In the 1960s pundits liked to ask why, if their lives were already so bad, black people in the “ghetto” still burned down their own neighborhoods. As Robert Putnam has demonstrated, the economic state (if not the subjection to mass incarceration and police violence) of white working-class America is now close to that of their non-white analogues. By this light, the election of Trump might be understood as an electoral riot.
What to do? In the mid-1960s the social scientist James Coleman for the first time gathered evidence that suggested that greater investment in education made no difference in the lives of the downtrodden; it was the distinctions of culture, the day-to-day habits of the middle-class—whether using big words at breakfast or modeling self-restraint and delayed-gratification while waiting for dessert—that accounted for the academic success of their children.
These findings were widely publicized, becoming the statistical underbelly for the infamous Moynihan report on the “Negro Family.” In 1967, in a private letter to Coleman that I recently came across in the archives, one reader followed their logic to a surprising conclusion:
I suggest that the government have educational TV systems that operate all day and most of the night. These systems would have programs showing what goes on in a middle class home—the actual happenings, conversations, and correcting of children as to their manners and hygienes and so forth. The programs for this system would be received by special home television sets that could be tuned to only the educational TV channel. They would be provided to the underprivileged by the government and maintained by the government. Their design should be such that they could not be tampered with by the user and access to them could be accomplished only by specially appointed government repairmen.
In this document from fifty years ago, we have a kind of précis of the Clinton campaign. Clinton effectively resurrected the politics of ’60s neoconservatives—only now she was targeting white people. The solution to the rage of the midwestern white working-class was not to offer specific goods they needed to build their lives—most voters could hardly name a thing Clinton was actually for—but to pipe into every swing-state living room a nonstop stream of American success, the sunshine pablum of the Democratic convention. ”America is great because America is good,” et cetera. Anger, loss, economic trauma, and, yes, racism and sexism could be overcome by a genial disposition, an endless national exhibition of proper behavior, together with an extra helping of negative campaign ads in which Clinton’s opponent was corrected for his crude (never explicitly labeled “criminal”) actions. The culture of white poverty would be overcome by an exhibition of middle-class culture.
If voters didn’t know what Clinton was for, they did know what she was against: Donald Trump, and people who did things like Donald Trump. Her basic strategy, after Trump became the nominee, was “disqualification.” Clinton ran on “competence”—she was, as her supporters never ceased to remind us, “the most qualified presidential candidate in history.” This put a new twist on the politics of ’60s neoconservatism by combining it with the meritocratic strain that has dominated the Democratic Party since the 1980s. No need for a straightforward, easily intelligible ideological call—the people versus the billionaire class. Just trust us. Our policies are healthy and good for you.
For that small but crucial group of white working-class voters who voted for a black man in in the 2012 election but helped put Trump over the top in Pennsylvania and Florida (if not Wisconsin and Michigan, where Clinton appears to have lost because of poor turnout), this was a story that may well have sounded very familiar. When these voters lost their jobs and struggled to stay afloat as incomes stagnated and costs rose, they were repeatedly informed that their misfortune was their own fault. They didn’t have the right skills, they had failed to keep up. Why did they stay in “sunset” industries? Why couldn’t they just go to college and get a “good job” like other white people, the meritocrats? These voters didn’t lose out because politicians considered them expendable; they lost, they were told, because they were not competent.
What the competence and disqualification rhetoric did was to move Trump effectively beyond criticism. If the trouble with Trump was that experts insisted he wasn’t competent, and he was disqualified because he had said and done things that, while terrible, could be spun as honest if “politically incorrect,” then the trouble with Trump was the trouble with white working-class voters themselves. They, too, had been told that they were incompetent, that they were unqualified. To turn against Trump would be to turn against oneself. To embrace Trump was to embrace a particular version of oneself, to give free rein to impulses that on other occasions—four and eight years ago, for instance, when the marginal Trump supporters, if not the core ones, voted for Obama—had been restrained. One does not need to sympathize with this logic to understand its force.
If we’re lucky, the Democrats will learn to put straightforward, easily understood, non-wonkified demands first: health care as a right; free and well-funded education at all levels; a $15-dollar minimum wage; jobs for all. They will run not on competence and disqualification, but on giving people what they need to live better lives.
This election, then, would mark both the reemergence of open white supremacy on the national stage (a Second Redemption to follow the Second Reconstruction) as well as the end of meritocracy in American politics. While the day-to-day struggle will happen in the streets, it is exactly the claims of competence and disqualification—so tempting to hold onto now, as the nightmare commences—that we need to move beyond, electorally, to overcome the racist, sexist, authoritarian monster that has been unleashed upon the most vulnerable among us. If we cling to competence (like rural voters to their “guns and religion”), the age of the meritocrats will continue, a hopeless counterpoint to that of the demagogues.