The Real Electorate

I remember when I first realised that Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign was in deep trouble. I was visiting my former home town, New York, and it was just after the first debate. Like many in my circle, I thought Hillary had wiped the floor with Trump. She knew her facts, she seemed poised and coherent. Trump rambled, was boorish, and spoke a great deal of pure nonsense. Twitter confirmed my view; Trump was an emotionally incontinent buffoon who just had his head handed back to him.

The morning after the debate, I decided to go get a haircut. The barber I use in New York is an old-fashioned one, with linoleum tiles and fixtures that haven’t changed since the late 1950’s. When I first started going there, it was staffed by Italian immigrants, now it’s run by Ukrainian Jews. The new proprietors were keen on maintaining continuity: black plastic combs rested inside glass tubes full of blue disinfectant. The traditional red, white, and blue barber pole was still illuminated on the outside of the shop, turning in a neverending spin. Even the cash register still has the familiar ding of yesteryear’s bell.

While I had my hair cut, there was an old fellow waiting in the queue behind me. I estimate he was in his early 60’s. He had white hair and a moustache, wore a red plaid flannel shirt and blue jeans. I guessed from his demeanour he was a blue collar guy, perhaps working in one of the light industrial plants in the area. As he waited and the barber worked on me, highlights of the debate were flashing up on a flat screen television stuck to the wall.

The old fellow audibly sighed after the piece ended. “Well,” he said, “neither of them are angels, but I’ve got to go with the Donald.”

If my barber hadn’t had a sharp pair of scissors in his hands, I would have been tempted to leap out of my chair. I engaged him in conversation. We talked a bit about Brexit; I then said, “People voted for it because they weren’t happy.” I added that sometimes when people aren’t happy they choose something unknown, which Brexit at the time was.

He replied, “I’m not happy.”

This fellow didn’t seem to be a “MAGA” type; he wasn’t enthusiastic about Trump. He was very well aware that Trump was vulgar and his behaviour was disgusting. Trump was not someone he would invite to dinner or meet his family. This fellow didn’t strike me as racist or having any particular axe to grind. His reason for voting for Trump was straightforward, “I’m not happy”. Hillary offered no change whatsoever; although her facts should have triumphed over Trump’s pomposity, it was precisely this that doomed her. She was the most visible symbol of the establishment. “We’re not happy,” the electorate said. That made all the difference in places like Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Michigan where having Beyonce’s or Barbara Streisand’s endorsement means little when the factory is shut and whole communities are going under due to opioid addiction. They also didn’t like being called “deplorables”; although Hillary didn’t mean it specifically for this part of the electorate, it was read that way. If you were thinking of voting for Trump, it seemed, you were deplorable in the eyes of this elite person. I still don’t believe Hillary understands how much this off the cuff remark hurt her.

I have often thought about this conversation when I look at American politics. Indeed, I believe this fellow is a good sample of the type of person who is voting for “populist” parties in almost any democracy. They aren’t necessarily convinced by the populists, but they are certain that change is necessary. These people don’t care much for ideology, either on the far right or the hard left. They merely want their lives to get better. They want to have more money in their pay packets. They want their roads not to be full of potholes. They want their schools to teach their kids the things they need to know to be successful. They want there to be a good paying job waiting for those kids once they graduate. They want their communities to be safe. This may all seem very small beer when looking at the grand scheme of history, and a revolution is rarely made on the back of such bread and butter concerns, but it is precisely these basic needs that have gone by the wayside. The regular working person has been told for decades that globalisation is good for them; it led to cheaper prices in some of the shops, but it also meant that a lot of stable factory work disappeared. Without work, their communities fell apart; this was coupled by the increasingly crass behaviour by companies like Purdue Pharmaceuticals. Purdue exploited people by pushing opioids as an answer for pain; other forms of exploitation such as easy credit still are foisted on the public.

That public also saw they are governed by an elite which didn’t look like them: they came from top schools like Harvard and Yale, they are lawyers and solictors with expense accounts, Mercedes Benzes and are completely detached from the harsh realities that most face. Meanwhile, the costs of improving the regular person’s lot, such as via university education, skyrocketed. This was far from the promise that had been given to their parents and grandparents, that life would continue to get better, that their children would have more opportunity than they would. Is it no wonder they are aggrieved? Is it no wonder that if someone offers change, that they will grab hold of it, even if they don’t know what the outcome may be?

The question the 2020 election will pose is this, has enough change occurred to return Trump to office for another 4 years? The fellow in the barber shop may have a 401k retirement plan, which is linked to the performance of the stock market. The stock market has gone up substantially over the past 4 years. Unemployment statistics, at least, indicate that joblessness is low. Is that enough? Or is it sufficient change to not merit a dramatic shift to the left?

I don’t know the answer to this question. But I suggest that every Democratic candidate needs to consider this individual I met on that bright morning in the barber shop. The Democratic nominee will never get the vote of the MAGA, red cap wearing crowd; that wasn’t going to happen anyway. The vote of the individual who wasn’t happy and voted for Trump in 2016 is still in play. The election may very well turn on the answer to this question: “How will you convince this real electorate that the very basic necessities that they want for themselves and their families are things that you can deliver?”

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