When Hillary Clinton dismissed many of Donald Trump’s supporters as ‘deplorables,’ she gave voice to a common sentiment among liberals: that white males are just angry they’re losing their privileges. But are those of us who hold good liberal views really all that entitled to feel superior?
To begin with, the males who got the privileges kept them, retiring to lives of comfort while shifting the burden of social justice onto the next generation. As Hillary herself acknowledged, many of the folk who show up at Trump rallies feel let down by government. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out why.
In the quarter century after World War II, the economies of the West were growing at annual rates of 4-6%. That meant that every dozen or so years, you were more or less assured a doubling, at least, in your standard of living. All those baby boomers born in that golden age grew up with the expectation that this would continue forever, and the first baby-boomer president, Bill Clinton, finished his presidency saying that the US was growing so fast it would soon be free of debt.
A few years and $14 trillion of debt later, we’re seeing what a pipe dream that was. Unfortunately, too many of us refuse to give up on it. To cling to it, we have to air-brush reality out of the picture. Because ever since the late 1960s, the underlying economic growth rate has been slowing steadily, since labour productivity has been slowing. And labour productivity has been slowing because our earnings during the golden age ended up growing faster than our output. In a word, we in the West had got too rich. Workers in Third-World countries could do what we were doing at a fraction the cost.
But those baby-boom voters were reluctant to adjust their expectations downwards. They’d made themselves promises of jobs, earnings and pensions that presumed annual growth rates of 3-4%. Now that it was closer to the one percent we’ve known over the last decade or so, they were going to need some deft sleight of hand to pull it off. So they used an old accounting trick. You can still hit the one percent target if, say, you give half the population, those who vote for you, 3% a year, and maintain the average by dinging everyone else with nothing or even negative gains.
That’s pretty much what has happened over the last two generations. We globalised the manufacturing sector, where the politically-expendable white working class was concentrated, while keeping the managerial and high-end jobs performed by the middle class free from any kind of competition. As working-class wages were driven down by competition from China and Mexico, resulting both in cheap goods and higher profits, the rest of the population was sheltered from the fallout.
Think of the post-war Keynesian compact, in which everyone seemed to be on the prosperity train, as a series of widening concentric circles, with the elites in the middle and the rest of society in the rings. Well, the circles were narrowed, excluding some and hoarding the gains among the remainder, as if you’re withdrawing to your bastions (which, electorally, you are). The best analogy I can come up was apartheid in South Africa. By excluding the black majority from the circles, the white minority was able to deliver itself First-World standards of living in a Third-World country.
It’s been all too easy to dismiss the anger of a population that’s bearing the brunt of economic adjustment. We do this by delegitimising everything to do with working-class culture, latching onto any signs of homophobia, racism or sexism to throw the whole baby out with the bathwater. One of my own guilty pleasures is the comedy show Little Britain. I say guilty because I once counted the number of times in one episode that they made fun of benefits recipients or working-class people, and realised I’d be appalled if the same sort of jibes had been directed at ethnic minorities or homosexuals. We choose who to offend, and I don’t doubt that Donald Trump’s crowds devour the way he’s turning the tables on us with his crass vulgarity.
This will only work for so long. South Africa should have taught us that trying to maintain living standards through exclusion and upward distribution is doomed to failure, once the majority are outside the system. We may not have reached the level of exclusion apartheid maintained at its peak, when four-fifths of the population were legally excluded. But with populist politicians like Trump drawing a rising share of the vote, the angry ones are getting into our face.
It’s going to get harder for us to just airbrush them out of the picture with smug dismissals. In truth, those of us still feeling good times have been pretty deplorable ourselves.