache going from strawberry blond to white. He wore a blue short-sleeved shirt torn at the tails and shorts that exposed swollen legs. He had powerful forearms, but his body was visibly turning against him. The corners of his mouth sloped downward, in an expression poised between self-mockery and disgust at the world. It was a face that invited human exchange—a saving grace in a ruined landscape.
His name was Mark Frisbie. When he was younger, a girlfriend had asked him, “Are you the Frisbee from Wham-O?” Frisbie retorted, “Sure, that’s why I live in a trailer with no front porch and drive a pickup instead of a Porsche.” At the age of fifteen, Frisbie began working for a farm-equipment manufacturer; he stayed for three decades, until he launched American Dream.
He went into business to please his father, he said—“Then the bastard died on me.” After spotting the metal warehouse, Frisbie agreed to buy it, for two hundred and fifty thousand dollars. The next day, the woman who owned it got a call from a man in Georgia offering four hundred and fifty thousand. But she and Frisbie had already shaken on the deal, and she wouldn’t back out.
“Barter and a handshake used to mean something,” he said. “Not anymore.”
It was the depth of the recession, and Frisbie’s customers had grown scarce, demanding, and unreliable. He was down from half a dozen employees to himself and his stepson, William Zipperer. (Frisbie had five children.) The government was killing him with regulations, and one law had required him to build a fence around his repair yard. Politicians did nothing to help him. “They all steal,” he said. “They’re just in it for themselves.” The house behind his shop was a drug den.
His wife had lost her day-care center to bank foreclosure. Frisbie had spent four days at a local hospital for back and chest pain, running up a sixty-thousand-dollar bill. The doctor was Arab or Indian, and his accented English was barely intelligible to Frisbie, but he picked up on an accusation that he was shopping around for pain prescriptions. Mexicans were moving in; Frisbie and his wife wanted to move out. As we talked, two Latinos were stuccoing a gas station across the highway.
Immigrants, politicians, banks, criminals, the economy, medical bills. You heard Frisbie’s complaints all over the country, especially in small towns and rural areas. I soon forgot about Frisbie, but the rise of Donald Trump got me thinking about him again. When I called American Dream and asked Frisbie which Presidential candidate he was supporting, he said, “Do they have that line for ‘None of the above’?” He had lost the house that had been in his family for generations, and he and his wife had been forced to live in his shop for several years, until they moved into a retirement trailer park.
His health had grown worse—he was strapped to an oxygen tank—but he didn’t trust Clinton’s promises to improve health care. As for Trump, his mockery of the disabled offended Frisbie. “To make fun of somebody like he did, on national TV!” he said. “And when they asked him what he’s ever done for the country, and he said, ‘I built a hotel’—how many jobs has he done for the U.S. that he hasn’t outsourced to people from other places?” He went on, “I don’t see where we’re going, or how either of them is going to benefit us in the economy.”
The nineteenth-century term for someone like Frisbie was “workingman.” In the mid-twentieth century, it was “blue collar.” During the Nixon years, people like him embodied the “silent majority”—seen by admirers as hardworking, patriotic, and self-reliant, and by detractors as narrow-minded, jingoistic, and bigoted. In the wake of the culture wars of the seventies and eighties, some downscale whites embraced the slur “redneck” as a badge of honor. (Not just in the South: they kicked ass in my California high school, too, showing off the ring worn into the back pocket of their jeans by cans of snuff.)
In “White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America,” the historian Nancy Isenberg writes, “More than a reaction to progressive changes in race relations, this shift was spurred on by a larger fascination with identity politics.” Being a redneck “implied that class took on the traits (and allure) of an ethnic heritage, which in turn reflected the modern desire to measure class as merely a cultural phenomenon.”
Today, Frisbie is part of the “white working class.” At first, the term sounds more neutral than its predecessors—a category suitable for pollsters and economists (who generally define “working class” as lacking a college degree). But the phrase is vexing. The blunt racial modifier, buried or implied in earlier versions, declares itself up front. Without the adjective “white,” the term is meaningless as a predictor of group thinking and behavior; but without the noun “working class” it misses the other key demographic. “White working class” mixes race and class into a volatile compound, privilege and disadvantage crammed into a single phrase.
“Working class,” meanwhile, has become a euphemism. It once suggested productivity and sturdiness. Now it means downwardly mobile, poor, even pathological. A significant part of the W.W.C. has succumbed to the ills that used to be associated with the black urban “underclass”: intergenerational poverty, welfare, debt, bankruptcy, out-of-wedlock births, trash entertainment, addiction, jail, social distrust, political cynicism, bad health, unhappiness, early death.
The heartland towns that abandoned the Democrats in the eighties to bask in Ronald Reagan’s morning sunlight; the communities that Sarah Palin, on a 2008 campaign stop in Greensboro, North Carolina, called “the best of America . . . the real America”—those places were hollowing out, and politicians didn’t seem to notice. A great inversion occurred. The dangerous, depraved cities gradually became safe for clean-living professional families who happily paid thousands of dollars to prep their kids for the gifted-and-talented test, while the region surrounding Greensboro lost tobacco, textiles, and furniture-making, in a rapid collapse around the turn of the millennium, so that Oxycontin and disability and home invasions had taken root by the time Palin saluted those towns, in remarks that were a generation out of date.
- D. Vance, a son of Appalachia and the Rust Belt, managed to escape this crisis—he served with the Marines in Iraq, went to college at Ohio State, then attended Yale Law School, forty years after the Clintons went there. He now works in a venture-capital firm. This kind of ascendance, once not so remarkable, now seems urgently in need of the honest accounting that Vance provides in his new memoir, “Hillbilly Elegy.” It’s a kind of “Black Boy” of the W.W.C. Vance grew up with a turbulent mother who became addicted to painkillers and bounced from one man to another, giving and receiving abuse.
The life he describes is not just materially deprived but culturally isolated and self-destructive. When he meets people with “TV accents,” he feels a deep estrangement. Reading “Hillbilly Elegy,” I understood why, on trips to regions like North Carolina’s Piedmont, I sometimes felt that I’d travelled farther from New York than if I’d gone to West Africa or the Middle East. Vance is tender but unsparing toward his world. “Sometimes I view members of the élite with an almost primal scorn,” he writes. “But I have to give it to them: Their children are happier and healthier, their divorce rates lower, their church attendance higher, their lives longer. These people are beating us at our own damned game.” Vance points out that polls show members of the white working class to be the most pessimistic people in the country.
Americans like Mark Frisbie have no foundation to stand on; they’re unorganized, unheard, unspoken for. They sink alone. The institutions of a healthy democracy—government, corporation, school, bank, union, church, civic group, media organization—feel remote and false, geared for the benefit of those who run them. And no institution is guiltier of this abandonment than the political parties.
So it shouldn’t have come as a complete surprise when millions of Americans were suddenly drawn to a crass strongman who tossed out fraudulent promises and gave institutions and élites the middle finger. The fact that so many informed, sophisticated Americans failed to see Donald Trump coming, and then kept writing him off, is itself a sign of a democracy in which no center holds. Most of his critics are too reasonable to fathom his fury-driven campaign. Many don’t know a single Trump supporter. But to fight Trump you have to understand his appeal.
