How the Democratic Party Lost Touch With the White Working Class

A conversation with the New Yorker’s George Packer.

Acclaimed American journalist and writer George Packer pictured at the Edinburgh International Book Festival where he talked about his coverage of the Mid East and Iraqi crisis.
George Packer at the Edinburgh International Book Festival.

Colin McPherson/Getty Images

George Packer’s The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America was the author’s survey of an ailing post-recession America. Published in 2013, Packer’s book spent time with everyone from struggling workers to political actors in an attempt to take stock of the economic and cultural transformations that have left many Americans angry, and left our democratic institutions creaking. Now Packer, a staff writer at the New Yorker, has followed up that previous reporting and analysis with “The Unconnected,” a mammoth piece in the magazine’s Politics Issue. In it, Packer seeks to explain why so many white Americans seem drawn to the campaign of Donald Trump. He also offers the history of a Democratic Party that has grown closer and closer to Wall Street and embraced trade deals and increased immigration, thereby weakening its bonds with the white working class.

I spoke by phone with Packer, who is currently a fellow at the Dorothy and Lewis B. Cullman Center of the New York Public Library and New America, this week. During the course of our conversation, which has been edited and condensed for clarity, we discussed Hillary Clinton’s battle against misogyny, the role of racism in demographic voting patterns, and how to talk to people with views you abhor.

Isaac Chotiner: You make the argument that the Democratic Party has essentially sold out the white working class, which in turn helps explain their support for Trump. But the GOP has sold out the working class much more so than the Democrats—doesn’t that suggest that the roots of Trump’s appeal lie elsewhere?

George Packer: It doesn’t explain Trump. It certainly doesn’t explain everything about Trump. What it explains is that the party that had been the voice of working people for decades gradually lost touch with that constituency, and eventually became much more the voice of professionals. The kind of people who read the New Yorker and Slate. The Republicans weren’t doing anything for working people in terms of trade, or taxes, or jobs. In fact, they were worse for them, but in some ways, culturally, the Republicans began to get closer to that group of Americans. You could say in the absence of either party doing a whole lot for them, they drifted toward the party that at least seemed to have a feel for their way of life, sounded more like them, saw the world more like them. That was a grievous illusion, but it was a powerful one in the absence of a Democratic Party that knew how to reach those voters.

When you say that the Republican Party had a “feel for their way of life” and “saw the world more like them,” what does that mean exactly, and how much can those things be separated from racism and racially motivated anxieties?

I can’t give it a numerical weight. It’s complicated. It varies tremendously from person to person, maybe from region to region. It’s deep, and I would never for a moment minimize the role of race and bias in political choices in America. Not for a second. But it’s not all there is. The fact that there are some nonwhites who support Trump tells you there must be other things at play, too. The fact that in some regions where race is not as big a factor, like West Virginia, Republicans have been dominating ever since around 2000, which is also the end of the Golden Age of Globalization under Clinton, tells you that maybe there are other factors as well.

That famous line from Obama about clinging to guns and religion, because they’re bitter about their economic fortunes: He wasn’t wrong, except in a sense guns and religion are not a pretext for resentment for a lot of people. They actually matter. When Democrats can’t understand that, or think people are “voting against their interest” when they may have all kinds of different interests, that becomes a form of condescension that drives people in the other direction.

Right, just like you could also say that rich people in New York who want tax breaks, but vote Democratic because they’re pro-choice and pro-gay marriage vote against their economic interests.

Yeah, or they want their taxes raised, and don’t think that their bottom line on their 1040 is the most important thing in the country. It cuts both ways, yes. We shouldn’t condescend to either group, and instead try to take seriously what they say they care about, which can be hard for some liberals to do, especially when they don’t know these people very well, or when they have a lot of assumptions about them.

If you look at a country like India, which is ethnically and religiously diverse, or you look at Europe as it becomes more and more diverse, or you look at America, do you ever wonder whether it is less about specific policies and more about a perhaps inevitable reality where the less-educated parts of the majority group, whether it’s white Americans or Europeans, or Hindus in India, turn away from the party that becomes identified as the party of multiculturalism and multiracial interests?

