Commentary on Political Economy

Sunday, 15 November 2020

CLASS: The ONLY Identity Divide


America’s other identity divide — class

Matt Kenyon illustration of Rana Foroohar column ‘America’s other identity divide - class’
© Matt Kenyon

Race is often a central issue in American political life. But, as the 2020 presidential election has just shown us, class is a topic that matters just as much, perhaps even more, at least in terms of votes.

While the Republican incumbent, Donald Trump, won a majority of small towns and rural areas, his Democratic challenger, Joe Biden, took communities that represent a whopping 70 per cent of the US economy, according to Brookings Institution data. No matter where voters were in the country, if they lived in an economic growth hub, it’s likely that they voted for Mr Biden.

This tells us some important things about America. First, that wealth and power are concentrated in just a few places. When you look at an electoral map of the US, it is overwhelmingly red, except on the coasts and a few inland urban areas. More than two-thirds of US job growth since 2007 has been concentrated in 25 cities and regional hubs, according to the McKinsey Global Institute. Meanwhile, lower growth areas and rural counties where some 77m people live have had “flat or falling employment growth”, even following the recovery from the last financial crisis. 

That sort of concentration in a few “superstar cities” is a global trend. It also tends to snowball as the most talented young people are attracted to a handful of urban centres, driving up property prices and making it tougher for anyone who isn’t part of the superstar club to get a leg up on the socio-economic ladder. Those left behind are angry, and vulnerable to demagogues. Is it any wonder that the least urbanised counties in the US voted for Mr Trump by a margin of 35 percentage points, up from 32 points in 2016. 

So how to explain the fact that Mr Biden was able to restore the “blue wall” across the rustbelt states of Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania? There, the percentage of white working class men voting Democratic increased from 23 per cent to 28 per cent in 2020, while white working class women’s vote was up two points as well, to 36 per cent.

Very simply, he spoke their language. Hillary Clinton made a fatal mistake when she dismissed Trump supporters as “deplorables” and Barack Obama once referred to the Midwest working class as “bitter” people who “cling to guns or religion”. But Mr Biden showed up to these areas with empathy and respect, cleverly recasting his opponent. “I’ve dealt with guys like Donald Trump my whole life . . . who would look down on us because we didn’t have a lot of money or [our] parents didn’t go to college,” he said at a speech in Manitowoc, Wisconsin. “Guys who inherit everything they’ve ever gotten in their life and squander it.”

As many authors and academics have written recently, words matter. A dash less contempt from the meritocratic classes for those with less education, plainer speech and more traditional views of family, gender roles or religion, would go a long way. It might be a way to start bridging the empathy gap that has pushed at least some voters towards Mr Trump. More particularly, it would help some progressives avoid the trap of hubris and political absolutism.

For example, whatever your feelings about abortion (I’m pro-choice, for the record) or American evangelical Christianity, there was more than a bit of this sort of coastal contempt in play during the recent confirmation hearings for Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett. As the psychologists say, we should all “be curious, not furious” about difference. 

Pushing capital, education and connectivity towards rural areas would help bridge the political gap, too. Mr Biden’s proposed $20bn rural broadband investment programme is a great start. And his proposal for students to be granted $10,000 in loan forgiveness would disproportionately benefit those outside the main economic hubs.

A revamp of secondary and tertiary educational systems is another priority. Like students, many colleges have far more debt than they can handle, and may well go bust as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. We should use the opportunity to upgrade high school curriculums, which haven’t changed significantly in 100 years, by adding in two years of what is essentially college-level learning. This is already being done at the local level in many cities. Mr Biden could take it national.

Business could also help by ceasing to view four-year degrees as the only credential that can get a jobseeker’s CV into the recruiters’ “maybe” pile (This is something that has become an even bigger issue in the age of algorithmic hiring). Rather, we should focus on skills. Already, plenty of Fortune 500 companies are doing just that, working with non-profit groups such as Year Up or the Markle Foundation, to quantify ability in other ways.

Certainly, there’s a growing body of research that shows that strong German-style apprenticeship programmes can significantly bolster incomes for those without traditional qualifications. This need not involve some class-based trade-off between reading the classics and being employable. The Kentucky Fame programme, which teaches mathematics and machining, philosophy and team building, has been shown to nearly double the salaries of graduates. We need more such programmes in the country’s heartland.

For Democrats, it’s not just about what is right, but what is politic. Biden supporters may own 70 per cent of the economy, but unless the electoral college’s winner-take-all system is changed, rural votes will continue to matter.

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