22 October, 2017

The Life-Cycle Of American Neo-Populism Seems To Be Short

By Kumar David

Prof. Kumar David

The life-cycle of American neo-populism seems to be short – Surprising shifts in Trump’s support base

On 29 July, according to Gallup’s daily poll-tracker, President Trump‘s disapproval rating was 57% and his approval rating stood at only 38% (5% undecided). Starting from a nosedive at the end of May his approvals and disapprovals have hovered around these numbers. In 17 states – all had voted solidly for Trump in November 2016 – his approval was over 50%, but below 50% in 31 others including some he carried in the elections. In Vermont, Massachusetts, California, Maryland and New York, approval was less than 32%, which is abysmal for a new president of just six months vintage. More interesting and significant is the way in which his support has shifted across states implying a transition in American political dynamics. This is the topic of this article; but a digression first.

I was surprised by the limited understanding of underlying causes of the Trump phenomenon and the roots of American populism among those one would consider well informed leftists in Lanka. This was driven home to me in a Q&A session in June in Colombo. Even ‘higher level’ participants were unaware of the important socio-economic drivers behind Trump’s victory. They attributed it to superficial reasons; white racism, anti-Muslim prejudice, jingoistic rhetoric and “make America Great Again” chest beating. This is superficial; 60 million voted for Trump (Hilary, 63 million) because there was good reason to reject a system which had failed in jobs and living standards. The Trump mass loathed the well to do elite (Wall Street, Washington, Financiers) making money while the worker tottered and the middleclass stagnated. There is a wealth of data (income and wealth gap, unemployment, fall in real wages and collapse of American manufacturing) to prove this assertion. This alienation was garnished by anti-Mexican, anti-Muslim and anti-Chinese scaremongering, but many in Lanka don’t grasp the greater significance of socio-economic drivers, rather than intemperate rhetoric, in fashioning the political and electoral dynamics of American populism.

Why didn’t Democrats, who usually do well in working class, trade unions, left and radical circles (known as liberals in this strange country), win this vote? Failure of the system should play into the hands of the Democrats, should it not? It is a more complicated than that; I need to explain. The Democrats, especially under Obama, were the party of rational, modern capitalism, as expressed by a commitment to global trade agreements, reliance on high tech, intellectual elitism, free-markets including capital export, and internationalism in combating climate change. But modernism stands in contradiction to the current needs of American national capitalism, modernism does not help to slow down America’s decline. Rational leadership of global capitalism is no longer on a parallel track with promoting US capitalism. The parallelism has eroded from the mid-1990s because of the shift of economic power to Asia, flabbiness of social classes in the West, and because capitalism, like all things animate and inanimate, has a life cycle. Gibbon described the decline and fall of the Roman Empire as a 300 year saga, but in the modern age, time flies faster.

To cut to the point, neo-populism was seed that fell on fertile ground. The white trash that intellectuals despise, the working class driven out of jobs by the defeat of American manufacturing in the rust-belt states, the impact of national security scaremongering, and the ability of hostile actors (ISIS, China, Afghanistan and technology) to stand outside America’s control, changed perceptions for 60 million voters. Make America Great Again was a resoundingly appropriate battle cry, part valid part imagined, to rescue America from its fate. Time cannot be reversed but time progresses by kinks and quirks. The long and short of it is that the rise of American neo-populism was written into the genes of American capitalism’s life-line. A clownish boor, an error prone bungler, a crude vulgarian; a cranky personality, all this did not matter to an alienated populace in the worst of times.

But it has, almost by definition, got to be a temporary dysfunction; the Gallop Poll ratings seem to suggest that. The daily chaos in the White House and the unending gibberish on twitter confirm a president who will live from one crisis to another, but may survive his term. That’s what I am coming to next.

The Approve-Disapprove spread

It is no surprise that nationally, Trump’s disapproval ratings exceed approval, and that in the New England states, California and New York approval is less than one in three. What is surprising is the fine grain, the results in nine other states. I believe these reflect generic trends. The cases include both minuses and some remarkable pluses. The notation in the graphics is as follows: A score of +10, for example, means that approvals exceed disapprovals by 10%; say 53% approve, 43% disapprove and 4% ‘don’t know’. The findings are from the aforesaid Gallup Poll:

[See http://www.gallup.com/poll/214349/trump-averaged-higher-job-approval-states.aspx]

The graphics were prepared by NBC television.