Yeah, people may think that any party that looks like that, that has a black president at its head, can’t possibly look out for my interests, too. That’s a zero-sum approach to politics, and I’ve heard this. I remember in 2008 in eastern Kentucky hearing some voters who I asked about Clinton and Obama during the primaries, say, “Well, there’s just no way that if a black man is elected, there it isn’t going to be revenge-taking on us whites.” It was a besieged and paranoid mentality that said, We know what we’ve done to them, and they’ll do it back to us.

That is an extreme version of a zero-sum outlook that says we can’t have a politics that represents all of us. You’re right that when race and religion are as salient and potent in politics as they are in India and here, it’s extremely difficult not to have voters flock to their group for protection. I should add that I’m describing something, and I don’t want it to seem as if I’m describing something approvingly.

And I should add that Obama still has a few months left to take revenge on white people.

It doesn’t seem like it’s in him. In fact, I want to say something about Obama. It’s been lost this year, because it’s been such an extreme year in which you have to threaten murder and suicide to get the media’s attention, but Obama’s given some remarkable speeches that are well worth reading. They’re essentially a vision of liberal democracy in which group interest is not erased, but somehow subordinated to higher values. Those are Obama’s values. That’s been his vision from the start. It’s a kind of confession of having failed to achieve it that he has to talk about it in an extended farewell address in his last year in office. They’re speeches that I think will wear extremely well as time goes on.

You mention in your piece that in 2008 Hillary Clinton had a period in the primary where she was seen as the tribune of blue-collar voters. Over the last four years, her popularity has completely collapsed with these voters. Do you have a sense of why the collapse has been so complete?

The Clintons drive people crazy, and always have, and in a way we’ve just reverted, horribly, back to the ’90s, and I’m remembering all the investigations and pseudo-scandals of that decade, and the Clintons’ rather unsatisfying responses, because we’re seeing it again. I mean, she’s a woman. She’s likely to be the first woman president. Just as I wouldn’t for a second minimize racism, I wouldn’t for that same second minimize misogyny in driving people’s opinions about Hillary Clinton. She represents one side in a pitched battle, and so a lot of this is just projection onto her as the Democrat in an incredibly polarized and hothouse atmosphere. The visceral, personal hatred of her I’ve never understood, just as I have never understood the visceral, personal hatred of Obama. These are two people of real capability and amazing policy intelligence.

I think maybe one thing you could say about Hillary Clinton is that she’s not a very good politician. She doesn’t have very good political instincts, as some of her advisers have been saying in these hacked emails. But that doesn’t explain the raw, almost violent hatred. Other things have to explain that. To end up where I started off, misogyny has to be a factor.

You point out in your piece that trade and immigration have hurt the lives of these people you are writing about.

I think what I wrote was they had not helped, and had arguably hurt.

What’s so complicated about this is that if we hadn’t had immigration or trade over the past 20 years, who knows what the state of the white working class could be? It could very well be worse. The part of your critique that I was more swayed by was the stuff about Democratic closeness to Wall Street. And yet in this campaign Wall Street has taken a backseat to trade and immigration. Why?

We don’t know what it would look like if the Democratic nominee were Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren, if she’d chosen to run. We might be having a very different conversation about the white working class. There might be much less of a pull toward Trump among less educated white Americans, because there’d be a real argument and he wouldn’t be able to throw out, “Well, what have you been doing for the last 30 years, besides siding with your rich friends,” which is his single most potent argument against Hillary Clinton.

It’s a fraudulent argument coming from Trump, but it carries a lot of sting. If your question is why trade and immigration and not Wall Street, they’re all bound up together. On trade, Lawrence Summers said to me when I was interviewing him for the piece, everyone understands the downside, but very few people understand the upside. It’s really hard to see it when your job leaves the country. It may not be directly because of a trade deal that your job leaves the country, but it sure does seem like it’s part of the same drift toward an open economy in which corporations can set out for any other part of the world if they find that labor costs are too high at home. There is no mystery as to why that should be the hot-button issue in a place like Ohio.

