The fundamental American political divide is not between liberals and conservatives but between philosophers and populists. When the reigns of philosophers, or politicians who hypothesize and conceptualize but rarely implement legislation that will have a direct effect on the lives of their constituents, coincide with periods of socioeconomic hardship for the American people, citizens feel that these hardships are being ignored by a political class that is more interested in theorizing than in helping them. When this happens, populists emerge. Bryan came to power during the Panic of 1893; Wallace rose in prominence as the quality of white children’s education plummeted in the 1960s; Trump was elected while the manufacturing economy collapsed in the 2010s. When the current government is ideologically oriented during social and economic crises, voters feel that these politicians are part of an elite class that does not represent the workers, so they seek out populist politicians who are not part of this class and will therefore provide pragmatic solutions; Trump filled this niche in the 2016 election.
Approximately fifty years ago, the Democratic Party shifted toward ideological rather than populist politics. Between the 1968 and 1972 elections, during which the working class famously defected from the Democrat George McGovern campaign to vote for incumbent Republican Richard Nixon, high-profile Democrat strategist Frank Dutton suggested a change in Democrat philosophy that would reshape the party’s political approach. Dutton published the manifesto Changing Sources of Power, in which he identified idealistically-driven young people -- who had just gained the right to vote through the 1971-passed 26th Amendment -- as the Democrats’ target voting base. In order to appeal to this audience of voters, who "define the good life not in terms of material thresholds or index economics… but as 'the fulfilled life' in a more intangible and personal sense," the Democrats had to shift their focus away from “material thresholds” and “economics” and toward “intangible” policies as well. So the McGovern campaign sported a different set of priorities from that of the populist-influenced New Deal Democrats who came before him. No longer did the Democrats declare war on poverty or develop the transportation system or partner with unions, as Lyndon B. Johnson did; instead, McGovern protested the Vietnam War and advocated for radical youth causes and reduced unions’ influence within the Democratic Party.
But as the historic party of labor distanced itself from unions, the working class actively needed aid from the government. 1972 was the year of economic stagflation. According to historians Jefferson Cowie and Nick Salvatore, the sudden rise in poverty was first caused by “oil shocks and inflation,” and then later by “deindustrialization, plant closings, and a global restructuring of work itself that would continue over the ensuing three decades.” Income inequality reached a historic low in 1968 and has continued to climb since, the inequality ratio -- a mathematical constant for measuring the wealth gap -- shooting up from 0.386 to 0.402 between 1968 and 1972 alone. Union memberships plummeted between 1970 and 1974 due to unions’ decreasing ability to advocate for their increasingly impoverished members. And the Democrats refused to intercede. In 1981, Carter advisor Alfred Kahn would sum up Democrat apathy -- even appreciation -- for workers’ flailing economic situation: “I'd love the automobile workers to be worse off.”
But the Republican Party was more than willing to absorb the Democrats’ cast-offs, and Nixon’s Silent Majority coalition accomplished that goal. Nixon and his administration gave a damning name to the Democratic shift from concrete issues to ideological ones: elitism. Vice President Spiro Agnew skewered the “small and unelected elite" and the "effete corps of impudent snobs who characterize themselves as intellectuals" who peppered Democrat politics. His rhetoric complemented Nixon’s message that the Silent Majority, made up of workers who worked blue-collar jobs and supported the Vietnam War, was truly part of the Republican Party. The Nixon administration described the political dynamic as one in which the Democrats rejected the working class and the Republicans advocated for it. And by framing the situation so starkly, Nixon convinced more working-class voters to see politics as he did; between the 1968 and 1972 elections, blue-collar support for the Republican Party leaped from 35% to 57%.