[See http://www.nbcnews.com/politics/white-house/trump-s-base-sticks-him-except-south-n787856]

The first graphic shows a remarkable countertrend. Trump has secured a huge approval over disapproval margin, in excess of 20%, in West Virginia, North Dakota and Wyoming. What on earth do these three have in common apart from being over 80% non-Hispanic white? (Hispanic is Spanish speaking people of Mexican, Cuba, Porto Rican and Central American origin). But there are lots of predominantly rural and non-Hispanic-white states! The secret is that big time fossil fuel production and Trump’s “damn global warming” anthem resonates in these states. Wyoming and West Virginia are first and second in coal production and North Dakota is second in crude oil production. A sad takeaway from this is that the masses, in bulk, are attuned to their wallets and damn the planet and the rest of the human race. Trump won these three states with over 60% of the vote in November 2016.

More important is that this selective endorsement of Trump in certain regions and lobbies indicates that the energy, old-technology and protectionist business sectors, and to a degree banking, thanks to the promise of dismantling regulations, are aligning themselves with him. Trump is not going to be a pushover unless the Special Counsel Robert Mueller, who has now impanelled a Grand Jury, unearths financial corruption, tax evasion or brazen dealings with gangland – collusion with Russia even if established will not be fatal. The strength of American democracy and its institutional supports, as opposed to the frivolous and debased nepotism and bias of ours, does make a contrast.

Equally remarkable, but for an opposite reason, are the solid Republican states of Arizona, Texas and Georgia; Trump won all three by over 7% in November. Now he is underwater by 7 to 9 points. This dosen’t make sense does it? It is known that though he is scrapping the bottom of the barallel nationally, his base is holding up well. It is estimated that about 85% of Republicans are still behind him. These three states are all politically backward Republican happy hunting grounds. But, there is a demographic shift taking place in parts of the south including these three. Non-Hispanic whites are less than 55%, and Hispanics, who may have been carried away by neo-populism last year, seem to be having second thoughts. These demographically determined voting patterns could have a long term impact. Hispanics are about 14% of the population now, the second largest but fastest growing ethnic/racial minority – nationally blacks are 15% and non-Hispanic whites 63%. Native Americans, Chinese and Indians make up the sediment.

Is the working class returning?

Another and more significant finding lies the heart of industrial America – Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Ohio and Iowa. Trump carried all in 2016. Ohio and Iowa are flip states between Democrats and Republicans, not hard-core working class like the first three which the Republicans last won 30 years ago in 1988. Ohio and Iowa are more rural than industrial and it is not surprising that neo-populism is holding up better than in the Hispanic influenced south. It is good news for Trump that his disapproval margins are small.

Let me lead into the critical group, the last three states, with a quote from the NBC report. “Trump won the presidency with narrow victories in Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. Democrats thought these three were a great wall around the Great Lakes, but Trump smashed through and won where no Republican has since 1988. Now the Gallup data says the bricks are falling; he is underwater by 9 or more points in all three. Despite his strength among blue-collar workers there are factors working against him. All three have long histories as union strongholds and big urban centres that are very sour on Trump”.

Trump won these important, white, traditional working class states, by a small total majority of 78,000 votes. If the Gallup Poll findings are reliable this majority is evaporating and workers in the rust belt are drifting away from the neo-populist agenda; nothing that was promised has materialised, and the President is locked down in time-wasting squabbles. Since recent experiences have shredded the credibility of opinion polls I am cautious about getting my hopes up, but a little optimistic that neo-populism of the American variety is withering. I hope a social-democratic current, to the extent that Bernie Sanders was a manifestation of social-democracy, will emerge in the Democratic Party under a younger fresher leader. A Labour victory in Britain however is a prerequisite.

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Latest comments

  • 0
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    The life-cycle of American neo-populism seems to be short – Surprising shifts in Trump’s support base
    I don’t think there is anything surprising. Trump may have built a business empire. but, that knowledge does not work Country can not increase it wealth for ever incessantly. You think, It is like almighty god. Just one variable can be maximized for ever. Every empire after some time only went down. There were so many in the past. Most recently, the Britian, after that naval powers Spain, portugal, France, Denmark. You know politicians can only change policies. Even that is not for ever. Trump has pissed off voter really bad. Now, people will understand, who ever copmes, their fate is sealed. I heard this started some decades ago probably the vietnam war. NOw, everybody refuse to accept what the fate is.

