2016: A Class-Warfare Election

Bill Evans head shot

One of the more entertaining aspects of election night 2016 was watching the flummoxed pundits and pollsters on the TV networks as the results became clear. Many of them had clearly come armed with talking points to serenade the election of Hillary Rodham Clinton as America’s first female president, and the unexpected Trump surge quickly and decisively made all that preparation irrelevant. By 10:00 PM glum was the order of the day.

A variety of explanations for Donald Trump’s election have been offered. The theme of visceral revolt against elites was popular on election night. Trump’s challenging of political correctness has been a common explanation of his success since the primaries. Some view Trump’s triumph as a nationalistic response to the economic and social dislocations caused by globalism, and those who make this argument often connect these election results with BREXIT.

A few were even willing to suggest that Hillary Clinton had been an ineffective if not abysmal candidate. To be sure, the fact that she and her husband the former president are up to their eyeballs in crony capitalism and questionable financial dealings certainly made her path to the White House more steep, and e-mailgate only reinforced the widespread sentiment that Hillary is simply not to be trusted. Even more to the point, Clinton’s campaign ran largely on the acrid fumes of “It’s Our Time Now” entitlement and identity politics. A positive case for her presidency was assumed rather than made.

Another common theme from pundits on election night was that Trump’s supporters lack . . . can you believe this! . . . a college education. The implication of this, of course, is that Trump’s supporters are invincibly ignorant members of the Lumpenproletariat who are easily led and simply don’t know what’s good for them. And what’s good for them, of course, is infallibly defined by the progressive elite.

These suggestions have at least a smidgen of truth to them, but the last one contains hints of a broader interpretive approach. At the risk of sounding Marxist, it is my contention that this election was more fundamentally an expression of class warfare. On the one hand, there is a large segment of the American population that is associated with the manufacturing and skilled-trades sector. This group has been left behind by recent economic developments, tends to be more religious, and is alienated by the progressive cultural agenda—in short, they are the supporters of Donald Trump. On the other hand, there is the progressive coalition made of up the media, academia, the arts, government bureaucrats, the denizens of Silicon Valley, and so on. These, of course, are the supporters of Hillary Clinton.

In order to understand how this second group in fact constitutes a distinct social class, it’s worth revisiting the “new-class thesis” floated by Peter Berger and others in the late 1970s (see especially the essays by Berger et al in B. Bruce-Briggs ed., The New Class? [Transaction Books, 1979]) and further developed by Berger since then (see his application to this year’s election cycle here). According to Berger and other proponents of this approach, this class engages in the manipulation of “symbolic knowledge.” It seeks to expand the power of the state, and is militantly secular and even hostile to religion.

In a 1981 article, Berger wrote of the conflict between the older business class and this new class in terms that sound oddly prophetic of this year’s election:

On the one side is the old elite of business enterprise, on the other side a new elite composed of those whose livelihood derives from the manipulation of symbols — intellectuals, educators, media people, members of the “helping professions,” and a miscellany of planners and bureaucrats. This latter grouping has of late been called the “new class” in America — a not wholly felicitous term that is likely to stick for a while.

Needless to say, this “new class” has acted in ways that further its own class interests. Closely aligned with the Democratic Party, it has championed unrestricted immigration to the US as a means of ensuring a permanent Democratic majority (and a steady supply of cheap nannies and maids). It has sought to expand the power and scope of government precisely because it stands to benefit the most from such expansion, even when this expansion costs jobs in other sectors of the economy.

And if you are wondering how political correctness functions in this class-warfare context, note how social classes generate symbolism that helps to distinguish them from other social classes. Again Berger writes in the 1981 article:

The symbols of class culture are important. They allow people to “sniff out” who belongs and who does not; they provide easily applied criteria of “soundness.” Thus a young instructor applying for a job in an elite university is well advised to hide “unsound” views such as political allegiance to the right wing of the Republican party (perhaps even to the left wing), opposition to abortion or to other causes of the feminist movement, or a strong commitment to the virtues of the corporation.

The persistent contempt heaped upon Trump supporters by this “new class” becomes much more understandable when we think in terms of class warfare and the symbolism it deploys. Whether it be Hillary Clinton’s “basket of deplorables,” or Barack Obama’s reference to those who “cling to guns or religion,” or Nancy Pelosi’s excoriation of Trump supporters’ alleged preoccupation with “God, guns, and gays,” the message is the same—such people are outsiders; they don’t share our enlightened and secular point of view.

There is also a consummate irony here. The progressive, new-class establishment claims to be so helpful and solicitous of the downtrodden and oppressed, but in reality it has pursued crass politics of self-interest that subvert the common weal and victimize a significant portion of the electorate. And, to add to that irony and insult, the progressive establishment then displaces the real victims of economic dislocation with pseudo-victims from the endless cycle of identity politics like Caitlyn Jenner and “mattress girl.”

I’m not particularly a fan of Donald Trump, but it is at least gratifying to know that that significant portion of the electorate has exacted its revenge.