In his prophetic 2012 book, Coming Apart, my friend Charles Murray identified the stark social division that is defining this year’s presidential election.
Murray’s book was unabashedly about “the state of white America”. The white population of the US, he argued, was more polarised than at any time in the past half century. On the one hand there is a “cognitive elite”, who are educated together at universities such as Harvard, marry each other, work together and live together in the same exclusive neighbourhoods.
Concentrated in “super zip codes” such as Beverly Hills, Santa Monica, Malibu, Manhattan and Boston, these people are politically more liberal than the national average, as well as much richer and more inclined to eat quinoa salads.
On the other side of this social chasm is a new lower class: white Americans with nothing more than a high-school diploma, if that. They eat “Chick-fil-A”, not quinoa. In a masterstroke of exposition, Murray vividly localised his argument by imagining two emblematic communities: Belmont, where everyone had at least one university degree, and Fishtown, where no one had any.
Murray’s key point in Coming Apart was that four great social trends of the post-1960 period had hit Fishtown much harder than Belmont. The cognitive elite likes weddings. By contrast, a much larger proportion of adults in Fishtown either get divorced or never marry. In Belmont everyone is a workaholic. But an amazing number of Fishtown white males are unable to work because of illness or disability, or are simply unemployed. Belmont is safe, whereas crime is chronic in Fishtown. Finally, religiosity has declined much more steeply in Fishtown. With their ever more lurid tattoos, Fishtown folk seem more pagan than Christian.
As a consequence of these trends, the traditional bonds of civil society have atrophied in lower-class white America. There is less neighbourliness, less trust, less of what the political scientist Robert Putnam calls “social capital”. And that, Murray concluded, was why the inhabitants of Fishtown were, by their own admission, so very unhappy.
Fast forward five years. Murray’s disgruntled white lower class has now found its “voice”, and his name, as you have probably guessed, is Donald Trump. The declining, dangerous country that Trump described in his supposedly “dark” acceptance speech at the Republican national convention in Cleveland was Fishtown writ large. Indeed, you could simply change the names. For Fishtown read Cleveland; for Belmont read Philadelphia, where the Democrats held their convention last week.
Viewed from Belmont, everything is awesome. President Obama’s speech on Wednesday was a masterpiece of self-congratulation. He proclaimed his “faith in America — the generous, big-hearted, hopeful country that made my story”. He celebrated the United States of Diversity, “black, white, Latino, Asian, Native American; young, old; gay, straight; men, women; folks with disabilities, all pledging allegiance, under the same proud flag”. And he insisted that “every country on Earth sees America as stronger and more respected today than they did eight years ago when I took office . . . America is already great. America is already strong.”
Though mostly a hatchet job on Trump, Hillary Clinton’s acceptance speech offered a further draught of this Kool-Aid: “We have the most dynamic and diverse people in the world . . . America is great because America is good.”
But that’s not how it looks in Fishtown. Since 2005, according to a new report by McKinsey, more than four-fifths of the population (81%) have had flat or falling incomes. The white lower class is in the grip of an epidemic of ill health and premature death. That is why Trump leads Clinton in recent polls.
True, that’s almost certainly a temporary post-convention “bounce”, which will duly be negated this week when Clinton gets hers. The prevailing mood among Clinton loyalists is one of confidence that they will win. The bookies give her a 68% probability of being the next president. The mainstream media are also on board, spewing indignation after Trump called on the Russians to help find Clinton’s missing emails.
And yet. For a year, commentators have made the mistake of thinking that things they find outrageous are also outrageous to a majority of voters. But top journalists live in Belmont. They just don’t get what Fishtown folk find outrageous, which is that Clinton was “extremely careless” in the way she handled classified information as secretary of state. Trump’s goal was to suck publicity-oxygen away from Philadelphia by saying something journalists would find outrageous. It worked. It always works.
There are three reasons why Belmont is underestimating Fishtown’s chances of winning this election. The first is that a “change” election is likely to produce, well, change. If two-thirds of Americans believe that the country is “on the wrong track”, why would they vote for the candidate so resoundingly endorsed by Obama — not to mention Obama’s wife, his vice-president and umpteen senators?
The second is the extent to which Trump will succeed in mobilising white voters. There were 129m votes cast in the 2012 election, of which 93m (72%) were cast by white voters. Mitt Romney won 59% of those votes to Obama’s 39%, but still lost. However, if Romney had won a shade over 62% of the white vote he would have won the popular vote. To have won Florida, Ohio, Virginia and Iowa — and hence the electoral college and the presidency — he would have needed to do better than that, but not much better.
Can Trump succeed where Romney failed? Yes. Right now, he leads among white registered voters without a degree by a margin of 58% to 30%, compared with Romney’s lead in pre-election polls of 55% to 37%. Fishtown, in short, is voting for Trump.
Of course, a lot of college-educated white Americans are repelled by The Donald. But that brings us to factor three: the generation gap. The Obama years have seen that gap widen. More than 66% of voters aged 18-29 backed Obama in 2008. Only 44% of those aged 65 and above voted for him in 2012. To be sure of winning in November, Hillary Clinton needs to replicate Obama’s appeal not only to minorities but also to the young. Can she?
Young believers in socialism lite accounted for a large share of Bernie Sanders’s 13m supporters during the primaries. The “Sandernistas” have been vociferous in Philadelphia. My hunch is that many young voters will fail to show up for Clinton. Meanwhile, the white lower class, especially the older cohorts, will turn out for Trump in droves, just as their English counterparts turned out for Brexit.
With a bevy of Trump-hating Republican billionaires endorsing Clinton, her campaign has all the money it could wish for. But Fishtown has one big advantage: numbers. Maybe, just maybe, the Obama “rainbow coalition” will come together again for the first female presidential candidate. But there’s a strong probability that it’s the turn of Belmont itself — the elite America that Hillary Clinton personifies — to come apart.