Between the 1970s and the 2010s, the two parties continued loosely on the tracks that they had created in the 1972 election, with the Democrats representing the philosophers and the Republicans representing the populists, although the notable exceptions made it clear that working-class voters were not voting based on loyalty to the Republican party but based on loyalty to specific populist candidates. The new tradition of populist Republican candidates remained strong with presidents Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush, and George Bush. Reagan was an emblem of what Cowie called the “new, more populist right,” promising “cultural [and economic] refuge for blue-collar whites.” The first Bush president famously told the Republican National Convention, “Read my lips: no new taxes;” the second used his initial address to Congress to advocate for tax cuts for the middle class.” Similarly, on the Democratic side, evangelical peanut farmer Jimmy Carter campaigned as a New Deal Democrat; Bill Clinton, who was supported by current Trump voter Harold Jones*, sought to implement universal health care and create manufacturing jobs; and Barack Obama won the 2008 election on the promise of middle-class job creation and change. However, the majority of these candidates had at least some degree of ideological sympathy. George H. W. Bush birthed the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and Jimmy Carter wanted to reduce the size of the government.
This is what differentiated the 2016 election from its predecessors: not only was it a battle between two extreme candidates during a time of dire constituent need, but there was also a deep chasm between the issues that the current government prized and the issues that impacted the white working-class voters. Obama (especially in the later years of his presidency) and Hillary Clinton focused on the nebulous world of racial and gender equality rather than on the dire economic issues of a manufacturing class whose jobs were being replaced by machines. Working-class Trump voter Daniel Smith* criticized Obama’s lack of interest in domestic economic policy -- “We were still buying too much from other countries” -- and said that Ms. Clinton would carry on Obama’s tradition. Smith’s personal experiences as a superintendent exposed him to an unpleasant reality of unsuccessful government programs: in the Section 8 housing where he used to work, the members of the buildings “had everything: nice cars, anything they wanted in their [government-subsidized] houses,” while veterans “barely survive[d]” nearby in non-subsidized apartments. He feared that the federal government had forgotten about the issues that its constituents battle daily.
For voters like Smith and Jones, who feared that the ideologically-driven Democrats would disenfranchise and ignore them, Trump provided the solution. Trump spoke directly to working-class voters, promising concrete legislative changes centered around deglobalization that would bring them job security and economic growth. Much like Nixon, Trump painted the Democrats as the party of the elite -- “Globalization has made the financial elite who donate to politicians very wealthy” -- and portrayed his own Republican candidacy as a means of rescuing Democrats’ victims from financial ruin -- “We will make America the best place in the world to start a business, hire workers, and open a factory.” He reassured the workers of their importance within the political vernacular by using dog whistles such as “you know [the economic situation] better than anybody.” And the workers believed him. Jones called Trump “a Don Juan… a revolutionary.” Smith associated Trump with “taxes going to support the right people.” Trump brought the working class, which has historically been the first voting group to be forgotten during ideologically-driven presidential reigns, back into the political spotlight. Their brushed-off economic woes became central to Trump’s legislative goals. Of course they voted for Trump; he prioritized them and Clinton ignored them.
Trump’s victory was one of many links in a historical pattern of pragmatic populist candidates triumphing over philosophers in times when the white working class faces social and economic hardships. This was a particularly polarizing election due to the extreme populist and extreme philosopher statuses of the two candidates, in addition to the extreme working-class poverty, but it was fundamentally a repeat of the 1972 election, the 1980 election, and the other presidential elections of the late 20th century. It is necessary to emphasize once again that what made this election extreme was not necessarily extreme liberalism and conservatism. Clinton may have been a centrist on the liberalism/conservative scale, but she was drastically philosopher on the philosopher/populist scale. But because Clinton was only looking at the first scale, she failed to properly identify what made her polarizing. Without this information, she could not remedy her flaws in communicating with the working class, so she lost their votes and, as a result, the election. Trump’s intelligence has been questioned over the course of the election, but he clearly surpassed Clinton in his understanding of why the white working class votes. Perhaps this is the lesson that America can learn from an election that will haunt the country for years to come. No matter a candidate’s moral prowess or qualifications, he will win if he understands the single most important determinant of an election’s outcome: the fundamental American divide.
* These names have been changed for privacy.