I’ve been planning a U.S. election recap for some time – to make sense of and find lessons in what has been an unusually tumultuous political campaign and larger period of cultural division in my nation.
In many ways, these are undeniably the best of times, with startling technological and social advances in the U.S. and around the world. At the same time, our era also can be understood as the worst of times for some, with many still left behind or otherwise feeling alienated by the new opportunities of our rapidly emerging, but naturally disruptive, global society.
Based on many weeks of polling data, my original idea was to warn U.S. progressives that they were lucky to have won a third presidential term, given an obvious gap in their programs and priorities, and to thank Mr. Trump for making this abundantly clear. But as we all now know, luck and the polls did not hold.
U.S. Populists: White, Pressured & Energized
And yet, my principal takeaway from the U.S. election and primary lesson for progressives, across the developed world and beyond, is unchanged. Indeed, Ms. Clinton’s unpredicted but not completely unforeseeable defeat is consistent with other recent populist or anti-establishment votes, in Europe and elsewhere.
Our rising populism, in turn, is a natural and recurring consequence of increasing economic inequality, social stratification, and cultural infringement, all of which are strong trends around the world today. And while populism may be a blunt or imprecise social force, it is an understandable, important, and addressable one too. In particular, current outbreaks of disquiet and opposition to established power and order have clear and instructive parallels with other populist periods in Western history (including the 1890s and 1930s).
Today, in substantial parts of both the U.S. and Europe, there is now a large minority of people who have been inattentively missed, comparatively disadvantaged, or directly harmed by the last four decades of information age expansion and prosperity, by rising globalization and multiculturalism, and by our generally impactful but sometimes narrowly-focused progressive reforms and policies. The presence and natural importance of this large but often systematically overlooked minority group – and the group that is primarily driving popular rebellion in the developed world – is the lesson I want to offer to U.S. progressives, their European counterparts, and others seeking progressive change in their nations and around the world.
As you likely guessed, this underserved U.S. and European minority is low to mid-skilled white working people. They are whites with relatively modest incomes and education levels, and are generally a group that was comparatively more prosperous several decades ago. And while this particular group is a distinctly American and European phenomenon, there are parallel or analogous groups in nearly every nation in our globalizing and rapidly changing world today.
Importantly, working whites in the U.S. and Europe are distinct from chronic deplorables – committed racists and misogynists, perpetual authoritarians and militarians, intractable xenophobes, and menacing sociopaths – who can be found, today and always, at many levels of income and across all ethnic groups.
Instead, working whites in the developed world are a group that is characteristically pragmatic, concerned with family and community, center-right politically, and protective or cautious rather than inherently anti-progressive or reactionary. While working-class whites are everywhere in the U.S. and Europe, many live away from urban centers, including outer suburbs or wholly exurban areas. And as a frequently more rural and parochial group, and a formerly more prosperous one, working whites have found themselves steadily disadvantaged, pressured, marginalized, overlooked, and/or actively dismissed for some time – in our new and increasingly globalized, urbanized, cosmopolitan, and politically correct world.
In the U.S., working-class whites predominate in solidly conservative states in the South and Midwest, and in northern industrial swing states. Notably, the latter were once especially prosperous, home to well-paying manufacturing jobs, and like their Southern counterparts, reliably voted Democratic. But long threatened by the offshoring of work, these U.S. industrial status are now far more populist and suspicious of the status quo.
As in the South, Northern working whites are increasingly Republican and in rebellion against current progressive and pluralistic efforts. And they just cost Ms. Clinton the election (and nearly her party’s nomination several months earlier). Together, these large and now merging areas of the country are known variably, and often pejoritively, as the rust belt, the bible belt, coal country, and the manufacturing heartland.
U.S. White Poverty Rate By State – Higher In Non-Urban Areas (Kaiser)
As suggested, working whites in all areas of the U.S. have been losing traditional jobs overseas, as well as to automation and immigration, for decades. They have watched an older, relatively happy, and comparatively advantaged way of life (albeit an imperfect one) recede in time with this trend. This economic and social decline began in earnest with the shuttering of textile and shoe factories in the 1970s, continued with reduced domestic heavy industry and durable goods manufacturing, and more recently has involved constrained jobs and wages in the service sector.
In this time, working whites have watched as globalization and advancing technology have steadily and disproportionately harmed their social and economic status, while benefiting the U.S. coasts, the educated, urbanites, the mobile, the technophilic, and the already wealthy.
