It’s the morning after Trump’s election. I watched the election until about 2 am, Eastern time, so I knew he was going to win. Already early this morning, my friend, Karen, has called to talk—she’s an African American with a 22-year old son, and she’s scared: and this is not someone who scares easily. My daughter messaged me from The Netherlands: “We’re screwed.”
I have no easy answers and am searching for what to say. I’m an associate professor of sociology at a university and while I don’t teach today, I will teach tomorrow. And people will be asking me what I think. [This is not an effort to analyze “everything”: I’m trying to provide a perspective based on my experiences and some of my academic work; this is only an effort to play to my strengths. Hopefully, there will be many analyses written from others, so that collectively, we can get a full picture and understanding of events.]
Trump and his campaign tapped into the anger of white, “working class” people who don’t have college degrees, especially males. That’s obvious. But I think there’s a lot more to it: after all, he won over 50 million votes. I’m expecting that when the exit polling becomes available, the rejection of Clinton will be shown to include a considerable number of workers of color who also voted for Trump. I also think we’ll find a considerable number of women who also voted for Trump.
Why? Because the system failed them. But “the system” is not some automatic, robotic, autonomous machine—it is populated by real people, who make real decisions. These decision-makers—whom I call “the big boys and girls,” while many call them the “elites” or “ruling class” or “assholes”—have illustrated quite clearly over the past 35 years that they care only about themselves and people like them, and don’t care if the rest of us go to hell or its’ nearest outpost.
I argue that key to understanding this is economics, although it’s not the be all and end all of my analysis.
The fact of the matter is that most Americans have been getting screwed economically since the mid-1970s, with intensifying calamity after 1980, and disaster since 2000. This has been obvious to me through some of the work I’ve done over the past 25 years in economic sociology. (By economic sociology, I’m talking about studies of the changing economy and how they affect Americans.) Now, what I’m going to say below does not address “race” or “gender,” and we know these factors are critical, but for this article, I’m not going to focus on either.
For this to make sense, I have to refer back to some of my own work, which is not widely known. In 1984, I published an article on the changing global economy and its impact on American workers. (The entire article can be found at http://faculty.pnc.edu/kscipes/1984%20Global%20impact%20on%20US%20Workers.pdf , although it probably works best if you put the URL in your browser.) What I had understood was that the global economy after World War II, which had been singly dominated by the United States, was changing because war-torn countries had recovered, that they were competing with US corporations, and that this was being joined by a small but increasing number of corporations in a few “developing” countries, who would be increasingly competing with US corporations. The upshot was that the US and its corporations were now facing more competition from a growing number of corporations from around the world, and that this would only increase as time went on. In addition to this economic competition from corporations, I also recognized that state actors in these other countries would become more and more significant actors over time, putting even more competitive pressures on the US.
It was clear to me that this would come at the expense of American workers. I knew US corporations would act in response to this increasing competition, and that would mean escalating attacks on American workers. Already by 1984, I saw this: “Every way, workers are going to lose. Either they will lose their jobs to foreign competitors—often overseas subsidiaries of US corporations—or lose them to robots and computerized machines in this country, or have their wages and benefits severely reduced.”
I distinguished between “upper-level” and “lower-level” workers and discussed what was about to come:
It is the upper-level stratum of the workforce that is feeling this change most dramatically. This is not saying that the lower-level stratum is not being affected. They are feeling it and their situation becomes more tenuous every day. However, the changes they are feeling are generally those of degree, as compared to the qualitative changes the upper-stratum are feeling. An extremely large number of upper-stratum workers have gone from relatively privileged positions of having high wages, good working conditions and steady employment, with membership in strong unions, to a much more questionable economic existence of unsteady employment, much lower wages and considerably worse working conditions, and either membership in considerably weaker unions or no union membership at all. This is for those lucky enough to be working!
Unfortunately, I was shown to be all-too-prescient. (Since I wrote this, my back-of-the-pocket calculation is that over 100,000 unionized, production jobs have been lost in the steel industry from South Chicago to Michigan City, Indiana—about 40 miles—within about 10 miles from the shores of Lake Michigan.)
The ramifications of this can be shown from a subsequent article that I published in India during 2009. (The entire article, which has a lot of good analysis and data in it, can be found at http://faculty.pnc.edu/kscipes/Neoliberal%20Economic%20Policies%20for%20US%20(2009).pdf, and again, best put into your browser.)
