Once upon a time, the political left was a movement of blue collar working class Americans. No longer. A poll by Politico and the Morning Consult about Trump’s rising approval rating tells the story:
It’s a similar bump following the inauguration speech on the National Mall, when Trump told the country, “From this moment on, it’s going to be America first. Every decision on trade, on taxes, on immigration, on foreign affairs, will be made to benefit American workers and American families.” Sixty-five percent of poll respondents viewed that message positively, including 64 percent of independents and half of Democrats. About 6 in 10 voters, including 48 percent of Democrats, also said the federal government should be required to follow Trump’s mantra: “Buy American and hire American.”
For blue-collar workers, the appeal to Trump’s pitch is understandably higher. Roughly three-fourths (74 percent) of voters with blue-collar jobs had a positive reaction to the “America first” argument, and 87 percent said they thought the federal government should conduct business with those rules.
In the 1990s, Newt Gingrich was said to have won over blue collar voters from the Democratic Party as Bill Clinton tried to reposition the Democratic Party as pro-business and pro-globalization. But the transformation of the Democratic base has never looked as dramatic and complete as it does in these early days of the Trump administration.
Trumps’s popularity with blue collar voters doesn’t come as a particular shock to anyone who followed the campaign. Private sector union bosses supported Hillary Clinton, but their members backed Trump. Trump’s crowds cheered protectionism and his infrastructure plans. Trump’s advisor, Steve Bannon, has clearly signaled that Trump wants to focus on protecting the American working class (many of whom are considered “blue collar”) first and foremost.
To some extent, Democrats aren’t to blame for this shift. The decline of American manufacturing and the accompanying collapse of collective bargaining (only 6.7 percent of private sector employees are unionized) are the result of economic forces outside any political party’s control.
Nevertheless, it’s worth stopping to take note of the remarkable distance between working class voters and the Democratic Party. At least since the 1920s, Democrats have thought of themselves as the party of workers — for a long time because that’s actually what they were. They inherited the Progressive Movement from the Republicans under Woodrow Wilson (reluctantly, in some ways), and then the New Deal cemented their status as guardians of the proletariat. The 1960s brought Medicare and, in the 1980s, they pushed back against Reagan’s pro-business deregulation and market reform efforts.
But starting in the 1960s, Democrats struggled to balance working class politics with identity politics. Identity politics (favored for different reasons by academic and corporate interests alike) won. The Democratic Party now represents a coalition of minorities, well-educated upper middle class urban professionals, and powerful interests in Silicon Valley, Hollywood, and to an extent on Wall Street. Much of what’s left of the left’s working class support comes from public sector unions — a perverted application of collective bargaining principles that President Franklin D. Roosevelt believed hurt working class American taxpayers.
Democrats still cling to the idea that they represent the true interests of the working class, and that blue collar voters who support the GOP have been tricked—What’s the Matter With Kansas was in many ways more influential to the Dem worldview than even the Emerging Democratic Majority. And yet by 2016, people who voted for Hillary Clinton collectively produced 64 percent of the country’s GDP. The election was the referendum on wealth inequality leftwing intellectuals have been predicting since shortly after the financial crisis. It’s just that Trump and the GOP won it.