Since the upset election defeat of Hillary Clinton, Democrats have been debating whether they should pursue working-class politics or identity politics. Some believe that Hillary Clinton lost because she focused too much on the identity politics of groups who are not white, heterosexual, and male, and they believe that Donald Trump won because he addressed the economic concerns of the white working class. But this dichotomy is a false choice based on a flawed analysis.
It was Donald Trump who was most committed to identity politics—white nationalist identity politics. Also, people of color (the identity groups that I will focus on) do not ignore economic issues. The economy is among their top concerns. The candidate with the policies best serving the working class is most likely to win the votes of people of color. Finally, civil rights issues are economic issues. Denying an individual’s civil rights, more often than not, has direct or indirect economic consequences. Identity politics cannot be completely separated from class politics.
Trump’s Campaign Was White Nationalist Identity Politics
Trump’s campaign consistently resonated with the themes of white nationalists and white supremacists who dream of a whites-only America. Trump began his campaign with the statement that Mexican immigrants are rapists and criminals. His solution: build a giant wall along the southern U.S. border. He followed this xenophobic agenda with an Islamophobic agenda. Trump called for a ban on Muslims entering the United States. This proposal was revised into a demand for “extreme vetting” of people from an unspecified list of countries. His slogan, “Make America Great Again,” is a difficult one to latch on to if one is not white. When exactly in the past was America great for African Americans? Was it in the 1950s during Jim Crow or in the 1850s during enslavement? The Trump campaign activated and energized white nationalists and won Trump an endorsement by the Ku Klux Klan.
Beyond the white nationalist and white supremacist activists, research by Michael Tesler, Philip Klinkner, Sean McElwee and others show that anti-black, anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant attitudes are powerful predictors of support for Trump—more so than economic concerns or educational attainment. On average, Trump voters are not experiencing economic hardship. In the primaries, Trump supporters had incomes that were higher than the average for Clinton supporters and about the same as Ted Cruz supporters. The political scientist Michael Tesler has shown that much of reason for Trump’s stronger support among non-college-educated whites is due to the fact that anti-black racial resentment is stronger among this group. Sean McElwee found that views on trade has far less power to predict who is a Trump supporter than anti-black attitudes.
This research has been corroborated by the exit polls from the election. According to the exit polls, it was Clinton who won among voters earning less than $50,000, and it was Clinton who won among voters saying the economy is the most important issue. Trump beat Clinton (by three percentage points) among college-educated whites. He also won among voters who believe that immigration and terrorism are the most important issues. These findings strongly support the idea that anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim attitudes—much more so than economic hardship—were drivers of Trump’s election-day success.
Of course, many people who voted for Donald Trump were not motivated by prejudice. My calculations from the exit polls show that more than a quarter of Trump voters were voting against Hillary Clinton and not for Trump. Another third of Trump voters have serious reservations about Trump. Nonetheless, it is clear that anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim attitudes are a significant part of Trumps appeal.
The Working-Class Politics of People of Color
If one wishes to appeal to the working class—workers without bachelor’s degrees—then one wishes to appeal to people of color. People of color make up 40 percent of the working class, and their share of the working class is growing. To put it another way, more than four fifths of the Latino labor force is working class, three quarters of the black labor force is working class, and more than two fifths of Asian Americans are working class. (The Asian American share is from my calculations from the 2015 American Community Survey.) It is a profound mistake to presume that these populations aren’t interested in working class issues.
Robert E. Scott, an economist at the Economic Policy Institute, estimated that between 2001 and 2011 trade with China displaced a half a million Latinos from jobs and displaced roughly 300,000 African Americans and Asian Americans each from jobs. People of color have been harmed from bad trade deals at least as much as the white working class. Working-class issues are people-of-color issues.
Voters of color clearly indicate their concern about the economy. Latino voters identified education, the economy, and health care as their top three issues in the election in this order. Education and health care are also economic issues. Ones children’s future economic opportunities are shaped by their educational opportunities today. The high and rising cost of health care makes it a major economic issue. Immigration was the fifth most important issue for Latinos.
For African Americans, education was the top concern. The economy and jobs ranked second. College affordability, and racial relations and racial justice tied for third. Income inequality was the next most important concern. Economic issues are deeply part of black political thinking.
For Asian Americans, the economy and jobs was their top personal issue. Health care ranked second. Education, and terrorism or national security tied for third. Although many Asian Americans are immigrants or the descendants of recent immigrants, immigration was one of their lowest personal concerns.
Any politician who wishes to reach voters of color needs to have a strong economic agenda that speaks to the needs of the working class. People of color are a heavily working-class population with strong economic concerns. Hillary Clinton did well with people of color in part because she spoke strongly about raising the minimum wage, protecting their health insurance, and making college more affordable.
The Economics of Identity Politics
It is hard to improve your economic circumstances when you are dead. Concern about killings and violence by the police against people of color, about violent crime in communities of color, or about violent hate crimes directed against people of color have economic consequences even if they are about more than economics. If we allow or tolerate non-economic discrimination against a group, it is likely that we will also see discrimination in the economic sphere. No racist has ever taken a pledge to be discriminatory in every arena but the economic arena. Groups that are victims of racially motivated hate crimes also experience discrimination in hiring, wages, promotions, housing, and lending. Identity politics generally has economic implications.
The Democratic Party has to conduct a careful examination of its strengths and weaknesses. But the idea that working-class politics and identity politics are fundamentally in opposition is false. Certainly the working class of color which makes up 40 percent of the working class does not agree.
Members of the Republican Party are happy about its powerful election triumph. But Republicans should not forget that it did not win the majority of votes, and that many Republican voters were not happy about the white nationalist identity politics of their candidate. If they wish to remain successful in a diversifying America, they will have to find a strategy that does not rely on white nationalist identity politics.
Algernon Austin is the author of America Is Not Post-Racial: Xenophobia, Islamophobia, Racism, and the 44th President which is the only book to analyze the 25 million Obama Haters in America.