Trump’s core voters are revealed by poll after poll to be members of the W.W.C. His campaign has made them a self-conscious identity group. They’re one among many factions in the country today—their mutual suspicions flaring, the boundaries between them hardening. A disaster on this scale belongs to no single set of Americans, and it will play out long after the November election, regardless of the outcome. Trump represents the whole country’s failure.
For most of the twentieth century, the identities of the major political parties were clear: Republicans spoke for those who wanted to get ahead, and Democrats spoke for those who wanted a fair shake. Whatever the vagaries and hypocrisies of a given period or politician, these were the terms by which the parties understood and advertised themselves: the interests of business on one side, workers on the other.
The lineup held as late as 1968, and it’s still evident in “Miami and the Siege of Chicago,” Norman Mailer’s brilliant report on the party conventions of that lunatic year. Here’s Richard Nixon, back from the political dead, greeting Republican delegates in Miami Beach: “a parade of wives and children and men who owned hardware stores or were druggists, or first teller in the bank, proprietor of a haberdashery or principal of a small-town high school, local lawyer, retired doctor, a widow on a tidy income, her minister and fellow-delegate, minor executives from minor corporations, men who owned their farms… out to pay homage to their own true candidate, the representative of their conservative orderly heart.”
Mailer’s Democrats are personified in the brutal proletarian jowls of Mayor Richard Daley, and in the flesh and the smell of the Chicago stockyards. The country’s political parties were corrupt, they were élitist, yet they still represented distinct and organized interests (unions, chambers of commerce) through traditional hierarchies (the Daley machine, the Republican county apparatus). The Democratic Party, however, was about to tear itself apart over Vietnam.
In Chicago, the Party establishment voted down a peace plank and turned back the popular antiwar candidacies of Senators Eugene McCarthy and George McGovern. The Convention’s nominee, Vice-President Hubert Humphrey, had strong support from labor but hadn’t entered a single primary. This was what a rigged system looked like. The sham democracy and the chaos in Chicago led to the creation of the McGovern-Fraser Commission, which reformed the Democrats’ nominating process, weakening the Party bosses and strengthening women, minorities, young people, and single-issue activists. In Thomas Frank’s recent book, “Listen, Liberal,” he describes the result: “The McGovern Commission reforms seemed to be populist, but their effect was to replace one group of party insiders with another—in this case, to replace leaders of workers’ organizations with affluent professionals.”
This shift made a certain historical sense. The A.F.L.-C.I.O. was a sclerotic politburo, on the wrong side of the Vietnam War. The class rhetoric of the New Deal sounded out of date, and the problems it addressed appeared to have been solved by the wide prosperity of the postwar years. A different set of issues mattered to younger Democrats: the rights of disenfranchised groups, the environment, government corruption, militarism. In 1971, Fred Dutton, a member of the McGovern Commission, published a book called “Changing Sources of Power,” which hailed young college-educated idealists as the future of the Party. Pocketbook issues would give way to concerns about quality of life.
Called the New Politics, this set of priorities emphasized personal morality over class interest. The activists who had been cheated by the Daley machine in Chicago in 1968 became the insiders at the 1972 Democratic Convention in Miami Beach, which nominated McGovern. Many union members, feeling devalued by the Party, voted for Nixon, contributing to his landslide victory.
McGovern’s campaign manager was a young Yale-educated lawyer named Gary Hart, who had assigned the campaign’s Texas effort to a Yale law student named Bill Clinton. Clinton’s new girlfriend from Yale, Hillary Rodham, joined him that summer in San Antonio. Hart and Clinton embodied the transition that their party was undergoing. Education had lifted both men from working-class, small-town backgrounds: Hart labored on the Kansas railroads as a boy; Clinton came from a dirt-poor Arkansas watermelon patch called Hope.
The McGovern rout left its young foot soldiers with two options: restore the Party’s working-class identity or move on to a future where educated professionals might compose a Democratic majority. Hart and Clinton followed the second path. Hart emerged as the leader of the tech-minded “Atari Democrats,” in the eighties; Clinton, the bright hope of Southern moderates, became the chairman of the Democratic Leadership Council, a position that he used as a launchpad for the Presidency in 1992.
Hillary’s background was different. She had grown up outside Chicago, in a middle-class family. Her father, a staunch conservative just this side of the John Birch Society, owned a small drapery business. Her mother taught her the Methodist creed: “Do all the good you can, for all the people you can, in all the ways you can, as long as ever you can.” Hillary changed from Goldwater Girl to liberal activist in the crucible of the sixties, but she remained true to her origins.
Sara Ehrman, one of Hillary’s co-workers in Texas in the summer of 1972, described Clinton to her biographer Carl Bernstein as a “progressive Christian in that she believed in litigation to do good, and to correct injustices.” Clinton had “a kind of spiritual high-mindedness . . . a kind of fervor, and self-justification that God is on her side.” Hillary went town to town in South Texas, registering Hispanic voters, her Bible in hand. For her, politics had to conform to an idea of virtue. Bill, the natural, didn’t ask if he was on God’s side—politics was all about people.
Neither of them had a carefully worked-out ideology. Their political philosophy came down to two words: “public service.” Bill and Hillary moved to Arkansas in 1974, and got married the following year. They were policy wonks, and by focussing on incremental reforms—in education, rural health care, children’s welfare—they thrived politically in Arkansas, where they spent the two decades after McGovern’s defeat.
They muted some of the most divisive social issues, compromised on others, and mashed together idealism with business-friendly ideas for economic growth. Old-fashioned Democratic class politics was foreign to them, even though Bill sometimes sounded like an Ozark populist. Hillary was the more passionate liberal, and from the beginning she was a tough fighter. When she took the lead on her husband’s most important initiative as governor—raising the state’s abysmal educational standards—she made an adversary of the teachers’ union. Instead of speaking for the working class, the Clintons spoke about equipping workers to rise into the professional class. Their presumption was that all Americans could be like them.
In the eighties, the decade of conservative ascendancy, the Clintons’ brand of politics seemed to provide the ingredients of a Democratic revival. But, to some, the couple’s mixture of uplifting rhetoric and ideological elusiveness suggested untrammelled ambition and hidden agendas—anything but public service. Bill and Hillary became the objects of a deep suspicion, which they’ve never been able to shake.
To the left, the Clintons were sellouts; to the right, they were spies, sneaking across partisan lines to steal ideas and rhetoric that advanced their McGovernite revolution. Because Hillary’s politics have always been joined to an idea of virtue, and because she is a woman, the suspicions about her have been the greater, even on the left. The Times Magazine notoriously mocked her as “Saint Hillary.”
Bill Clinton campaigned for President in 1992 as a populist champion of the struggling middle class, but—confronted with deficits, a recalcitrant bond market, and Wall Street-friendly economic advisers—he governed as a moderate Republican. His first budget was long on deficit reduction and short on investments in workers. He passed the Family and Medical Leave Act, and he raised the minimum wage, but other proposals, such as spending on job training, ran into Republican resistance and Clinton’s own determination to balance the budget. In late 1993, over the objections of his union supporters, he pushed through Congress the North American Free Trade Agreement, which had been negotiated by his predecessor, George H. W. Bush.
