How did he win the presidency? We have probably asked ourselves this question and come up with some bleak conclusions. “Idiocracy has come to fruition.” “America has regressed into misogyny.” “Fear and demagoguery have become mainstream.” Given Trump’s behavior and the landslide of votes he received from non-college-educated white voters, these conclusions are understandable. But, they are overly cynical. We must remember that a presidential election comes down to a handful of swing states because tribal politics make most states a foregone conclusion. What we should ask ourselves is “how did we lose so many traditionally democratic voters in those swing states?” When you look at the evolution of this particular type of swing voter, you see that a sense of desperation animated his move to the right. We need to look at the volume and depth of that desperation, what caused it, and determine it effects. If we don’t understand what caused Trump’s America then it will be repeated, if not with Trump then with someone equally as disheartening. We need to examine if we have adequately changed our message to bring them back. If we cannot, we need to consider alternatives. Ultimately, we need a better message and we need to make sure we communicate it clearly and consistently.
To understand this swing voter, I need you to put yourself in their shoes. That means making a genuine effort to question ideas you may consider unquestionable. One of those ideas is the notion that “if a social change made the world better, nobody lost out on it.”
When society advanced, and minorities/women were given more inroads into the workplace, it unquestionably made the world better. Beyond increasing overall happiness, this revolution made the world more productive by placing minorities and women that were more qualified than their white male counterparts into employment positions. That increases productivity, which in turn raises the quality of goods and services, lowers costs, and benefits society as a whole. As barriers based on race and gender slowly lift, our job market becomes more of a meritocracy. Winning a position is now less about where you fall in demographic lines, and more about how competent, educated and skilled you are.
We consider the rise of the meritocracy a good thing and nobody, least of all this author, argues that we should ever stray from it. But, we must acknowledge the fact that there are losers in this meritocracy. Less competent workers whose jobs had been secure up until then, mainly white males, have been displaced. I know. That demographic does not inspire a lot of sympathy but I want to look at the wider effects of the meritocracy.
If you define a “good job” as one that requires an education or at least a skilled trade, then something very interesting becomes evident. The meritocracy consolidates wealth and adds to the concept of “the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.” If you’ll excuse me, for this thought exercise, I am going to use heteronormative terms and the conventional nuclear family. Additionally, this thought experiment is not numerically accurate and is only for demonstrative purposes.
Studies show that educated or high-earning women overwhelmingly choose educated or high-earning partners. So, if you had one hundred “good jobs” forty years ago filled exclusively with white men, and forty of those jobs are now filled by higher qualified women, then there are forty men that used to have a “good job” that no longer have one. The women married to those forty “incompetent” men are, themselves, statistically unlikely to have a “good job.” So you not only have forty men that no longer have a “good job” level of income, but forty women and their children that no longer benefit from a “good job” income. I say this to highlight the fact that the swing voter isn’t just comprised of angry old white men. It includes their spouses, and is the first step to answering the question “how can any woman in her right mind vote for Trump?”
If you look at the other side of this thought experiment, the result is forty women that now have a “good job” income, that are married to men that are statistically likely to also have a “good job” income. This household has doubled up in comparison to what their earnings would have been during MAGA’s mythical “good old days” period. If you look at the two households in this thought experiment, they have diverged rather dramatically in their paths. One now enjoys luxuries that used to be uncommon in upper middle-class households, the other now struggles to stay above water.
The effects of this merit-based income consolidation are exacerbated by automation and to a lesser degree, free trade. These unskilled and uneducated laborers (I will refer to collectively as “unskilled laborers”), now displaced by the meritocracy, are further displaced by machines and job migration. Thus, being relegated from a “lower management” to an “unskilled laborer” job isn’t simply a step down in the career pecking order (from good job to low paying job), it is often a step completely out of the job market, since the truly unskilled trades are now largely automated. This thought experiment is of course overly simplified, but it should at least explain the “poor get poorer” feeling that animates this swing voter.
I’m not saying that these voters have traced their shortcomings back to the rise of the meritocracy. But, they aren’t dumb. They notice things. They see that good jobs used to be reserved for people “like them” or husbands “like theirs”, and now they are not. They see that women and minorities used to not have access to those jobs, and now they do. They see that the “rich are getting richer” and that the people who have benefited from this transformation tend to be educated. Why do you think that the term “educated elite” is said with such scorn these days? Why do you think fox news rails against “political correctness” with comments that are thinly veiled jabs against women, minorities and higher learning? They pray upon the swing voter’s anger.
That anger flows naturally from desperation. Not having a job, particularly if you are raising a child, is a bottomless and all-consuming desperation. I have been in that position and I remember not being able to sleep. Mind you, I felt that desperation while knowing full well that I had a law degree and that there would almost assuredly be another job for me. The swing voter’s desperation goes beyond that, it is existential. A worker with no education and no skilled training is all but permanently trapped. Imagine, honestly imagine, what that existential desperation feels like.