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    Voting at elections are based mostly on short-term memory.
    That was why opinion poll ratings were overturned in many elections in the West.
    Kinnock led John Major in the opinion polls in the wake of Thatcher’s exist with JM a relatively unknown quantity. Media scare mongering in the pre-election week swung the votes.
    So the “well informed or not so well informed members of the Left” were not altogether wrong in pointing to ‘superficial’ factors as decisive in the outcome.
    *
    Electoral politics is vulnerable to manipulation by the media and the state (less explicitly in better established bourgeois democracies).
    Those who thought that Ms Clinton wad the better option may like to feel vindicated. If at all, the supporters of Bernie Sanders have some moral justification to feel vindicated.
    The reality is that the US is in a political and economic mess and unable to come to terms with the impending loss of global influence and power. Its desperation is compelling it to create more trouble across the globe, only to bring closer its doomsday.
    *
    As for working class militancy in the US, there has been much of it during the past decade, especially since the Financial Crisis of 2008.
    But the working class is too poorly organized to secure power.
    Note that the workers of Egypt and Tunisia during “Arab Spring” were far more militant than those in the US at any time this century.
    The state apparatus has for long been misunderstood and its potential to defend capital underestimated by the parliamentary left ever since it imagined ability to take control of the state.

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    Way too early for you to crow about an end. Polls are no longer that reliable. There are Data Analytics type evaluations of social media that come into play now as well. The positive trend of job growth and steady decline of the Unemployment rate continues. Under Obama there was a record 75 months of job growth in the private sector and unemployment came down from almost 10% to 4.7% when he left. And it is continuing now and there is optimism regarding radical de-regulation and pro business policies that is helping that boom continue. DJIA which was 7,000 odd under Obama rose to 18,500 odd before election day. Now with Trump and cooperate profits really high, DJIA has hit a record again with a really fast growth rate to climb to about 22,000. This helps even middle-middle class people like myself with our 403B retirement accounts. National polls do not matter. It is all based on the local polls in the states that are called Battleground or Purple states. As you know Hillary was beaten in the so called blue states of WI, MI, PA and LOST. more next….

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    Voting is based on short-term memories in a society notorious for very short attention spans. Remember how George HW Bush lost after the brilliant victory in Persian Gulf War “Desert Storm” in the 3-way race because of the economy?

    He is like Juan Peron; “ME ME ME I I I” is his way. Do not write him off. Winning a war, or starting a war based on lies (Gulf of Tonkin Canard, Reichstag burning, Operation Northwoods) will make sure country will rally to him. The madman in Pyongyang will make it easier for him if that man reacts to all the baiting Trump is throwing. Trump is itching to start a war.

    Economic indices are great now. Trump will never lose his white blue collar voter base, no matter what. Not sure why you are making prognostications; polls are highly fickle.
    If the Russia scandal catches him colluding, it may be different. It is now a Third World ethically challenged nepotism based government with a soul ego-centric one-man show. His son in law and daughter are two of the closet Advisors. And also Arrow-Cross party type Hungarian charlatan with a fake/questionable PhD who is a rightwing fascist: Gorka, is another key advisor.

    This last election was won by Trump because of white voters. He will not risk antagonizing them. I don’t think he will lose in 2020; when I said he has an excellent chance to win( and I am not an intellectual widely read expert like you KD), people chortled.

    Democratic party has no plans and is rudderless with no real leadership now. I will say this. Trump is likely to win in 2020.They will exploit the race division. Russian collusion enquiry is the key to his empire’s survival.
    .

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    Before the election in 2016 in the blue collar working districts of the Swing states, people felt disrespected and not heard. Obama won the 91% WHITE Iowa both times. Hillary lost. She was so arrogant and did not visit Wisconsin after the primaries were over. She lost all the states Bernie won based on younger white voters. Why is that?

    My mother in law’s family were working class people who emigrated from Northern Italy. Her grandfather worked in the Coal Mines and died of Black lung disease and so did her father, who was first generation american born. They were hardworking proud people. My father in law was die-hard Union worker at Chrysler. His grandfather was a German emigrant farmer in a battleground state. They had no lights and running water growing up. His father had to get up at 4am to go tend to the cows; he only went upto 8th grade and my father in law only finished High School and had a job that paid $20/hr.. They have honour and dignity of labour. When Hillary said she will shut down all coal mines and put them out of work(“We’re going to put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business.”), even I , a soft lazy University Lecturer felt angry.

    Do not crow about polls. You are right about the factors. The elite intellectually arrogant lefty and liberals had become so smug to believe that obvious narcissistic bully with a thin skin with zero knowledge of global or even local economic and geo political issues could win and beat the anointed corrupt insider, who was a failure as Secretary of State. Check polls on Monday Nov 2nd in 2020 and not now. Even those polls were wrong in 2016 no?