Immigration is a harder case to make because there’s evidence on both sides about the effect low-skilled immigrants have on wages. That may not necessarily be a rational response. It may simply be a ‘find someone to blame’ response. This is something Hillary Clinton said to me: People need someone to blame when things go wrong. Wall Street is one target, but immigrants are another. In politics it almost doesn’t matter where the data lays. What matters is can you find a counterargument that’s potent. I think Elizabeth Warren would have had a much easier time of doing that than Hillary Clinton has had.

I think she would have won the nomination.

Yeah, I think she would be well on her way to the White House, but for whatever reason she didn’t want it.

There was a front-page story in the New York Times on Monday about working-class black Americans in Pennsylvania. It felt rare for this election season. There has been so little focus on working-class black communities or Hispanic communities. Do you agree that because of Trump there’s has just been a laser-focus on the white working class, to the exclusion of other stories?

Well, it’s definitely true that the focus is there, and that it’s skewed and lopsided. It’s understandable in the sense that it seems as if the white working-class vote ought to be more up for grabs. We’re trying to understand why it isn’t, or why it’s going the direction it is. Is there anything Hillary Clinton or another Democrat can do to change that? Whereas the black working-class vote really isn’t very up for grabs. It may be more about levels of enthusiasm and levels of turnout than about switching parties. It’s a starker, and in a way, more consequential story simply for vote totals, to look at the white working class as a group. You’re absolutely right that they get more than their share of attention.

In your piece, you talk about condescension. I find that it’s a really hard subject, because when you’re talking to someone who says that Obama’s going to take revenge on white people, or you’re talking to someone who says that global warming is a hoax, it’s difficult to know the proper way to respond to that. Do you feel condescension but try not to act on it?

I think the condescending way to approach that is to shrug it off as just one more voter’s opinion, and that we all have our opinions and we’re entitled to them, period. I think the toxic hatred and discourse of politics have to be met head on. When I say condescending, I mean the opposite of taking whatever someone says to you as an anodyne, ordinary person’s view. Take it seriously, and in these cases taking it seriously means feeling a sense of horror.

In southeastern Ohio in 2008, someone said to me, “I might not vote for Obama because I’m afraid he’s going to take my guns away.” This was a union official, in the Laborers Union, who’d voted Democratic all his life. Was race part of that? Quite possibly, but he also was talking about something that he said mattered a great deal to him. I would say two things. One, assume that he’s an expert on his own life. He knows what matters to him, and guns matter to him, whatever I may think of that. Don’t assume it’s an excuse for something else. Don’t assume it’s false consciousness. I guess that’s what I’m talking about: Don’t fall back on the idea that people have been deceived. In fact, he’s probably telling me exactly what makes him tick. On the other hand, don’t let that be the end of it. What makes someone tick is not necessarily something that needs to be entirely respected, or entirely ratified. It should be questioned.

OK but when I hear people talk about global warming as a hoax, or just when I listen to Rush Limbaugh, it is hard not to feel that people are being deceived. Nobody comes to opinions on global warming independently, right? It’s in part because they are listening to Rush Limbaugh and whoever else and not reading your colleague Elizabeth Kolbert or getting good information, right?

No, I don’t think that’s right. I think if they read Elizabeth Kolbert they would find a reason to think that she was peddling a hoax. I think the question to ask is why they want to believe that. It’s not a shortage of information, it’s a particular worldview that skews in the direction that doesn’t want to know what Elizabeth Kolbert has to say, or thinks that she’s lying. That’s where I would begin, rather than assume that if only they could sit down with some back issues of the New Yorker that have her wonderful Field Notes from a Catastrophe, that they would change their mind.

We do want people to read the New Yorker and Slate. I just want to get that on the record.

We want them to read it, but we don’t expect their minds to change if they don’t want their minds to be changed.