I assembled US family income data for three period of the post-World War II United States. For each, I assembled this data from lowest to 95th percentile (the government doesn’t release data from the top 5 percent), divided it into fifths (or 20%, except for the top category which contains only from 80-95th percentiles), and listed the top value for the category. This data has all been put in 2005 dollars, meaning that it is all directly comparable. So, in 1947, the top person in the Lowest 20% would have made $11,758 in 2005 dollars. (That person would have made $1,342.57 in current 1947 dollars.) By converting all dollar values to the same year, this takes inflation out, and these are real values being compared.
So, let’s consider the first period, 1947-1973. These are considered the “golden years” of US capitalism. If you look at the chart below, what you see are the values for the top person in each category in 1947, the values for the top person in each category in 1973, and in the third line, you see the difference for each category over the 26-year period, with the difference being computed by the author, and the difference being divided by the first year given (i.e., 1947), which shows the difference as a percentage of the first year. So, for the Lowest 20%, the top person in the category made $11,758 in 1947, and the top person in the category made $23,144 in 1973, for a difference of $11,386. That difference–$11,386—was 97% of that in the base year, 1947. (If they had hit 100%, that means their real income would have doubled across the period being considered, with numbers over 100% meaning more than doubled.) I have followed that same process for each of the five income categories.
When you look at the first set—above the first blank line—you should notice two things: (1) the growth within each category has roughly doubled over the 26 years we are examining, with the lowest growth being in the 80-95th category. The lowest percentage of growth was 91%. And (2), that the growth among categories was roughly equivalent.
Look at what happened in the 28-year period between 1973-2001, where I used the same method. What we find is much lower growth: the highest was only 58% (as compared to the lowest growth rate in the first period of 91%). And second, that the growth rate was unequal across categories, with growth rates by categories growing (from lowest to highest) at 14%, 19%, 29%, 42%, and 58%–thus while there was growth in this period, it was relative growth, with those in the lower categories growing less than the categories above them.
Now, look at the four-year period between 2001 and 2005. We see income growth only at the 80-95th percentile category, and that it is a measly 1.94% (meaning that whatever growth there was—which I cannot calculate from this data—went to the people whose income was above the 95th percentile.) But look further: the bottom 80% of the US population absolutely—not relatively—lost income! (That is no typo!)
[Three quick comments on the data: This is all data from the US Census Bureau, with particular URLs provided in original article. Unfortunately, they change the URLs almost yearly, so almost impossible to track down the original data without a lot of work, which I have not undertaken: I’m working off my original data. There were some minor math errors in the original article, but I have corrected them here: they do not change the analysis and findings. And also in the original article, I computed compound growth rate by year, so this makes accounts across different numbers of year comparable—see original article for this data: it’s too complex for this article, but confirms the analysis.]
So, what all of this shows is that incomes for the bottom 80% of the US population have gone from basically doubling in the first period to absolutely decreasing in the third. And this data came from the period before the Great Recession in 2008-09. And we know how good that was for many Americans!
I’ve gone into all of this because I want to make a few points, but felt it necessary for my readers to have the understanding from which I make my analysis: although I have not updated this study—which I want to do but have other time commitments—there is a tremendous amount of economic/financial pain in this country;it began long before the Great Recession, and it becomes even more obvious when compared to the 1947-73 (“Leave it to Beaver”) period, which is the standard by which the US has used to make family law, etc.
Second, there is absolutely nothing that suggests we will ever get back to the 1947-73 period again. These changes are structural, and not cyclical.
Third, the elites do not care, and will do nothing to seriously address this situation.
Fourth, the problem is capitalism, and capitalism (or more capitalism) cannot address much less solve these problems.
Ok: what does all of this mean in light of the millions of people who voted for Trump?
Many—but not all—are racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, etc. They are likely to be very encouraged, and in some cases, will probably use violence against people, at least in some situations. We have to take these possibilities very seriously, and be prepared to mobilize to protect people.
However, we do not know what percentage of Trump voters fit this description. My guess—and that’s really all it is—is that it does not fit most Trump voters. (I live in Chicago, but have been teaching for 13 years in the Rust Belt of Northwest Indiana, where the economic conditions suck.)
