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Hillary Clinton is telling the truth to white working-class voters. She might be better off lying.

Hillary Clinton arrives for a campaign event in Athens, Ohio earlier this year.
Reuters/Jim Young
Hillary Clinton arrives for a campaign event in Athens, Ohio earlier this year.
  • Tim Fernholz
By Tim Fernholz

Senior reporter

Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.


The Democratic convention is pulling together the base voters Hillary Clinton will need to win—women, minorities, the college-educated, and liberals—and despite resilient bubbles of Sanders resistance, two days of unity messaging has the party melding together.

Less attention has been paid to the voters that Clinton stands to lose this fall—white working-class voters who overwhelmingly back her opponent, Donald Trump, 58% versus 30% for Clinton. They made up 44% of the electorate in 2012, and they present the most plausible path for Trump to win the election, if he can turn them out in sufficient quantity.

It’s also true that Clinton has seen white people with college degrees shift toward her more this year than Obama in 2012, a change ascribed to Trump’s anti-intellectualism. Black and Latino voters also back her in public opinion surveys far more than they even did Obama, a change we don’t really need to explain at this point, do we?

But blunting an opponent’s strength is a political art as well, and so far this convention has not met the lip-service provided by RNC convention speakers who mentioned black poverty or LGBT issues. A campaign that fluently speaks to the aspirations of diverse groups without embracing victimization hasn’t figured out how to do it with poorly educated white people.

If anyone in the party could do so, it would be be former president Bill Clinton, with his good-old-boy appeal. But his speech last night, a successful attempt to present his wife’s biography in a new light, became starker as it veered toward working class whites.

“She sent me in this primary to West Virginia where she knew we were going to lose,” the former president said, “to look those coal miners in the eye and say I’m down here because Hillary sent me to tell you that if you really think you can get the economy back you had 50 years ago, have at it, vote for whoever you want to. But if she wins, she is coming back for you, to take you along on the ride to America’s future.”

The problem is that there is no easy answer—and that the answer may not be found in economic policy.

Clinton is correct that Trump’s promise to “Make America Great Again” by backing out of trade deals and threatening tariffs won’t bring a flood of lost low-skill jobs back to the US. His campaign may have found a satisfying bogeyman in immigrants and foreigners, but he can’t take the world economy back in time. The question is, what is the future for middle-aged or older white people without high school diplomas?

The problem is that there is no one easy answer—and the answer may not be found in economic policy anyway. There are plenty of reasons to believe that misogyny is at play in Trump supporters’ calculations, and to see their preferences reflecting a resentment of the way a changing United States increasingly values its diverse culture.

Clinton can and does offer something concrete to these voters: Lower taxes, a higher minimum wage, expanded social security payments for their retirements. Her proposals for investment in infrastructure would generate jobs for construction workers. “Trade enforcement” has been a watch-word in a week where “trade” is otherwise verboten—more on that in a moment—while ending tax breaks for companies that move jobs overseas continues to be a Democratic mainstay.

Yet all of these, necessarily, are marginal improvements—”silver buckshot, not silver bullets,” in the words of congressman Derek Kilmer, who represents rural northwest Washington state. One of his pitches to his voters is that innovation isn’t just limited to tech hubs, and that advances in things like “cross-laminated lumber” can provide opportunity.

“It provides an opportunity for rural jobs to fuel urban development, and that’s resonant to people, because you know what we have in my area? A hell of a lot of trees. I represent more trees than people,” he said. “We’ve had a lot of mills go down, and if we can provide opportunities for those communities, innovation means something in Port Angeles, [the small town] where I grew up, too.”

Kilmer talks about education as a key to success, as does his colleague Suzan DelBene, another Washington representative, who endorses efforts to train workers in new technologies as critical to getting people back to work. She stumped for a bill she passed that trains people on food stamps for employment that will allow them to leave the food subsidy behind.

But the idea of learning a whole new set of skills, while a pathway to success, isn’t as attractive as not having to learn anything new at all. Indeed, the idea of competition—of the US worker competing in a global economy—is a tougher path forward than merely having your “stolen” job returned to you, once we back out of our trade agreements.

Hence the back-and-forth about the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the trade deal negotiated by the Obama administration to supersede NAFTA and draw Asian countries away from China and into the US trade orbit. This year, it has become the symbol for out of touch elites and corporate interests manipulating the economy. Clinton, though a booster while in the Obama administration, renounced it early in the campaign, and Trump has renounced the idea of trade in general.

Yet both Trump and Clinton have picked running mates that backed the TPP, and Clinton insider Terry McAuliffe, now the governor of Virginia, managed to put his foot in his mouth yesterday by saying that Clinton would find a way to back it again if she were elected before walking back his comments. Sanders backers demonstrating at the convention wrote “TPP” on tape placed over their mouths, suggesting they don’t believe Clinton, either.

Scott Peters, a Democratic congressman who represents a district in California that includes Qualcomm, the major communications tech firm, says he is dismayed by his party’s aversion to talking about trade head on because the TPP stands to benefit high-tech industry and strengthen US national security. He hopes the convention will at least demonstrate to ”a person with hurting economic prospects, you might think, these are the people who are serious about the problems we face.”

“We have soft hearts in our party, and we need to have hard heads,” he says of the options presented by the global economy. “The other party has hard hearts and soft heads.”

In election season, voters tend to follow their hearts before their heads. I asked Peters if he thought the Democratic message would resonate more than Trump’s.

“If you’re motivated by fear…” he trailed off. “I don’t think that’s where most people are.”

That’s the bet.

📬 A periodic dispatch from the annual session of the United Nations General Assembly in NYC.

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