In failing to predict the rise of Donald Trump, our pundits and journalists let us down almost as much as economists did when they missed the 2008–9 financial crisis. The political reassertion of the white working class, it is now clear, will decisively shape the outcome of the GOP primary and perhaps also the general election. No one saw this coming.
But the breakdown in forecasting is understandable in at least one respect. In cities, the political significance of the white working class has been in terminal decline for decades. No one cares too much these days about winning Archie Bunker’s vote in New York, Boston, and Philadelphia.
Major American cities have been Democratic for generations. As Frank Barry notes in his book The Scandal of Reform, New York City Democrats have held a veto-proof majority on the local legislature since 1919. The last time a Republican was elected mayor of Baltimore was 1963. Despite recurring calls for everyone on the right to get behind “an urban conservative agenda,” no one has yet proposed a remotely realistic political strategy for how to make this happen. You may be just as likely to succeed with a new third party.
But the longstanding absence of partisan politics in cities does not mean that the urban political landscape now looks the same as it did in 1950. Locally, both officials and electorates have undergone a dramatic lurch to the left in recent years. The liberal or progressive wing of many cities’ Democratic parties now holds uncontested power in both executive and legislative branches. Liberal intellectuals who have taken note of this development are elated over it. Writing in the American Prospect in 2014, Harold Meyerson crowed that “the mayoral and council class of 2013 is one of the most progressive cohorts of elected officials in recent American history.” They are, he said, “enacting at the municipal level many of the major policy changes that progressives have found themselves unable to enact at the federal and state levels.”
Past examples of prominent urban conservative Democrats include Boston’s staunchly pro-life mayor Ray Flynn, who was ambassador to the Vatican under President Clinton; Peter Vallone, the speaker of the New York City Council, who was an invaluable partner with Mayor Rudy Giuliani on a number of issues, most notably crime; and Chicago mayor Richard J. Daley, whose fiscal restraint and political skills kept his city from insolvency. The disappearance of this type of conservative Democrat in city politics is, at least in part, a consequence of the national Democratic party’s own recent leftward drift. (Tip O’Neill famously claimed that “all politics is local.” But not even local politics can be considered local when the progressive politicians now dominant on the urban scene take their bearings mainly by ideologies that transcend city borders.)
#share#But demographic shifts have been an equally important factor. The middle class has continued to find suburban life appealing, while poor minorities have continued flowing into cities. As a result, white ethnic voters have simply stopped counting for much in calculations of political power. Cities’ governing coalitions are now assembled out of blacks, Latinos, single-issue liberal advocacy groups, and government and service-industry unions. As the second season of The Wire shows, traditional private-sector unions such as that of the dockworkers are now as politically unimportant as they are economically negligible. The real-estate lobby provides some moderating influence on progressive politics at the local level. But because of their narrow focus on rent-seeking (literally), they can be co-opted with relative ease by progressives and cannot provide much help on cities’ most pressing policy challenges.
Walter Russell Mead has described the Trump voter as “Jacksonian,” pointing to this constituency’s rural origins. But an analysis commissioned by the New York Times claims that Trump has also found strong support from “a certain kind of Democrat,” in the “industrial North.” These are not incompatible characterizations. Was there ever a truer Jacksonian than Archie Bunker, of 704 Hauser Street in Queens?
Progressives theorize about the middle class, but in practice they represent elites and the underclass.
Now, a policy agenda crafted to please Archie Bunker does not look particularly farsighted in a nation projected to be majority-minority in a few decades. But at a time when we seem to hear much dark whispering about the beliefs and motives of the white working class, it might be worth recalling the many salutary aspects of their influence over city politics. Their values were forthrightly middle class: self-reliance; law and order; and, above all, the belief that municipal government should be functional, as opposed to being obsessed with waging symbolic wars against income inequality. (Progressives theorize about the middle class, but in practice they represent elites and the underclass.) A Comparison of exit polls from New York’s 1993 and 2013 elections shows that, had the current racial mix and voting patterns prevailed back then, David Dinkins would have defeated Rudy Giuliani. New York might have recovered from its “rotting of the big apple” days without eight years of Giuliani. But it is doubtful that the gains would have been as robust.
A Trump presidency or candidacy would be a disaster. But greater responsiveness to the concerns of the white working class might not be. As is always the case in electoral politics, it all depends on who harnesses these energies and what use he or she makes of them. And if the candidate who prevails in November wants nothing to do with the white working class, cities would be happy to have them back.
— Stephen Eide is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute.