This summer, opining on the presidential election, I considered the plight of those whose jobs in steel or in coal, generally in middle America, had been lost and were not likely to return. I wondered whether Democrat Hillary Clinton or Republican Donald Trump had more to offer these individuals, who, to me, seem to be 21st century Joads, like the characters from “The Grapes of Wrath.” To me, it did not seem either candidate had sincere, practical or effective solutions. I wondered whether one of the candidates would look these modern Joads in the eyes and take up their cause. In the end, most of those citizens put their faith in Donald Trump.
Sen. Bernie Sanders gets much of the credit — or blame — for that.
For months he told the working class both parties had failed them. Trade had taken their jobs and Wall Street had taken an even bigger share of the economic pie. He reminded them of Clinton’s Wall Street ties and her million dollar honoraria from investment firms, her association with elites and her distance from the union household. He spoke to the anxieties of young people. While he did not win the nomination, nor the majority of Democrats voting in the primaries, he changed the course of the election. He spread doubt among the working class about Clinton. They started to look elsewhere.
Concurrently, Donald Trump was speaking to the same people, reinforcing, in a sense, what Sanders was saying. As elites from academia to the press refused to take Trump seriously, they subtly transmitted their same message of contempt and disdain for Trump to those who were beginning to listen to him. They, as much as Trump, delivered Trump’s message to these people. Clinton even called these Trump supporters “deplorables.”
While Clinton was photographed with Wall Street and business elites, Trump was praising the police and embracing firefighters. He knew his path to victory was not to win a majority of voters, but, rather, to hold onto the South, the heartland, carry Florida and then place his big bet on the Midwest’s working class. He could not have done it alone, but he got the help he needed. Working class voters got attention from Sanders and inattention from Clinton (not even a post-convention visit to Wisconsin). Both worked to Trump’s advantage.
In the spring of 1960, during the hard fought Democratic primaries, Hubert Humphrey, Lyndon Johnson and John Kennedy traversed Democratic West Virginia – which was dominated by FDR-like Democrats — with messages for working families. Fourteen elections later, Republican Donald Trump won 69 percent of the West Virginia vote. One of those voters, Ray McCoy, a 45 year-old disabled coal miner, rose from a sick bed to be driven to the polling place to cast the first ballot of his life. And it was for Donald Trump.
Many lessons will be learned from this election. A lot will involve political strategy. But there is a more basic lesson, particularly for Democrats and their leadership. Thank Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump for teaching it.
Do not take people for granted, particularly those who might be less sophisticated than you. Do not place the Wall Street executive ahead of the policeman on the corner. Do not equate disdain of the opponent and his followers for serious policy proposals aimed at those who are hurting. Finally, learn that righteousness and arrogance are not entitlements to govern in a democracy.
Like it or not, McCoy’s vote has the same influence as yours. For those concerned about issues of race, sexuality and religious freedom, we can only pray a new generation of Democratic leaders have the humility to learn from this experience and listen to those in need. Working-class people’s debt to Franklin Delano Roosevelt has been long paid. Now is the time for Democrats to earn again the trust and respect of working people.
Clark G. Ross is the Frontis W. Johnston Professor of Economics at Davidson College.