This remarkable video offers a partial, though perhaps extreme, portrait of this significant and greatly underserved U.S. minority group, who represent something less than 40% of voters here. The video’s portrait is familiar and yet still quite arresting. And it is a portrait that easily could be drawn in other parts of the developed world today.
For me, better understanding the nature and plight of the newly but now clearly disadvantaged minority group that is working whites in the developed world – or displaced farmers and tradespeople in the developing world – engenders important new awareness of needed reforms and changes to our current progressive agendas and coalitions.
In particular, it leads to new appreciation of how working-class people, white and non-white alike, have been failed by recent social policies and social investment programs, by the real and chronically undermitigated impacts of globalization, ironically by the ideologically conservative or laissez-faire politicians that working people often support (in the U.S., until this election), and by progressives and our general failure to clearly include and consciously assimilate this sizeable group into the various progressive projects of our time.
That this often-overlooked demographic minority is hurting should be a surprise to no one, at least in the U.S., and especially to thoughtful, open-minded, and systematically-oriented progressives. In addition to experiencing now well-understood, disproportionate economic losses since the 1970s (see here and here), ongoing public health and sociological research has repeatedly emphasized the glaring and accelerating demise and marginalization of working white culture in the U.S. (see here and here as examples).
While the U.S.’s two coasts and larger cities have generally globalized, liberalized, and prospered in recent decades, the U.S. heartland, especially away from metropolitan areas, has suffered profound health and quality of life setbacks, ones associated with but larger and more invasive than economic pressures alone.
Unlike nearly all other U.S. groups, basic indicators of personal and social health have been declining for working whites, and for years. Looking at declining working white longevity, the causes are well-known, familiar to most of us, and reflect broader cultural (and social policy) failures. They include heightened and chronic drug abuse, alcoholism, violence including suicide, family breakdown and social isolation, and other health-indifferent, disinvesting, and unhopeful personal and cultural norms.
As indicated, some on the U.S. left have been inclined to dismiss disadvantaged whites, to treat them as uniformly or predominately deplorable (rather than systematically disadvantaged or disincentivized), and to approach this group derisively or with hostility – whether because the group has historically resisted progressive change or because working whites have not had the luck or wherewithal to sustainably leverage past racial and systematic privilege. This of course is shortsighted, simplistic, arrogant, vindictive or partisan on its face, and anything but progressive and socially-conscious in a full sense of these words.
The full truth, and the clear lesson of recent white working life in the U.S., is that all of us can become caught in negative or upending social and economic trends, or in limiting cultural norms, ones beyond our control and distinct from what we would choose in other circumstances. All of us live situationally. And all of us can fail, and can fail chronically and intergenerationally, owing to trends larger than us and our social networks. And when this occurs, all or nearly all of us will act (and vote) out of desperation, to advance narrow personal or parochial interests and norms, and from a narrowed and parochialized sense of life more generally.
A more adaptive, principled, pragmatic, self and socially aware, and ultimately sustainable approach to social advancement understands that inclusion and progress naturally go together, and that any accidental or imposed limit on one attribute inevitably and circularly limits the other. This perspective emphasizes the natural importance of ongoing, energetic, and relentless cultural bridge-building (as opposed to more expedient coalition-building), places a premium on assimilation and downplays needless partisanship, and promotes informed but naturally more powerful future-oriented focus and action (as opposed to the litigation of historical error and bias).
What we might call ‘inclusive progressivity’ understands that exclusion and inequality anywhere naturally creates risks of division and antipathy, and thus practical barriers and opposition to progressive or compounding change, everywhere. It foresees that excluded people of all kinds will naturally look for superior allies and new advantage, and that they will likely do this from a more zero-sum and myopic sense of the world than is possible, and than is desirable for us all.
In the wake of our unusually fraught and fractious U.S. election, I hope that progressives around the world will see the opportunity to learn from this and other recent populist rebellions – social upheavals that can be understood as rooted in or exacerbated by inadequately broad or inclusive progressive efforts – and that they will work to build stronger, wider, and more thoughtful reform agendas for the future.
As a beginning, I would urge progressives to reexamine their needed aims and ultimate constituencies, to explore less partisan or traditional coalition-focused politics and policy agendas, to embrace the idea that social investment programs needn’t be conceived and function on a zero-sum basis, and to consider that our progressive social efforts might naturally involve, benefit, and gain the support or acceptance of all, or nearly all, people.
This includes the rich and poor, white and non-white, powerful and powerless, and yes, even those of us who historically have been – or today still are – situationally, but curably, deplorable.
Health & best wishes,
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