When I asked Hillary Clinton what her views on nafta had been, she said, “I don’t know that I was particularly focused on it, that’s not what I was working on. I was working on health care.” Some people who knew her at the time say that she privately opposed the deal, but in public she remained loyal to her husband’s Administration. She officially turned against nafta only in 2007, when she first ran for President.
Bill Clinton’s Presidency was so lacking in history-making events, yet so crowded with the embarrassing minutiae of scandal mongering, that it was easy to miss the great change that those years meant for the country and the Democratic Party. Clinton turned sharply toward deregulation, embracing the free-market ideas of his Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin and the chairman of the Federal Reserve Alan Greenspan. The results appeared to be spectacular.
Here is Clinton’s version, in his final State of the Union Message, in 2000: “We are fortunate to be alive at this moment in history. Never before has our nation enjoyed, at once, so much prosperity and social progress with so little internal crisis and so few external threats.” The country had more jobs, higher wages, faster growth, bigger surpluses; it had replaced “outmoded ideologies” with dazzling technology. The longest peacetime expansion in history had practically abolished the business cycle. Economic conflict was obsolete. Education was the answer to all problems of social class. (His laundry list of proposals to Congress included more money for Internet access in schools and funds to help poor kids take college-test-prep courses.) “My fellow-Americans,” the President announced. “We have crossed the bridge we built to the twenty-first century.”
In our conversation, Hillary Clinton spoke of the limits of an “educationalist” mind-set, which she called a “peculiar form of élitism.” Educationalists, she noted, say they “want to lift everybody up”—they “don’t want to tell anybody that they can’t go as high as their ambition will take them.” The problem was that “we’re going to have a lot of jobs in this economy” that require blue-collar skills, not B.A.s. “We need to do something that is really important, and this is to just go right after the denigration of jobs and skills that are not college-connected.” A four-year degree isn’t for everyone, she said; vocational education should be brought back to high schools.
Yet “educationalist élitism” describes the Democratic thinking that took root during her husband’s Presidency. When I asked her if this had helped drive working-class Americans away from the Democratic Party, she hedged. “I don’t really know the answer to that,” she said. “I don’t think it is really useful to focus just on the nineties, because really the nineties was an outlier.”
In April, 2000, President Clinton hosted a celebration called the White House Conference on the New Economy. The phenomenal productivity of the New Economy was powered by the goods and services created by the rising young professional class—I.T. engineers, bankers, financial analysts, lawyers, designers, management consultants. Bill Gates was a panelist, and Greenspan gave an address. Introducing the assembly, President Clinton was euphoric. “I believe the computer and the Internet give us a chance to move more people out of poverty more quickly than at any time in all of human history,” he said. The spirit of the time was a heady concoction of high purpose and self-congratulation—a secular brand of Calvinism, with the state of inward grace revealed outwardly by an Ivy League degree, Silicon Valley stock options, and a White House invitation. Meritocracy had become the creed of Clinton’s party.
This spirit followed Bill and Hillary out of the White House. The conflation of virtue and success guided the family foundation they created, the celebrity-studded charity events they hosted, their mammoth speaking fees, their promiscuous fund-raising.
In 1999, Thomas Friedman published “The Lexus and the Olive Tree: Understanding Globalization.” The book described globalization as supplanting the Cold War system, but, unlike the Cold War, globalization was a product of technological advances and blind economic forces, not government policies. Friedman’s approach was descriptive, but he kept slipping into ethics and metaphysics: the new world he described turned out to be both inevitable and for the best. His tone was that of a vaguely threatening evangelist: globalization was a bullet train without an engineer, and anyone who didn’t board right away would be left behind or flattened by it.
The job of government was to explain the merits of globalization to citizens while softening its short-term blows, with a light cushion of social welfare and job-retraining programs, until its lasting benefits became available to everyone (right around the time the Internet was ending global poverty). Rejecting globalization was like rejecting the sunrise. Only the shortsighted, the stupid, the coddled, and the unprepared would turn against it. Resistance, Friedman predicted, would come mainly from people in poor countries—bureaucrats attached to their perks and tribes wedded to their local traditions (the olive tree of the title). The book’s heroes were entrepreneurs, financiers, and technologists, hopping airports between New York, San Francisco, London, Hong Kong. “The Lexus and the Olive Tree” was “Das Kapital” for meritocrats.
Earlier this year, an economist named Branko Milanović published a book called “Global Inequality: A New Approach for the Age of Globalization.” It’s a progress report on the “system” that Friedman heralded. Milanović analyzes global economic data from the past quarter century and concludes that the world has become more equal—poor countries catching up with rich ones—but that Western democracies have become less equal. Globalization’s biggest winners are the new Asian middle and upper classes, and the one-per-centers of the West: these groups have almost doubled their real incomes since the late eighties. The biggest losers are the American and European working and middle classes—until very recently, their incomes hardly budged.
During these years, resistance to globalization has migrated from anarchists disrupting trade conferences to members of the vast middle classes of the West. Many of them have become Trump supporters, Brexit voters, constituents of Marine Le Pen and other European proto-fascists. After a generation of globalization, they’re trying to derail the train.
One of the participants at the 2000 White House conference, and one of Friedman’s sources of wisdom in “The Lexus and the Olive Tree,” was Clinton’s final Secretary of the Treasury, Lawrence Summers. At Treasury, Summers helped design the crisis rescue of the newly globalizing economies of Mexico, Russia, and South Korea. Summers and his immediate predecessor, Robert Rubin, pushed free trade and financial deregulation, and presided over the economic expansion of the Clinton years. Time put their faces, along with Greenspan’s, on its cover, calling them “The Committee to Save the World.”
Just as Summers received credit for the nineties boom, he took some blame for the Great Recession. He had helped the Clinton Administration push through the repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act, which had walled off commercial banking from investment banking. In 2000, he supported a law regulating derivatives that many critics have called insufficient. Summers has argued, convincingly, that the repeal of Glass-Steagall had little bearing on the 2008 crisis for which it became a chief symbol. Still, he strongly supported Wall Street deregulation, and he remains an important figure in the Democratic Party’s alignment with the professional class.
In July, I went to see Summers at his vacation home in Massachusetts. When I arrived, he had just pulled up—in a Lexus—after a morning of tennis. We sat on a terrace overlooking Cape Cod Bay. Summers described numerous trips that he had made during his years at Treasury to review antipoverty programs in Africa and Latin America, and in American inner cities. “I don’t think I ever went to Akron, or Flint, or Toledo, or Youngstown,” he admitted. To Democratic policymakers, poverty was foreign or it was black. As for displaced white workers in the Rust Belt, Summers said, “their problems weren’t heavily on our radar screen, and they were mad that their problems weren’t.”
