HARVARD BUSINESS REVIEW
NOVEMBER 18, 2016
Joan C. Williams, distinguished professor and director of the Center for WorkLife Law at UC Hastings, discusses the white working class voters who helped elect Republican Donald Trump as U.S. President, and why Democrat Hillary Clinton did not connect with them. Williams is the author of the article, “What So Many People Don’t Get About the U.S. Working Class.”
CURT NICKISCH: Welcome to the HBR IdeaCast. I’m Curt Nickisch. Oh my, oh my, Ohio, and Pennsylvania, and West Virginia, and Wisconsin, and looking like Michigan too. Call it steel country, coal country. Call it the rust belt, middle America. Call it the land of manufacturing. This cluster of states was key. They made Donald Trump the next president of the United States.
Joining us now to talk about why is Joan C. Williams. She’s the director of the Center for WorkLife Law at the University of California Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco. She’s also the author of the recent HBR article, “What So Many People Don’t Get About the US Working Class.” Joan, thanks for being on the show.
JOAN WILLIAMS: Delighted to be here.
CURT NICKISCH: Joan, a lot of people are talking about your recent HBR article. Some people are calling it the best analysis they’ve seen of the US presidential election. It’s gone viral. It’s helped a lot of people understand why this political veteran, Democrat Hillary Clinton, lost to the brash newcomer, Republican Donald Trump. And you wrote in this article at hbr.org that class trumps gender, and it’s driving American politics. What do you mean by that?
JOAN WILLIAMS: Well, I think in many ways, the fact is the Democrats almost won. That’s important to keep in mind. But one of the key reasons they lost was because of what I call class cluelessness, that among Americans progressives, there has been a very, very insistent focus on the poor, on gender, on race, but there has not been a focus on the white working class.
That’s the group that in some ways, by some analyses, delivered this election to Trump. Trump really has found his [INAUDIBLE] in channeling the anger of the white working class, and the reason that that’s worked so well is because of class dynamics driving American politics, about which Democrats are unfortunately largely clueless.
CURT NICKISCH: What are those forces? Why did Donald Trump appeal to the white working class?
JOAN WILLIAMS: The white working class– it’s very well documented over decades of studies– resents professionals but admires the rich. They resent professionals in part because they see them every day. They’re doctors. They’re teachers. And they feel that those people who are more educated are often looking down on them, feel superior to them, and I must say that Hillary’s deplorable comment seemed to confirm their worst fears, just as Obama’s earlier comment that there are some people who cling to guns and religion.
I don’t really fault these two candidates. I fault the environment that both of them grew out of, which, while it has been exquisitely attuned to racial and gender disadvantage, some time has really been tone deaf to class disadvantage. So that resentment of professionals, unfortunately, Hilary was perfectly attuned to trigger.
CURT NICKISCH: That disdain of professionals made me think, when I read that in your article, of reading the scene in a book by Rick Bass. It’s a nonfiction book. He worked in the oil industry. These drillers were out there. They’d be drilling exploration wells for oil.
And he would come in to analyze the cores that they pulled out to see what it said about what was down there. And whenever he would show up, they would say, oh, look, here comes the easy money.
JOAN WILLIAMS: Yes, perfect.
CURT NICKISCH: Yeah. Where does this disdain of professionals come from? Because just from a business standpoint, those people are important to the value chain of being able to sell the oil that those same workers are drilling.
JOAN WILLIAMS: I think to understand the disdain of professionals, you have to understand that there really are two very distinct class cultures. Progressive beliefs– their job networks are national. Their networks are national. They have what are called entrepreneurial networks, very broad but quite shallow.
Working class families have very different social networks, deep ones with a very limited group of people who all know each, and that’s the way they get jobs. That’s the way they do child care sometimes. That’s the way they get their roof fixed.
So when the white working class looks at professionals, they look at what you have to do to maintain this broad, shallow entrepreneurial network, which is you have to connect with people socially. That’s a combination of business and personal, and you have to do office politics. And all of that these working class people think of as morally bankrupt because they don’t have to do a lot of that– the men, anyway, in their jobs. If you’re filling a purely technical role, you just go in and you fill your technical role. And you can tell it like it is.
And so these blue collar guys are very proud of the fact that unlike professionals who have to suck up to all and sundry, they can tell it like it is. They can be very direct and straightforward.
