I spent much of this politically momentous week at a workshop on inequality, where papers were presented on everything from the causes of wage disparities to the effects of inequality on happiness. As so often happens at conferences, however, what really got me thinking was a question during a coffee break: “Why don’t you talk more about horizontal inequality?”
What? Horizontal inequality is the term of art for inequality measured, not between individuals, but between racially or culturally defined groups. (Of course, race itself is mainly a cultural construct rather than a fact of nature – Americans of Italian or even Irish extraction weren’t always considered white.) And it struck me that horizontal thinking is what you need to understand what went down in both parties’ nominating seasons: It’s what led to Donald Trump, and also why Hillary Clinton beat back Bernie Sanders. And like it or not, horizontal inequality, racial inequality above all, will define the general election.
You can argue that it shouldn’t be that way. One way to think about the Sanders campaign is that it was based on the premise that if only progressives were to make a clear enough case about the evils of inequality among individuals, they could win over the whole working class, regardless of race. In one interview, Sanders declared that if the media were doing its job, Republicans would be a fringe party receiving only 5 or 10 percent of the vote.
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But that’s a pipe dream. Defining oneself at least in part by membership in a group is part of human nature. Even if you try to step away from such definitions, other people won’t. A rueful old line from my own heritage says that if you should happen to forget that you’re Jewish, someone will remind you: a truth reconfirmed by the upsurge in vocal anti-Semitism unleashed by the Trump phenomenon.
So group identity is an unavoidable part of politics, especially in America with its history of slavery and its ethnic diversity. Racial and ethnic minorities know that very well, which is one reason they overwhelmingly supported Hillary Clinton, who gets it, over Sanders, with his exclusive focus on individual inequality. And politicians know it too.
Indeed, the road to Trumpism began with ideological conservatives cynically exploiting America’s racial divisions. The modern Republican Party’s central policy agenda of cutting taxes on the rich while slashing benefits has never been very popular, even among its own voters. It won elections nonetheless by getting working-class whites to think of themselves as a group under siege, and to see government programs as giveaways to Those People.
Or to put it another way, the Republican Party was able to serve the interests of the 1 percent by posing as the defender of the 80 percent – for that was the white share of the electorate when Ronald Reagan was elected.
But demographic change – rapid growth in the Hispanic and Asian population – has brought the non-Hispanic white share of the electorate down to 62 percent and falling. Republicans need to broaden their base; but the base wants candidates who will defend the old racial order. Hence Trumpism.
And race-based political mobilization cuts both ways. Black and Hispanic support for Democrats makes obvious sense, given the fact that these are relatively low-income groups that benefit disproportionately from progressive policies. They have, for example, seen very sharp reductions in the number of uninsured since Obamacare went into effect. But the overwhelming nature of that support reflects group identity.
Furthermore, some groups with relatively high income, like Jews and, increasingly, Asian-Americans, also vote strongly Democratic. Why? The answer in both cases, surely, is the suspicion that the same racial animus that drives many people to vote Republican could, all too easily, turn against other groups with a long history of persecution. And as I’ve already mentioned, we are indeed seeing a lot of right-wing anti-Semitism breaking out into the open. Does anyone doubt that a reservoir of anti-Asian prejudice is similarly lurking just under the surface?
So now comes the general election. I wish I could say that it will be a battle of ideas. But it mostly won’t, and not just because Trump doesn’t have any coherent policy ideas.
No, this is going to be mostly an election about identity. The Republican nominee represents little more than the rage of white men over a changing nation. And he’ll be facing a woman – yes, gender is another important dimension in this story – who owes her nomination to the very groups his base hates and fears.
The odds are that Clinton will prevail, because the county has already moved a long way in her direction. But one thing is for sure: It’s going to be ugly.