Summers still supports trade agreements, including nafta. The problem, he said, is that few people understand the benefits: the jobs created by exporting goods; trade’s role in strengthening other economies, thereby reducing immigration flows from countries like Mexico. The “popularization of politics,” he said, keeps leaders from pursuing controversial but important policies. If the Marshall Plan had been focus-grouped, it never would have happened. Globalization creates what Summers called a “trilemma” among global integration, public goods like environmental protection or high wages, and national sovereignty. It’s become clear that Democratic élites, including him, underestimated the power of nationalism, because they didn’t feel it strongly themselves.
Summers described the current Democratic Party as “a coalition of the cosmopolitan élite and diversity.” The Republicans, he went on, combined “social conservatism and an agenda of helping rich people.” These alignments left neither party in synch with Americans like Mark Frisbie: “All these regular people who thought they are kind of the soul of the country—they feel like there was nobody who seemed to be thinking a lot about them.” In 2004, the political scientist Samuel Huntington published his final book, “Who Are We? The Challenges to America’s National Identity.” He used the term “cosmopolitan élites” to describe Americans who are at home in the fluid world of transnational corporations, dual citizenship, blended identities, and multicultural education. Such people dominate our universities, tech companies, publishers, nonprofits, entertainment studios, and news media. They congregate in cities and on the coasts. Lately, they have become particularly obsessed with the food they eat.
The locavore movement, whatever its benefits to health and agriculture, is an inward-looking form of activism. When you visit a farm-to-table restaurant and order the wild-nettle sformato for thirty dollars, the line between social consciousness and self-gratification disappears. Buying synthetic-nitrate-free lunch meat at Whole Foods is also a way to isolate yourself from contamination by the packaged food sold at Kmart and from the overweight, downwardly mobile people who shop there. The people who buy food at Kmart know it.
Two decades ago, the conservative social scientist Charles Murray co-wrote “The Bell Curve,” which argued that inherited I.Q., ethnicity, and professional success are strongly connected, thereby dooming government efforts to educate poor Americans into the middle class. The book generated great controversy, including charges of racism, and some of its methodology was exposed as flawed. In a more recent book, “Coming Apart,” Murray focuses on the widening divide between a self-segregated white upper class and an emerging white lower class. He concludes that “the trends signify damage to the heart of American community and the way in which the great majority of Americans pursue satisfying lives.”
Murray lives in Burkittsville, Maryland, an hour and a quarter’s drive from Washington, D.C. It’s a virtually all-white town where elements of the working class have fallen on hard times. “The energy coming out of the new lower class really only needed a voice, because they are so pissed off at people like you and me,” he said. “We so obviously despise them, we so obviously condescend to them—‘flyover country.’ The only slur you can use at a dinner party and get away with is to call somebody a redneck—that won’t give you any problems in Manhattan. And you can also talk about evangelical Christians in the most disparaging terms—you will get no pushback from that. They’re aware of this kind of condescension. And they also haven’t been doing real well.”
A few years ago, I met a seventy-year-old widow in southwestern Virginia named Lorna. She was a retired schoolteacher, living on Social Security, and as we discussed politics she insisted on her right to use mercury light bulbs, since Al Gore lived in a mansion and used a private jet. Lorna suddenly exploded: “I want to eat what I want to eat, and for them to tell me I can’t eat French fries or Coca-Cola—no way! They want to tell me what to think. I have thought for myself all my life.”
The moral superiority of élites comes cheap. Recently, Murray has done demographic research on “Super Zips”—the Zip Codes of the most privileged residents of New York, Washington, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. “Super Zips are integrated in only one way—Asians,” he said. “Blacks and Latinos are about as scarce in the Super Zips as they were in the nineteen-fifties.” Multiethnic America, with its tensions and resentments, poses no problem for élites, who can buy their way out. “This translates into a whole variety of liberal positions”—Murray mentioned being pro-immigration and anti-school choice—“in which the élite has not borne any of the costs.”
Perhaps the first cosmopolitan élite in American history was Alexander Hamilton: an immigrant, an urbanite, a friend of the rich, at home in political, financial, and journalistic circles of power. Hamilton created the American system of public and private banking, and for two centuries he was a hero to conservatives, while his archrival Thomas Jefferson—founder of the Democratic Party—was taken as the champion of the common man. “State a moral case to a ploughman and a professor,” Jefferson once wrote.
“The former will decide it as well, and often better than the latter, because he has not been led astray by artificial rules.” But Democrats now embrace Hamilton for his immigrant background and his modern ideas of activist government. Meanwhile, the name of the slave-owning, states’-rights champion Jefferson has been removed from Democratic fund-raising dinners. The Hamilton who distrusted popular democracy is now overlooked or accepted—after all, today’s cosmopolitan élites similarly distrust the passions of their less educated compatriots.
If there’s one creative work that epitomizes the Obama Presidency, it’s the hip-hop musical “Hamilton,” whose opening song was débuted by Lin-Manuel Miranda in the East Room of the White House, in 2009, with the Obamas in attendance. The show has been universally praised—Michelle Obama called it the greatest work of art she’d ever seen, and Dick Cheney is a fan. It succeeds on every level: the score playing in your mind when you wake up; the brilliance of its lyrics; its boldness in giving eighteenth-century history contemporary form and in casting people of color who, during Hamilton’s time, were in bondage or invisible. Miranda’s “Hamilton” suggests that the real heirs to the American Revolution are not Tea Partiers waving “Don’t Tread on Me” flags but black and Latino Americans and immigrants.
Miranda’s triumph is itself a coalition of the cosmopolitan élite and diversity. The Hamilton that theatregoers are paying scalpers’ prices to see is a progressive, not the father of Wall Street. Meanwhile, far from Broadway, Jefferson’s ploughmen are lining up at Trump rallies.
“Hamilton” coincided with an important turn in American politics. Occupy Wall Street had come and gone, and while the ninety-nine and the one per cent didn’t disappear, black and white came to the fore. There was a growing recognition that a historic President had cleared barriers at the top but not at the bottom—that the Obama years had brought little change in the systemic inequities facing the black and the poor. This disappointment, along with shocking videos of police killings of unarmed black men, produced a new level of activism not seen in American streets and popular culture since the late sixties.
Nelini Stamp, a New Yorker in her twenties, of black and Latino parentage, was an organizer at Occupy. In 2012, the fatal shooting of Trayvon Martin jolted her consciousness, and the acquittal of his killer outraged her. She grew up on Staten Island, just a few blocks from where, in 2014, Eric Garner was suffocated by a police officer. “We have to talk about black folks,” Stamp told me. “Class will always be at the center of my politics, but if I’m not centering black folks at the same time then I’m not going to get free. We’re not going to change things. We can have this populist argument all we want, but if we don’t repair the sins of the past—we could have a bunch of reforms, but if we’re still being killed it’s going to become white economic populism if we don’t have the race stuff together.”
Stamp is both a millennial and a student of the nineteen-thirties—a “Hamilton” fan who works with the labor movement. Her ideal, she said, would be to see “white working-class people standing beside black folks, saying, ‘Your struggle is my struggle.’ That’s my dream!”
This year, Stamp’s dream seems as distant as ever, with Trump inciting his working-class followers to use violence against black protesters, and with students on élite campuses issuing sweeping denunciations of white privilege. All whites are unequal, but some are more unequal than others. In “Hillbilly Elegy,” J. D. Vance writes, “I may be white, but I do not identify with the wasps of the Northeast. Instead, I identify with the millions of working-class white Americans of Scots-Irish descent who have no college degree.”
