The Gracchi.

According to the guiding theory of the Democratic Party, a big government that robs the rich to give to the poor should be a permanent winner in electoral politics.[1] It isn’t, in spite of continual Democratic efforts to paint the Republicans as Rich Swells and the mere creatures of Big Business. Eduardo Porter conjectures that working-class whites assign greater importance to “racial, ethnic, and cultural identity,” than to “economic status.”[2]

In December 2015, one poll reported that Hillary Clinton would beat Donald Trump in a general election—if only college-educated people voted. On the other hand, Trump would beat Clinton if only people without a college education voted.

Porter is at pains to argue that, while Trump also polls ahead of his Republican rivals with women and upper-income voters, his main base is “less-educated, lower-income white men.”[3] He argues that white, working-class voters (especially men) are “nostalgic for the county they lived in 50 years ago.”[4] These people—he doesn’t quite say “those people”—“would rather not have a robust government if it largely seems to serve people who do not look like them.” While 62 percent of white Americans would prefer a smaller, less providential government[5], only 32 percent of blacks and 26 percent of Hispanics desire that end.   As a result, America could experience “an outright political war along racial and ethnic lines over the distribution of resources and opportunities.” Actually, it isn’t that clear. Whites account for 62 percent of the population, while African-Americans account for 13.2 percent and Hispanics account for 17.1 percent. Taken together, the supporters of a smaller government total better than 46 percent of the population. That’s a big constituency that spans racial lines.

Porter confuses other issues as well. He approvingly quotes one scholarly paper that argues that “racial animosity in the U.S. makes redistribution to the poor, who are disproportionately black, unappealing to many voters.” For one thing, Trump has not attacked blacks to the best of my knowledge. Indeed, he has sought the support of traditional leadership figures in black communities. Trump’s white, working-class base agrees with the candidate’s policies on building a wall along the border with Mexico; deporting illegal immigrants, virtually all of whom are Hispanic-Mexicans; and registering Muslims as potential terrorists. All these can be read as expressions of concern about the loss of jobs to foreign competition, the open flouting of the rule of law, and security in an age of terrorism. For another thing, while Porter accepts that people can have predominant non-economic concerns, he ignores the chance that people are ideologically opposed to welfare dependency. Something else must be driving them. That “something” appears to be race, as in “racism.” Again, however, Porter turns a blind eye to long-standing traditions of self-reliance as an American virtue.

America’s economy, society, and place in the world have all changed in ways that most people do not like. Democrats and Republicans are both nostalgic and they offer policies aiming at “restoration.” We need something better.

[1] “Tax, spend, elect” is one version of a motto attributed to President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s advisor Harry Hopkins. The authenticity of the phrase is disputed. See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tax_and_spend

[2] Eduardo Porter, “Racial Identity Returns to American Politics,” NYT, 6 January 2016.   This is a variant of what Marxists term “false consciousness.” People think that that they belong to a different social class than they actually do, so they behave in the wrong fashion. In this case, people assign less importance to “economic status” than liberals think that they should.

[3] That is, the foundation of the New Deal coalition and of its successors until the Seventies. Now much despised.

[4] President Obama and other Democrats have been talking about restoring the middle class to its former prosperity. Why isn’t that “nostalgia”?

[5] This group spills well outside of the Republican constituency, let alone the Trump constituency.

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