This is one of the reasons that Trump connects with them so well. He connects with them because he feels the same anger at being rejected and belittled by the elite, in this case the Manhattan business elite, but who’s counting? And culturally, then, they are connecting with Trump in a way that they totally did not connect with Hillary, who is the epitome of the no-class girl, became a lawyer, professional technocrat, all the things that this working class culture is very suspicious of.
And then, by the way, she’s a woman. So not only do you have this belittling because of the class dimension. You have this upper-middle-class woman calling them ignorant. And what we saw in this election is that the working class women tend to side with the working class guys. If she had just gotten 50/50, she would’ve won. African-Americans voted for Obama. Women did not vote for Hillary. That’s part of the deep structure that’s different between gender and race.
CURT NICKISCH: So you wrote in this piece about your own father-in-law, who was white working class. I think about my parents who are just a generation of the farm, and I’m a little surprised that this class still went for a tycoon and big towers in New York City.
JOAN WILLIAMS: No, it makes perfect sense. If you’ve read the literature about the working class, the white working class, it makes perfect sense. The fantasy, the aspirational dream of the white working class, is to have their own networks that they’re familiar with, their own family structure, their own friendship structure, their own food– be exactly the way they are, just with more money. That’s what Trump represents as a dream.
The aspirational dream is to own your own business, not to be ordered around by anyone. That’s why one of the best blue collar jobs there are is being a truck driver, soon to disappear, but nobody bosses you around. Nobody controls you every day. Nobody controls your every move. You don’t have to suck up to anyone. You’re just your own boss, and that is the aspirational dream of the American working class.
CURT NICKISCH: The Democrats would say, look, Donald Trump isn’t going to change any of these fundamental economic dynamics. He may be promising to bring back factories and jobs from Mexico. It may be promising to deport people who may be taking their jobs. And meanwhile, Democrats would say, look, we actually have policies that will help these people– raising the minimum wage, more family medical leave, things like that, benefits for workers in that class. Why didn’t that work?
JOAN WILLIAMS: That’s just another example, unfortunately, of class cluelessness. First of all, if you are somebody in the bottom 30% in poor families, an increase in the minimum wage to $15 an hour– hugely important.
If you are somebody in the middle 50%, median income $64,000, you don’t give a hoot about the minimum wage. That’s not where you want. You don’t want a McDonald’s job that pays $15 an hour rather than $7.50. You want a quote, “real job.” You want a job that’s going to deliver a middle class standard of living, which is, after all, what your dad had.
And so I think the Democrats don’t understand that what these folks want in the rust belt is what their families had for several generations, which was good jobs available to people who didn’t finish college that allowed them to have a middle class life.
Now, is Trump going to deliver steel jobs to Youngstown, Ohio? I don’t think so. One of the things that I fear going forward, particularly if people don’t listen to this message about the class culture gap and the need to focus on the economic future of people in the rural areas of this country in the rust belt areas of this country, is when Trump fails to bring back those steel jobs to Youngstown, Ohio, what’s going to happen then?
Unless we as Americans, right, left, and center, begin to listen to the pain of these working class people, we are going to create an even more dangerous situation than we have right now. It is no longer an option not to listen to them.
CURT NICKISCH: Let’s talk about going forward, because they’ve demonstrated their political power in this election. This election has exposed a lot of the economic pain that has come from freer trade, from globalization, from a changing economy. How can the next president of the United States– how can he help those people live the class lives that they want to, but also have a share in where the world and the economy is going?
JOAN WILLIAMS: Republicans’ answer is unleash American business, and we’ll give you all good jobs. And you know, I hope it’s true. I hope it’s true. But the point, I think, for Democrats is they got to have an answer. And paid leave, seven days’ paid leave– that’s not the answer. A high minimum wage– super important for low-income people. For these working class people, that’s not the answer. So how can you attract these voters? How can you give them something that they will value?
Number one is to give them respect, not to say they’re just stupid. The second thing is to realize that these trade deals– they are good for GDP, but they are really bad for some American workers, and that means if we ever again get to a situation where we can possibly have a trade deal, these trade deals are more expensive than we’ve been thinking of them and as, because we need to provide transition assistance to the American workers whose jobs leave for Vietnam.