For Democrats, the politics of race and class are fraught. If you focus insistently on class, as Bernie Sanders did at the start of the campaign, you risk seeming to be concerned only with whites. Focus insistently on race, and the Party risks being seen as a factional coalition without universal appeal—the fate of the Democratic Party in the seventies and eighties. The new racial politics puts Democrats like Clinton in the middle of this dilemma.
The voices of black protest today challenge the optimistic narrative of the civil-rights movement—the idea, widespread at the time of Obama’s election, of incremental progress and expanding opportunity in an increasingly multiracial society. (“Rosa sat so Martin could walk so Obama could run so we can all fly.”) Many activists are turning back to earlier history for explanations—thus the outpouring of films, novels, essays, poetry, pop music, and scholarly work about slavery and Jim Crow, as if to say, “Not so fast.” The Black Lives Matter movement reflects this mood. It has achieved reforms, but it was conceived not as a reformist movement but as a collective expression of grief and anger, a demand for restitution of wrongs that go back centuries and whose effects remain ubiquitous. It tends to see American society not as increasingly mixed and fluid but as a set of permanent hierarchies, like a caste system.
A new consensus has replaced the more sanguine civil-rights view. It’s attuned to deep structures and symbols, rather than to policies and progress. Ta-Nehisi Coates’s best-selling and much praised book, “Between the World and Me,” is now required reading for many college freshmen. His idea of history is static, and deeply pessimistic: “The plunder of black life was drilled into this country in its infancy and reinforced across its history, so that plunder has become an heirloom, an intelligence, a sentience, a default setting to which, likely to the end of our days, we must invariably return.” Coates’s writing in “Between the World and Me” has a stance and a rhetorical sweep that make the give-and-take of politics seem almost impossible. Somewhere between this jeremiad and the naïve idea of inevitable progress lies the complicated truth.
If racial injustice is considered to be monolithic and unchanging—omitting the context of individual actions, white and black—the political response tends to be equally rigid: genuflection or rejection. Clinton’s constituency surely includes many voters who would welcome a nuanced discussion of race—one that addresses, for example, both drug-sentencing reform and urban crime. But identity politics breaks down the distinction between an idea and the person articulating it, so that before speaking up one has to ask: Does my identity give me the right to say this? Could my identity be the focus of a Twitter backlash? This atmosphere makes honest conversation very hard, and gives a demagogue like Trump the aura of being a truthteller. The “authenticity” that his followers so admire is factually wrong and morally repulsive. But when people of good will are afraid to air legitimate arguments the illegitimate kind gains power.
I recently spoke with the social scientist Glenn Loury, who teaches at Brown University. As he sees it, if race becomes an irreducible category in politics, rather than being incorporated into universal claims of justice, it’s a weapon that can be picked up and used by anyone. “Better watch out,” he said. “I don’t know how you live by the identity-politics sword and don’t die by it.” Its logic lumps everyone—including soon-to-be-minority whites—into an interest group.
One person’s nationalism intensifies tribal feelings in others, in what feels like a zero-sum game. “I really don’t know how you ask white people not to be white in the world we’re creating,” Loury said. “How are there not white interests in a world where there are these other interests?” He continued, “My answer is that we not lose sight of the goal of racially transcendent humanism being the American bedrock. It’s the abandonment of this goal that I’m objecting to.”
Loury pointed out that the new racial politics actually asks little of sympathetic whites: a confession, a reading assignment. Last August, Black Lives Matter activists met with Hillary Clinton backstage at a town hall on drug abuse, in New Hampshire. In a rare moment of candor and passion, Clinton made the case for pragmatism and, above all, legislation. As a camera filmed the exchange, one activist, Julius Jones, spoke of “the anti-blackness current that is America’s first drug,” adding, “America’s first drug is free black labor and turning black bodies into profit.” Jones told Clinton that America’s fundamental problems can’t be solved until someone in her position tells white Americans the truth about the country’s founding sins. The activists wanted Clinton to apologize.
She replied, “There has to be a reckoning—I agree with that. But I also think there has to be some positive vision and plan that you can move people toward.” She asked Black Lives Matter for a policy agenda, along the lines of the civil-rights movement.
Jones wasn’t buying it: “If you don’t tell black people what we need to do, then we won’t tell you all what you need to do.”
“I’m not telling you,” Clinton said. “I’m just telling you to tell me.”
Jones replied, “What I mean to say is that this is, and always has been, a white problem of violence. It’s not—there’s not much that we can do to stop the violence against us.”
As the conversation ended, Clinton said, “Yeah, well, respectfully, if that is your position, then I will talk only to white people about how we are going to deal with the very real problems. . . . I don’t believe you change hearts. I believe you change laws, you change allocation of resources, you change the way systems operate. You’re not going to change every heart.”
When I asked Clinton about the politics of race and class, she said, “It can’t be either-or.” She listed recent advances made by locked-out groups, including black people but also women, gays, and transgender people. “But we also need to have an economic message”—her tone said, Come on, folks!—“with an economic set of policies that we can repeatedly talk about and make the case that they will improve the lives of Americans.” It was important to speak to people’s anxieties about identity, to address “systemic racism,” Clinton said. “But it’s also the case that a vast group of Americans have economic anxiety, and if they think we are only talking about issues that they are not personally connected to, then it’s understandable that they would say, ‘There’s nothing there for me.’ ”
While the Democrats were becoming the party of rising professionals and diversity, the Republicans were finding fruitful hunting grounds elsewhere. The Southern states turned Republican after 1964, when President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act. West Virginia, however—with a smaller black population than the Deep South, and heavy unionization—retained a strong Democratic character into the nineties.
But West Virginia hasn’t voted for a Democratic Presidential candidate since Bill Clinton, in 1996. Al Gore’s surprising failure there in 2000 was an overlooked factor in his narrow Electoral College loss, and a harbinger of the future. Something changed that couldn’t be attributed just to the politics of race. Culturally, the Republican Party was getting closer to the working class.
To some liberal analysts, this crossover practically violated a law of nature—why did less affluent white Americans keep voting against their own interests? During the 2008 campaign, Barack Obama spoke to an audience of donors in San Francisco, and analyzed the phenomenon as a reaction to economic decline: “They get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.”
It’s hard to remember that, in 2008, the key constituents of his opponent for the Democratic nomination, Hillary Clinton, were working-class whites; indeed, her only hope of winning the nomination lay in such states as West Virginia, Kentucky, and Ohio. Clinton pounced on Obama’s speech, calling it “élitist.”
She was right. Obama was expressing a widespread liberal attitude toward Republican-voting workers—that is, he didn’t take them seriously. Guns and religion, as much as jobs and incomes, are the authentic interest of millions of Americans. Trade and immigration have failed to make their lives better, and, arguably, left them worse off. And if the Democratic Party was no longer on their side—if government programs kept failing to improve their lives—why not vote for the party that at least took them seriously?
