Opinion | Why Trump Still Has Millions of Americans in His Grip


By Thomas B. Edsall

Mr. Edsall contributes a weekly column from Washington, D.C. on politics, demographics and inequality.

Beginning in the mid-1960s, the priorities of the Democratic Party began to shift away from white working and middle class voters — many of them socially conservative, Christian and religiously observant — to a set of emerging constituencies seeking rights and privileges previously reserved to white men: African-Americans, women’s rights activists, proponents of ethnic diversity, sexual freedom and self-expressive individualism.

By the 1970s, many white Americans — who had taken their own centrality for granted — felt that they were being shouldered aside, left to face alone the brunt of the long process of deindustrialization: a cluster of adverse economic trends including the decline in manufacturing employment, the erosion of wages by foreign competition and the implosion of trade unionism.

These voters became the shock troops of the Reagan Revolution; they now dominate Trump’s Republican Party.

Liberal onlookers exploring the rise of right-wing populism accuse their adversaries of racism and sexism. There is plenty of truth to this view, but it’s not the whole story.

In “The Bitter Heartland,” an essay in American Purpose, William Galston, a veteran of the Clinton White House and a senior fellow at Brookings, captures the forces at work in the lives of many of Trump’s most loyal backers:

Resentment is one of the most powerful forces in human life. Unleashing it is like splitting the atom; it creates enormous energy, which can lead to more honest discussions and long-delayed redress of grievances. It can also undermine personal relationships — and political regimes. Because its destructive potential is so great, it must be faced.

Recent decades, Galston continues, “have witnessed the growth of a potent new locus of right-wing resentment at the intersection of race, culture, class, and geography” — difficult for “those outside its orbit to understand.”

They — “social conservatives and white Christians” — have what Galston calls a “bill of particulars” against political and cultural liberalism. I am going to quote from it at length because Galston’s rendering of this bill of particulars is on target.

“They have a sense of displacement in a country they once dominated. Immigrants, minorities, non-Christians, even atheists have taken center stage, forcing them to the margins of American life.”

“They believe we have a powerful desire for moral coercion. We tell them how to behave — and, worse, how to think. When they complain, we accuse them of racism and xenophobia. How, they ask, did standing up for the traditional family become racism? When did transgender bathrooms become a civil right?”

“They believe we hold them in contempt.”

“Finally, they think we are hypocrites. We claim to support free speech — until someone says something we don’t like. We claim to oppose violence — unless it serves a cause we approve of. We claim to defend the Constitution — except for the Second Amendment. We support tolerance, inclusion, and social justice — except for people like them.”

Galston has grasped a genuine phenomenon. But white men are not the only victims of deindustrialization. We are now entering upon an era in which vast swaths of the population are potentially vulnerable to the threat — or promise — of a Fourth Industrial Revolution.

This revolution is driven by unprecedented levels of technological innovation as artificial intelligence joins forces with automation and takes aim not only at employment in what remains of the nation’s manufacturing heartland, but increasingly at the white collar, managerial and professional occupational structure.

Daron Acemoglu, an economist at M.I.T., described in an email the most likely trends as companies increasingly adopt A.I. technologies.

A.I. is in its infancy. It can be used for many things, some of them very complementary to humans. But right now it is going more and more in the direction of displacing humans, like a classic automation technology. Put differently, the current business model of leading tech companies is pushing A.I. in a predominantly automation direction.

As a result, Acemoglu continued, “we are at a tipping point, and we are likely to see much more of the same types of disruptions we have seen over the last decades.”

In an essay published in Boston Review last month, Acemoglu looked at the issue over a longer period. Initially, in the first four decades after World War II, advances in automation complemented labor, expanding the job market and improving productivity.

But, he continued, “a very different technological tableau began in the 1980s — a lot more automation and a lot less of everything else.” In the process, “automation acted as the handmaiden of inequality.”

Automation has pushed the job market in two opposing directions. Trends can be adverse for those (of all races and ethnicities) without higher education, but trends can also be positive for those with more education:

New technologies primarily automated the more routine tasks in clerical occupations and on factory floors. This meant the demand and wages of workers specializing in blue-collar jobs and some clerical functions declined. Meanwhile professionals in managerial, engineering, finance, consulting, and design occupations flourished — both because they were essential to the success of new technologies and because they benefited from the automation of tasks that complemented their own work. As automation gathered pace, wage gaps between the top and the bottom of the income distribution magnified.

Technological advancement has been one of the key factors in the growth of inequality based levels of educational attainment, as the accompanying graphic shows:

Falling Behind

The change in weekly earnings among working age adults since 1963. Those with more education climbing ever higher, while those with less education — especially men — falling further behind.

Graduate

degree

Men

75

%

50

Bachelor’s

degree

25

Some college

H.S. grad

H.S. dropout

0

1970

1980

1990

2000

2010

Graduate

degree

Women

75

%

Bachelor’s

degree

50

Some college

H.S. grad

H.S. dropout

25

0

1970

1980

1990

2000

2010

Graduate

degree

Graduate

degree

Men

Women

75

%

75

%

Bachelor’s

degree

50

50

Bachelor’s

degree

Some college

H.S. grad

H.S. dropout

25

25

Some college

H.S. grad

H.S. dropout

0

0

1970

1980

1990

2000

2010

1970

1980

1990

2000

2010

Source: David Autor, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, “Work of the Past, Work of the Future.” | By The New York Times

Acemoglu warns:

If artificial intelligence technology continues to develop along its current path, it is likely to create social upheaval for at least two reasons. For one, A.I. will affect the future of jobs. Our current trajectory automates work to an excessive degree while refusing to invest in human productivity; further advances will displace workers and fail to create new opportunities. For another, A.I. may undermine democracy and individual freedoms.

Mark Muro, a senior fellow at Brookings, contends that it is essential to look at the specific types of technological innovation when determining impact on the job market.

“Two things are happing at once, when you look at traditional ‘automation’ on the one hand and ‘artificial intelligence’ on the other,” Muro wrote in an email. “The more widespread, established technologies usually branded ‘automation’ very much do tend to disrupt repetitive, lower-skill jobs, including in factories, especially in regions that have been wrestling with deindustrialization and shifts into low-pay service employment.”

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