Someone that desperate is susceptible to manipulation and any explanation that allows them to place blame on someone else. Meanwhile, the left tells the swing voters that they have nobody to blame but themselves. Who remembers this meme, which was really popular before the 2016 election:
It’s funny, but it also displays the left’s disconnect with this swing voter. If you need to tell someone that their unfortunate situation is their own fault, you do it earnestly. Instead, the left uses satire to emphasize the hypocrisy and fallacy of the middle-right and right-leaning voters’ stances. Most of the jokes focus on their lack of education and sophistication. Stephen Colbert, the Daily Show, Samantha Bee and John Oliver have grown cult followings and become influential liberal political voices using satire. Ask yourself though, when was the last time you won someone over to your logic by humiliating them? How easy is it to convince someone that they caused their own problems? More likely than not, these efforts have entrenched the swing voter to their right-leaning positions.
Trump knows how to use the left’s disconnect to further pry the swing voter from the Democratic Party. Do you remember when the Republicans announced that they were planning on repealing the ACA, with no replacement? Millions of voters, including swing voters, would potentially lose their coverage. This was the type of issue that would demonstrate that Republicans did not actually have the swing voter’s best interests at heart, the kind of issue that swings elections. Instead of making this the focus of discussion for the next few weeks, Democrats allowed Trump to distract them with a tweet about no longer allowing trans-gendered service people in the military. Suddenly, Democrats dropped a swing-voter-swaying conversation for an issue that benefitted a small minority. Without understanding the evolution from desperation, to anger to nationalism, the left writes-off these swing voters as if they are subhuman because of their political views. Rather than attempting to understand and de-radicalize them by addressing their needs, Democratic contempt simply galvanizes their radical views.
How To Get Back Unskilled White Swing Voters?
An all-encompassing plan requires more knowledge than this author has alone, but there are a few things that are apparent. The left must first acknowledge and understand the desperation felt by unskilled laborers in this increasingly modernizing meritocracy. The left must shed its tone of smugness, even if that requires consuming less satire. It must realize that although religion can be used by the right to rationalize their attack on homosexuals and abortion, the vast majority of religious followers simply use it as an inspirational source of moral guidance. You can attack instances in which religion is utilized to advance hate, but stop attacking religion as a whole. It is akin to attacking the very heart of a person. Religion also helps an unskilled laborer cope with the realities of a life filled with struggle. A laborer faced with the prospects of a lifetime of struggle naturally leans on religion for support and it is counterproductive to undermine this source of solace.
The left must also pick its battles. Just because an issue is a worthy cause, does not mean it will win elections. When you tell a voter that struggles to feed their family that the pressing issue of our time is the removal of heteronormative pronouns, it confirms their suspicion that the left is completely disconnected from their plight. This is not to say that the left should abandon that cause. Win the election first, focusing on election-winning issues, and then implement the policies for transgendered rights.
The left must develop an economic plan that includes them and alleviates their desperation. The easy solution is to point to the labor that will be required to develop the infrastructure for renewable energy. However, it is unclear whether that will create the volume of jobs that is needed. It is also unclear whether those jobs will be situated geographically in the swing states. These variables, along with the possible labor displacement associated with artificial intelligence, mean that a comprehensive plan will require consultation with the leading innovative entrepreneurs and economists to develop a plan. One thing is for certain, Trump won the swing voter by promising Roosevelt-style infrastructure spending. The “New Deal” was the hallmark of the left’s commitment to middle-class America, and the Democratic Party handed it to Trump.
Even after a plan is developed, it must be effectively communicated to the swing voter. They must be reminded that America’s greatness came from innovators that foresaw economic tides. Henry Ford saw a car in every garage before there was one in every town. Carnegie, Rockefeller, Gates, all saw the future before it came. Making America Great Again involves promoting a move to the future, such as support for renewable energy, not subsidizing old industries in which America has lost its edge to cheap foreign labor.
The swing voter must know that they have a vital role in that future. In the few instances when HRC acknowledged the need to create jobs in the rustbelt, her presentation made it seem as if they were being given hand-outs to appease them. The swing voter must know that efforts to modernize American industry will need to rely on the blue collar workers that traditionally formed the backbone of America’s workforce.
Without the Blue Collar Worker
If the left is unwilling or unable to win back the swing voter, alternative approaches must be considered. As the Fox News/Trump movement drags the right further towards nationalism, chauvinism and racism, and further away from education and free trade, there is a growing rift in their voting base. Although Trump changed the voting demographic by taking the unskilled labor vote, he has disillusioned the middle-right/educated voters in his party. The left has failed to court these voters due to the disconnect/smugness discussed above. However, traditionally republican voters in community-leader roles, such as educators, can be swayed with proper discussion. However, Democrats must revise their communication structure to effectuate this change.
The Message I have gone to meetings for a variety of democratic grass-roots organizations, and have found them to have no harmonious message. They prioritize issues differently. Even when two organizations discuss the same issue, the message is never stated in the same way. Ask any advertising professional or attorney wooing a jury and they will tell you, the message has to be repeated the same way multiple times for it to properly sink in. National leadership should communicate with grass roots groups regularly and issue updated talking points so that the correct message is consistently stated.
Conclusion The left must stop packaging its message in outrage. Anger is the friend of the demagogue, and there is reason why Russian meddlers sought to sway votes to the right by sewing discord. The temptation to march and lash out is great, but it will not tip the balance to the left. Calm but passionate messages, based on an understanding of the needs of swing voters can lead the country in the right direction.