Thomas Frank told me recently, “When the traditional party of working-class concerns walks away from those concerns, even when they just do it rhetorically, it provides an enormous opening for the Republicans to address those concerns, even if they do it rhetorically, too.” The culture wars became class wars, with Republicans in the novel position of speaking for the have-nots who were white. The fact that Democrats remained the party of activist government no longer won them automatic loyalty. As communities in Appalachia, the Rust Belt, and rural America declined, attitudes toward government programs grew more hostile. J. D. Vance describes working, at seventeen, as a cashier in an Ohio grocery store.
Some of his poor white customers gamed their food stamps to buy beer and wine, while talking on cell phones that Vance couldn’t afford. “Political scientists have spent millions of words trying to explain how Appalachia and the South went from staunchly Democratic to staunchly Republican in less than a generation,” he writes. “A big part of the explanation lies in the fact that many in the white working class saw precisely what I did, working at Dillman’s.”
In 2009, during the debate over the health-care bill, one protester at a town-hall meeting shouted, “Keep your government hands off my Medicare!” In 2012, the Times posted an interactive map of the country’s “geography of government benefits.” The graphic showed that the areas with the highest levels of welfare spending coincided with deep-red America. During the Great Depression, the hard-pressed became the base of support for the New Deal. Now many Americans who resent government most are those who depend on it most, or who live and work among those who do.
Since the eighties, the Republican Party has been an unlikely coalition of downscale whites (many of them evangelical Christians) and business interests, united by a common dislike of the federal government. To conservative thinkers, this alliance was more than a political convenience; it filled a moral requirement.
Irving Kristol, the father of neoconservatism, was an early apostle of supply-side economics, but he also wrote numerous essays about the need for a revival of religious faith, as a way of regulating moral conduct in a liberal, secular world. For ordinary Americans, traditional religion was a bulwark against the moral relativism of the modern age. Kristol’s pieces in the Wall Street Journal officiated at the unlikely wedding of business executives and evangelical Christians in the church of conservatism—a role that perhaps only a Jewish ex-Trotskyist could take on.
The Republicans, long the boring party of Babbitt—Mailer’s druggists and retired doctors—were infused with a powerful populist energy. Kristol welcomed it. “This new populism is no kind of blind rebellion against good constitutional government,” he wrote, in 1985. “It is rather an effort to bring our governing élites to their senses. That is why so many people—and I include myself—who would ordinarily worry about a populist upsurge find themselves so sympathetic to this new populism.”
It was a fateful marriage. The new conservative populism did not possess an “orderly heart.” It was riven with destructive impulses. It fed on rage and the spectacle of pop culture. But intellectuals like Kristol didn’t worry when media demagogues—Limbaugh, Drudge, Breitbart, Coulter, Hannity—came on the scene with all the viciousness of the nineteen-thirties radio broadcasts of Father Coughlin. They didn’t worry when Republican officeholders deployed every available weapon—investigation, impeachment, Supreme Court majority, filibuster, government shutdown, conspiracy theories, implied threats of violence—to destroy their political enemies.
In 2007, Kristol’s son, William, the editor of the Weekly Standard, sailed to Juneau and met the governor of Alaska, Sarah Palin. Kristol thought he’d found just what the Party needed to win the next election: a telegenic product of the white working class, an authentic populist. Throughout 2008, Kristol promoted Palin as the ideal running mate for John McCain. When McCain selected her, Kristol exulted in the Times, “A Wasilla Wal-Mart Mom a heartbeat away? I suspect most voters will say, ‘No problem.’ And some—perhaps a decisive number—will say, ‘It’s about time.’ ”
That fall, at a diner in Glouster, Ohio, I sat down with a group of women who planned to vote for Palin (and McCain, as an afterthought) because “she’d fit right in with us.” Being a Wasilla Walmart Mom had become a qualification for high office—for some, the main one. Palin even had a pregnant, unwed teen-age daughter. Her campaign appearances turned working-class whiteness into identity politics: she strutted onstage to the beat of Gretchen Wilson’s “Redneck Woman.” In her proud ignorance, unrestrained narcissism, and contempt for the “establishment,” Palin was John the Baptist to the coming of Trump.
The conservative marriage survived the embarrassment of Palin’s campaign, which exposed her as someone more interested in getting on TV than in governing. It rode the nihilistic anger of the Tea Party and the paranoid rants of Glenn Beck. It benefitted from heavy spending by the Koch brothers and ignored the barely disguised racism that some Republican voters directed at the black family now occupying the White House. When Trump and others began questioning President Obama’s birth certificate, Party élites turned a blind eye; the rank and file, for their part, fell in behind Mitt Romney, a Harvard-educated investor.
The persistence of this coalition required an immense amount of self-deception on both sides. Romney, who belonged to a class that greatly benefitted from cheap immigrant labor, had to pretend to be outraged by the presence of undocumented workers. Lower-middle-class Midwestern retirees who depended on Social Security had to ignore the fact that the representatives they kept electing, like Paul Ryan, wanted to slash their benefits. Veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan returned to Indiana and Texas embittered at having lost their youth in unwinnable wars, while conservative pundits like Kristol kept demanding new ones—but their shared contempt for liberal élites kept them from noticing the Republican Party’s internal conflicts. In this way, red states and blue states—the color-coding scheme enshrined by the networks on the night of the 2000 Presidential election—continued to define the country’s polarization into mutually hateful camps.
The inadequacy of this picture became clear to me in Obama’s first term. During the Great Recession, I visited many hard-hit small towns, exurbs, rural areas, and old industrial cities, and kept meeting Americans who didn’t match the red-blue scheme. They might be white Southern country people, but they hated corporations and big-box stores as well as the federal government. They might have a law practice, but that didn’t stop them from entertaining apocalyptic visions of armed citizens turning to political violence. They followed the Tea Party, but, in their hostility toward big banks, they sounded a little like Occupy Wall Street, or vice versa. They were loose molecules unattached to party hierarchies—more individualistic than the Democrats, more antibusiness than the Republicans. What united them was a distrust of distant leaders and institutions. They believed that the game was rigged for the powerful and the connected, and that they and their children were screwed.
The left-versus-right division wasn’t entirely mistaken, but one could draw a new chart that explained things differently and perhaps more accurately: up versus down. Looked at this way, the élites on each side of the partisan divide have more in common with one another than they do with voters down below. A network-systems administrator, an oil-and-gas-company vice-president, a journalist, and a dermatologist hire nannies from the same countries, dine at the same Thai restaurants, travel abroad on the same frequent-flier miles, and invest in the same emerging-markets index funds. They might have different political views, but they share a common interest in the existing global order. As Thomas Frank put it, “The leadership of the two parties represents two classes. The G.O.P. is a business élite; Democrats are a status élite, the professional class. They fight over sectors important for the national future—Wall Street, Big Pharma, energy, Silicon Valley. That is the contested terrain of American politics. What about the vast majority of people?”