  • 0
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    I am glad that this time the comments though few are serious and enlightened.
    But one repeated comment is unfair: “Don’t crow about polls”.
    Where do I crow? Of course I am averse to Trump, but that’s another matter. I am trying to be objective about how he is gaining, and he is losing credibility, in different quarters and the reasons therefor. Understanding the ongoing political dynamics is important. (Example; even for espying US-NKorea options and the Charlotsville VA game-plan, internal dynamics counts).

    Not to continually examine the drift and shift of opinion in different quarters is only for analysts who are not intellectually serious. Despite their proven inexactitude, serious people must use polls, as well of course as other methods, to keep abreast of how the political dynamic is moving. It’s not enough to sleep for 4 years then wake up one morning in Nov 2020 and rub one’s eyes in amazement.

    • 1
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      Kumar David: “……..I am glad that this time the comments though few are serious and enlightened….”
      Did you make allowance for another local topic occupying everyone’s mind?

  • 0
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    Another faulty, stupid judgement from a poor judge of politics! Gallup polls are orchestrated by the forces Trump threatens, and there is no surprise in these forces wanting to create the ‘tail that wags the dog’. Only idiots rush to judgement based on such obvious lies of vested interests. Take a Bex and lie down David.

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    US is also getting into war, partly to divert the attention ofmedia and therefore the attention of voters. NorthKorea is good for TRUMP just to divert the attention. Very popular tactic in the USA. Find some terrorist, if not produce one. Polls are directed. there were many polls in north america that proved they were wrong. Becuse, they get a specific race, ask directed questions and predict. It is sinking ship. Because, Deep state thinks, they are capable of doing . So, the Trump becomes a victim of the circumstances and he cannot do much even though he talked. that happened evento clinton, Obama andnow to TrumpThye are targeting Russia, china and Iran. North Korea is their escape goat. Trump can not do miracles. Definitely, Trump, unlike Hilary, saves the country from total bankruptcy. Becuse, hilary wanted mega trade deals and war to sell weapons and to subjugate and make new colonies. thier middle east experiments, arab spring revolutions and finally Syria and Afghanisthan are also total losses. Only way to escape is one president who is a leftist, an intellectual and a supportive deep state and the total overhaul of the system. that is impossible.

  • 0
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    I read somewhere recently about poll results showing that it is among white millennials that Trump’s support has fallen deeply.

    The resistance to Trump is active on many fronts. Pretty much all of his legislative priorities are bogged down in Congress as there isn’t enough support even among Republicans. The cleavages among Republicans will widen after the White nationalist terrorism yesterday in Charlottesville, VA, where the victim herself was a progressive-minded white woman.

    James Comey’s last minute intervention and the failure by Mrs.Clinton to even campaign in the traditionally blue states in the mid-West ( under the false assumption they were already in the bag), allowed a surprise win by Trump. But he will be shown for the fraud that he is. Robert Mueller’s criminal inquiry will look into his family’s sordid finance deals and bring out Trump’s sleaze in the open. Little by little, the institutions of American democracy will reassert their power and chase Trump away.

  • 0
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    Kumar David’s last sentence: “A Labour victory in Britain however is a prerequisite.’
    Prerequisite to what Prof?

  • 0
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    The political climate in the country is such that many people I know who voted for Trump in 2016 deny that they supported Trump in public. It’s not fashionable to say you support Trump, but that does not mean they will not vote for him again. That’s why the polls are unreliable now. My reading of the situation, living in the most liberal state, is that he will most probably win the 2020, IF the economy keeps humming along like it is now, but I can’t say for sure till I know who he will run against. Each race has to be analyzed based on the two candidates and until that time, the polls are meaningless.

    If George H.W Bush (Elder Bush) ran against one of the other DNC possibilities other than Clinton, (someone boring like Michael Dukakis) and if Ross Perot did not join the election, he would have probably won a second term, with the rest of the situation in the country being the same. We will never know what would have happened, if George W. Bush (Younger Bush) ran against someone other than Al Gore or John Kerry. (both politicians with poor mass appeal IMHO) I also think Mrs. Clinton would have won the 2016, if any of the other 16 GOP candidates other than Trump was the nominee!

    If you need to do an academic exercise, go ahead and study the polls, but remember it can dull you into false confidence.

    Finally, why are you so surprised that the left in Colombo doesn’t understand the Trump phenomena? I don’t think the majority of the left and the intellectuals in the US has a clue.

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