My analysis is that most of Trump voters are protesting the way they have been screwed over by the elites. They knew Hillary was part of the elite, and Trump effectively made the case that even though she’s been engaged in national level politics since the end of the 1980s, she has done nothing to address these problems. And, as far as I can tell, he is absolutely correct on this.
So, we have to consider the possibility that much of the Trump vote was a protest against the elites, seeking economic change. Trump argued he was the man to fix things. I have no doubt he will fail. That, obviously, will be determined.
But what does that suggest for the left, however defined. (1) We cannot assume that all Trump voters are our enemies. However, we have to support and protect to whatever capabilities we have those who might be targeted by Trump and especially his right wing allies: the threats are real, especially in isolated rural areas.
However, we have to try to reach out and get to know these Trump voters, and try to get them to join us. And no, that probably won’t be over macrobiotic dinners, or something even more esoteric, but we have to find ways to meet and talk with them about common concerns: my sense is that there is a lot of room to talk about economic conditions, children/grandchildren, and the forthcoming future.
People are scared about the future, and believe that the elites only care about “others,” however defined.We have to let them know we are concerned about them, too. Try to raise a family on a $7.25 per hour minimum wage, which is what it is in Mike Pence’s Indiana. (At $7.25 an hour, assuming 50 weeks of work a year, that comes out to about $14,500 a year; the 2015 Federal poverty line is $24,250 for a family of four. The Federal poverty line is approximately half of what’s needed for a sustainable, but simple lifestyle, even in Indiana.)
(2) For those of us active in the union movement, we have to build our strength, our collective power, in the workplace. Key to that is engaging our work mates, and seeking ways to build and extend our power over working conditions, as well as wages and benefits. This strength must be built through member education and mobilization, and not be dependent on lawyers and/or politicians (although they can provide important support.) But our strength must be built at the workplace/shopfloor/distribution center, regardless of where we are located in the economy.
We also have to keep struggling/organizing to transform our unions into social justice unions, where we use our power in the workplace not only to help ourselves, but consciously join with others to fight for a better country. We need to support others in unionizing, but this must be more than just any unionism: we need to help build social justice unions. This means we have to challenge white and male supremacy—as well as other oppressions—not only in our workplaces and organizations, but in larger society as well.Accordingly, that means joining with other social and economic justice organizations in our local and state areas. That means that we must consciously develop education programs in each of our unions, and start campaigning among “fellow” workers to transform our unions. A union movement that fails to fight to speak for economic and social justice for all people in the society is one that will be shunned when we need others’ help. Evidence: the US labor movement since about 1949.
But there is another part in the struggle to create social justice unions in this country. The process by which they are built is important. Activists provide much leadership in any union. They are the ones who educate, mobilize and organize rank-and-file members, while helping members to understand what is taking place. Some activists end up in formal leadership positions—such as serving as an officer or on an executive board—but many do not. Those that remain in the workplace have a key role and important responsibility: they must work to ensure that the formal leadership acts in the best interests of members overall, and with the most inclusive processes possible. These activists are the ones who must call foul should leaders—including members of their own caucus, etc.—not act transparently, do not provide timely reports, do not report political expenditures, etc. What our years of experiences demonstrate that even good people sometimes go bad, collaborate with the boss, hide monetary payments to allies, etc. It is up to the activists in the workplace to monitor the activities of the formal leaders, and to ensure that established processes get developed and remain intact for the good of the entire union. Unions whose leaders violate agreed-upon processes threaten the very existence of the union.
(3) For all of us in the left: we have been talking for years that capitalism has failed, and that we need socialism. I agree with that. But what does that look like, not only practically, but in the light of the environmental devastation/global climate change that is upon us? We need to develop a program that will work for all of us—including Trump voters. It’s time to get serious about this—and now.
If we don’t successfully address this problem, a lot of Trump voters who I believe could be won to our side—look what Bernie Sanders did—will be lost to the racists/misogynists/homophobes/xenophobes who, as we know, are out there.
Kim Scipes, Ph.D., teaches at Purdue University Northwest in Westville, Indiana. A long-time labor and political activist, his latest book (April 2016) is an edited collection from Haymarket Books: Building Global Labor Solidarity in a Time of Accelerating Globalization.