The political upheaval of the past year has clarified that there are class divides in both parties. Bernie Sanders posed a serious insurgent challenge to Clinton, thundering in front of tens of thousands of ardent supporters—all the while sounding like an aging academic who’d have been lucky to attract a dozen listeners at the Socialist Scholars Conference twenty-five years ago. Sanders spoke for different groups of Americans who felt disenfranchised: young people with heavy college debt and lousy career prospects, blue-collar workers who retained their Democratic identity, progressives (many of them professionals) who found Obama and Clinton too moderate. It was a limited and unwieldy coalition, but it had far more energy than Clinton’s constituency.
Initially, Clinton was caught off guard by the public’s anger at the political establishment. She casually proposed her husband as a jobs czar in a second Clinton Presidency, as if globalization hadn’t lost its shine. One of her advisers told me that Hillary’s years in the State Department had insulated her and her staff from the mood of ordinary Americans. So, one could add, did her customary life of socializing with, giving paid speeches to, and raising money from the ultra-rich, whose ranks the Clinton family joined as private citizens. (From 2007 to last year, Bill and Hillary earned a hundred and thirty-nine million dollars; in 2010, their daughter, Chelsea, married a hedge-fund manager.) In 2014, in a speech to the investment firms Goldman Sachs and BlackRock, Hillary Clinton described her solid middle-class upbringing and then admitted, “Now, obviously, I’m kind of far removed, because of the life I’ve lived and the economic, you know, fortunes that my husband and I now enjoy, but I haven’t forgotten it.”
Clinton was saying in private what she can’t or won’t in public. The e-mails hacked from the account of her campaign manager, John Podesta, and released by WikiLeaks, show her staff worrying over passages from her paid speeches that, if made public, could allow her to be portrayed as two-faced and overly friendly with corporate America. But when Clinton told one audience, “You need both a public and a private position,” she was describing what used to be considered normal politics—deploying different strategies to get groups with varying interests behind a policy. Before what Lawrence Summers called “the popularization of politics,” Lyndon Johnson required a degree of deception to pass civil-rights legislation. “It is unsavory, and it always has been that way, but we usually get where we need to be,” Clinton told her audience. “But if everybody’s watching, you know, all of the backroom discussions and the deals, you know, then people get a little nervous, to say the least.” Clinton would be comfortable and productive governing in back rooms—she was known for her quiet bipartisan efforts in the Senate. But Americans today, especially on the Trump right and the Sanders left, won’t give politicians anything close to that kind of trust. Radical transparency occasionally brings corruption to light, but it can also make good governance harder.
Indefatigable and protean, Clinton read the disaffected landscape and adapted in her characteristic style—with a policy agenda. She endorsed profit-sharing for employees and declared opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership. She demanded stricter enforcement of trade rules that protect workers, and called for more infrastructure spending and trust-busting. She underscored her commitment to equal pay for women. Publicly, she attacked the bloated salaries of the C.E.O.s with whom she privately socializes and raises money.
I asked Clinton if Obama had made a mistake in not prosecuting any Wall Street executives after the financial crisis. She replied, “I think the failure to be able to bring criminal cases, to hold people responsible, was one of the contributing factors to a lot of the real frustration and anger that a lot of voters feel. There is just nobody to blame. So if we can’t blame Company X or C.E.O. Y, let’s blame immigrants. Right? We’ve got to blame somebody—that’s human nature. We need a catharsis.” F.D.R. had done it by denouncing bankers and other “economic royalists,” Clinton said, her voice rising. “And by doing so he told a story.” She went on, “If you don’t tell people what’s happening to them—not every story has villains, but this story did—at least you could act the way that you know the people in the country felt.”
After defeating Sanders, Clinton tried to win over his supporters by letting them write the Democratic Party platform. It is the farthest left of any in recent memory—it effectively called for a new Glass-Steagall Act. The internal class divide is less severe on the Democratic side. Even Lawrence Summers embraces government activism to reverse inequality, including infrastructure spending and progressive reform of the tax code. But Democrats can no longer really claim to be the party of working people—not white ones, anyway. Those voters, especially men, have become the Republican base, and the Republican Party has experienced the 2016 election as an agonizing schism, a hostile takeover by its own rank and file. Conservative leaders had taken the base for granted for so long that, when Trump burst into the race, in the summer of 2015, they were confounded. Some scoffed at him, others patronized him, but for months they didn’t take him seriously. He didn’t sound like a conservative at all.
Charles Murray is a small-government conservative and no Trump supporter (“He’s just unfit to be President”), but some of his neighbors and friends are. “My own personal political world has crumbled around me,” he said. “The number of people who care about the things I care about is way smaller than I thought a year ago. I had not really seen the great truth that the Trump campaign revealed, that should have been obvious but wasn’t.”
The great truth was that large numbers of Republican voters, especially less educated ones, weren’t constitutional originalists, libertarian free traders, members of the Federalist Society, or devout readers of the Wall Street Journal editorial page. They actually wanted government to do more things that benefitted them (as opposed to benefitting people they saw as undeserving). “The Republicans held on to a very large part of this electorate for years and years, even though those voters increasingly wonder whether Republicans are doing anything for them,” Murray said. “So Trump comes along, and people who were never ideologically committed to the things I’m committed to splinter off.”
Party leaders should have anticipated Trump’s rise—after all, he was created in their laboratory, before he broke free and began to smash everything in sight. The Republican Party hasn’t been truly conservative for decades. Its most energized elements are not trying to restore stability or preserve the status quo. Rather, they are driven by a sense of violent opposition: against changes in color and culture that appear to be sweeping away the country they once knew; against globalization, which is as revolutionary and threatening as the political programs of the Jacobins and the anarchists once were.
“Reactionaries are not conservatives,” the political essayist Mark Lilla writes in his new book, “The Shipwrecked Mind: On Political Reaction.” “They are, in their way, just as radical as revolutionaries and just as firmly in the grip of historical imaginings.” This is the meaning of Trump’s slogan, “Make America Great Again.” Though the phrase invoked nostalgia for an imagined past, it had nothing to do with tradition. It was a call to sweep away the ruling order, including the Republican leadership. “The betrayal of élites is the linchpin of every reactionary story,” Lilla writes.
The Trump phenomenon, which has onlookers in Europe and elsewhere agog at the latest American folly, isn’t really exceptional at all. American politics in 2016 has taken a big step toward politics in the rest of the world. The ebbing tide of the white working and middle classes in America joins its counterpart in Great Britain, the Brexit vote; Marine Le Pen’s Front National, in France; and the Alternative für Deutschland party, which has begun to threaten Angela Merkel’s centrist coalition in Germany. To Russians, Trump sounds like his role model, President Vladimir Putin; to Indians, Trump echoes the Hindu nationalism of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Even the radical nostalgia of Islamists around the Muslim world bears more than a passing resemblance to the longing of Trump supporters for an America purified and restored to an imagined glory. One way or another, they all represent a reaction against modernity, with its ceaseless anxiety and churn.
A generation ago, a Presidential contender like Trump wasn’t conceivable. Jimmy Carter brought smiling populism to the White House, and Ronald Reagan was derided as a Hollywood cowboy, but both of them had governing experience and substantive ideas that they’d worked out during lengthy public careers. But, as public trust in institutions eroded, celebrities took their place, and the line between politics and entertainment began to disappear. It shouldn’t be surprising that the most famous person in politics is the former star of a reality TV show.