The third thing that’s really important, I think, one of the things that becomes absolutely central, is not a four-year college degree for everybody, but very high quality programs in community colleges that give you training for a specific blue collar job in your local area because again, these are people whose networks are tight and deep. They do not want to leave.
Hillary did mention that, but she mentioned it within 600 million other things that she also mentioned. But those good blue collar jobs that you’re trained for in the community college system– that should be absolutely at the center of American politics, and so far, it’s been way at the edge.
CURT NICKISCH: I want to mention one other answer that came in the presidential election eight years ago when John McCain ran against– John McCain was a Republican candidate and had a campaign stop in Youngstown, Ohio. He said to somebody who asked him about what he’s going to do about bringing back jobs, he said, I can’t tell you that these jobs are ever going to come back. These workers need a second chance. They deserve it, but I can’t look you in the eye and tell you that the steel mills are coming back.
And I say this because John McCain as a Republican won more votes, at least at this point in the counting for the current presidential election, than Trump, where they took different sides of the issue. One said that the jobs aren’t coming back. They’re gone. The other said we’re going to bring them back. And I just wonder, what does that tell you about the white working class and the political messages that have been appealing to them?
JOAN WILLIAMS: Yeah, I think this election– first, the only way this election makes sense is that this election was about emotion, not facts. People were not focused on policy proposals. They were focused on– particularly this group were focused on the fact that they feel abandoned. They feel disrespected, and they wanted someone to reflect that and to channel that anger and to channel that sense of disenfranchisement. And Trump was perfectly willing to channel that.
I think he said a lot of things that weren’t true. I think he said a lot of things that were way over the line. But whole groups of people– they didn’t care, because their attitude is they’re all lying to us anyway, and at least he is hearing me. He understands the depth of my disillusion with this country. This country is not giving me the dream that should be mine. And that was enough. Their expectations of American politics have sunk so low that just being heard and being recognized and having that anger channeled– that was what they voted for.
CURT NICKISCH: Joan, your article has gotten lots of– just a huge response, and it’s helped a lot of people understand what was happening with this election and why. One of the criticisms is that it gave short shrift to racism, to xenophobia, to fear of immigrants. And I just wonder what you have to say to people who would say, look, this is cherry picking one thing that tipped the election for Trump when he appealed to other sentiments that maybe made just as big of a difference.
JOAN WILLIAMS: Listen, did racism play a role in this election? Are you kidding? Are you breathing? One of the alarming things about this election is that the kinds of racist and misogynistic statements that I grew up with but were out of fashion for decades now seem to be having a resurgence.
I am not saying that racism didn’t play a part in this election, because it did. All I’m saying is that writing off the white working class as beneath our interest because all that’s going on in racism is the kind of intellectual comfort food that is truly dangerous and we can no longer afford.
The xenophobia is more complicated. There was demonization of immigrants in this election. One of the things that is another element of the class culture gap is that white working class people tend to be extremely patriotic. One of the axes that makes the working class feel good about itself is that they’re citizens of, by some measures, the most powerful country in the world, and they’re very, very proud of it. And so the patriotism is in itself part of the expression of the white working class.
Now, in this election, it’s turned into something truly, truly ugly, and it has turned into a kind of vicious anti-immigrant and, in some context, racist sentiments that almost all Americans, if they were really being their best selves, would distance themselves from. So I think the opportunity here going forward– you say to them, I hear you. I hear that you’re angry. I want to understand why you’re angry. I may not agree with it all, but I’m here to listen, and that’s what I’m suggesting left, right, and middle. That’s what I’m suggesting that we do.
CURT NICKISCH: That’s Joan C. Williams. She joined us from San Francisco, where she’s a distinguished professor at the University of California Hastings College of the Law. She’s also the author of the recent HBR article, “What So Many People Don’t Get About the US Working Class,” which was based in part on research from her book, Reshaping the Work-Family Debate– Why Men and Class Matter. Joan, thanks so much for talking to the HBR IdeaCast.
JOAN WILLIAMS: Thanks so much. It was my pleasure.
CURT NICKISCH: I’m Curt Nickisch with Harvard Business Review. We’re on Twitter at HarvardBiz. Follow us on Facebook and LinkedIn, and go to hbr.org to read and learn more about economics and society and other business and management topics. Thanks so much for listening to the HBR IdeaCast.