There’s an ongoing battle among Trump’s opponents to define his supporters. Are they having a hard time economically, or are they just racists? Do they need to be listened to, or should they be condemned and written off? Clinton, addressing a fund-raising dinner on Wall Street in September, placed “half” of Trump’s supporters in what she called “the basket of deplorables”—bigots of various types. The other half, she said, are struggling and deserve empathy.
Under criticism, she half-apologized, saying that she had counted too many supporters as “deplorables.” Accurate or not, her remarks rivaled Obama’s “guns and religion” and Romney’s “forty-seven per cent” for unwise campaign condescension. All three politicians thought that they were speaking among friends—that is, in front of wealthy donors, the only setting on the campaign trail where truth comes out.
In March, the Washington Post reported that Trump voters were both more economically hard-pressed and more racially biased than supporters of other Republican candidates. But in September a Gallup-poll economist, Jonathan T. Rothwell, released survey results that complicated the picture. Those voters with favorable views of Trump are not, by and large, the poorest Americans; nor are they personally affected by trade deals or cross-border immigration. But they tend to be less educated, in poorer health, and less confident in their children’s prospects—and they’re often residents of nearly all-white neighborhoods.
They’re more deficient in social capital than in economic capital. The Gallup poll doesn’t indicate how many Trump supporters are racists. Of course, there’s no way to disentangle economic and cultural motives, to draw a clear map of the stresses and resentments that animate the psyches of tens of millions of people. Some Americans have shown themselves to be implacably bigoted, but bias is not a fixed quality in most of us; it’s subject to manipulation, and it can wax and wane with circumstances. A sense of isolation and siege is unlikely to make anyone more tolerant.
In one way, these calculations don’t matter. Anyone who votes for Trump—including the Dartmouth-educated moderate Republican financial adviser who wouldn’t dream of using racial code words but just can’t stand Hillary Clinton—will have tried to put a dangerous and despicable man in charge of the country. Trump is a national threat like no one else who has come close to the Presidency. Win or lose, he has already defined politics so far down that a shocking degree of hatred, ignorance, and lies is becoming normal.
At the same time, it isn’t possible to wait around for demography to turn millions of disenchanted Americans into relics and expect to live in a decent country. This election has told us that many Americans feel their way of life is disappearing. Perhaps their lament is futile—the world is inexorably becoming Thomas Friedman’s. Perhaps their nostalgia is misguided—multicultural America is more free and equal than the republic of Hamilton and Jefferson.
Perhaps their feeling is immoral, implying ugly biases. But it shouldn’t be dismissed. If nearly half of your compatriots feel deeply at odds with the drift of things, it’s a matter of self-interest to try to understand why. Nationalism is a force that élites always underestimate—that’s been a lesson of the year’s seismic political events, here and in Europe. It can be turned to good or ill, but it never completely goes away.
It’s as real and abiding as an attachment to family or to home. “Americanism, not globalism, will be our credo,” Trump declared in his convention speech. In his hands, nationalism is a loaded gun, aimed not just at foreigners but also at Americans who don’t make the cut. But people are not wrong to want to live in cohesive communities, to ask new arrivals to become part of the melting pot, and to crave a degree of stability in a moral order based on values other than just diversity and efficiency. A world of heirloom tomatoes and self-driving cars isn’t the true and only Heaven.
Late last year, President Obama sat down with his chief speechwriter, Cody Keenan. Obama told Keenan that, during his final year in office, he wanted to make an argument for American progress in the twenty-first century. He called it “an ode to reason, rationality, humility, and delayed gratification.” Throughout the year, in a kind of extended farewell address, Obama has been speaking around the country about tolerance, compromise, and our common humanity. He never states his theme directly, but it’s the values of liberal democracy. He is reacting to the unprecedented ugliness of Trump, but also to a larger sense that liberal values are always fragile, always in need of renewal, especially for a new generation with lowered expectations.
In May, at Howard University’s commencement, the President condemned the trend on college campuses of disinviting controversial speakers, and he told the graduating class, “We must expand our moral imaginations to understand and empathize with all people who are struggling, not just black folks who are struggling—the refugee, the immigrant, the rural poor, the transgender person, and, yes, the middle-aged white guy who you may think has all the advantages, but over the last several decades has seen his world upended by economic and cultural and technological change, and feels powerless to stop it. You got to get in his head, too.”
In Dallas in July, at a memorial service for five murdered police officers, Obama described how black people experience the criminal-justice system in America, and said, “We can’t simply dismiss it as a symptom of political correctness or reverse racism. To have your experience denied like that, dismissed by those in authority, dismissed perhaps even by your white friends and co-workers and fellow church members again and again and again—it hurts. Surely we can see that, all of us.”
Obama is summoning Americans to a sense of national community based on values that run deeper than race, class, and ideology. He’s urging them to affirm the possibility of gradual change, and to resist the mind-set of all or nothing, which runs especially hot this year. These speeches are, in part, a confession of failure. “I’ve seen how inadequate words can be in bringing about lasting change,” he said in Dallas. “I’ve seen how inadequate my own words have been.”
After all, Obama has been saying things like this ever since he first attracted national attention, at the Democratic Convention in 2004. He was elected President with a similar message, though his time in office has burnished and chastened it. Now, as he says goodbye, the country is more divided and angrier than most Americans can remember.
More and more, we live as tribes. It’s easier and more satisfying to hunker down with your cohort on social media than to take up Obama’s challenge and get in someone else’s head. What’s striking is the widespread feeling that liberal values are no longer even valuable—a feeling shared by many people who think of themselves as liberals.
Hillary Clinton is a strange fit for this moment. She’s a lifelong institutionalist at a time of bitter distrust in institutions, a believer in gradual progress faced with violent impatience. She has dozens of good ideas for making the country fairer, but bringing Americans together to support the effort and believe in the results is harder than ever. Clinton lacks Obama’s rhetorical power, his philosophical reach. Her authority lies in her commitment to policy and politics, her willingness to soldier on.
As she ended our conversation in the hotel basement—she had to get to the evening’s fund-raiser—I asked how she could hope to prevail as President. She talked about reminding voters of “results,” and of repeating a “consistent story.” Then, as if she found her own words inadequate, she leaned forward and her voice grew intense. “If we don’t get this right, what we’re seeing with Trump now will just be the beginning,” she said. “Because when people feel that their government has failed them and the economy isn’t working for them, they are ripe for the kind of populist nationalist appeals that we’re hearing from Trump.”
She went on, “Look, there will always be the naysayers and virulent haters on one side. And there will be the tone-deaf, unaware people”—she seemed to mean élitists—“on the other side. I get all that. But it really is important. And the Congress, I hope, will understand this. Because the games they have played on the Republican side brought them Donald Trump. And if they continue to play those games their party is going to be under tremendous pressure.
But, more important than that, our country will be under pressure.” I asked her if she thought that, after the Trump explosion, Republican leaders were ready to reckon with the damage. “I hope so,” she said. “I’m sure going to try to have that conversation with them. Yeah, I am.”