The 2016 presidential election marks an important moment in history. By 2050, sweeping demographic changes will make the United States a majority-minority country, which means that this primary season might be remembered as the last time serious political campaigns were fueled by the votes of angry white men.
The next president of the United States will likely be Hillary Clinton—the preferred candidate of women and people of color—but this election has so far been characterized by the insurgent campaigns of two so-called political outsiders: Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders. Both campaigns have received strong support from white men who are convinced that the political establishment is giving them a raw deal. Whether these voters choose Mr. Trump or Mr. Sanders, however, largely depends on whom they blame.
Bernie supporters condemn big banks, big money, and establishment politicians as the sources of their economic and political hardship. Trump supporters also hate politicians, but they respect capitalism and instead blame their woes on undocumented immigrants and political correctness. In both camps, there exists an undercurrent of rage and the discomfiting presence of extremist political fringes from which neither candidate has satisfactorily distanced themselves. Mr. Trump has openly encouraged his backers to assault protesters, while Mr. Sanders has fueled his supporters’ violent impulses by insinuating that the election is rigged and describing his campaign as a political “revolution”—a term which carries with it a bloody history of violent uprisings.
Establishment political forces on both the left and right have failed these disaffected men for too long. To low-income white men, the Democratic Party’s talk of white and male privilege seems absurd, especially when it comes from the mouths of wealthy celebrities and Washington politicians. These men feel excluded from populist movements like Black Lives Matter (only Black Lives?) and cheated by race-based affirmative action policies, which in practice have made it harder for poor whites to access a college education. They are also outraged by the leniency which Democrats afford to undocumented immigrants, who violate federal law to move to the United States and—in the view of the white working class—are stealing American jobs.
The angry white male constituency is also deeply frustrated with conservative politicians. Establishment Republicans like House Speaker Paul Ryan passionately support free trade agreements with low and middle-income countries, which provide an opportunity to corporations—especially those in the manufacturing sector—to easily outsource American jobs. And what these Republican leaders see as sensible compromise on immigration issues and criminal justice reform, the white working class views as betrayal and political opportunism, a gambit to earn the support of racial minorities while leaving white America behind.
One could dismiss the anger of the white working class as whining from a relatively privileged group of people, but to do so would miss the truth of the matter. Thanks to high suicide rates and a devastating opioid epidemic in rural and suburban areas, white middle-aged Americans are the only demographic in America with a declining life expectancy. The outsourcing and automation of jobs that do not require college degrees have decimated the white working class, swelling unemployment and underemployment among whites with no higher education. These problems are compounded by the fact that white men are now less likely to pursue or to graduate from college than their female counterparts, and in the post-recession recovery, most new jobs have gone to college graduates. Although many of these issues affect people of color as much or more than whites—unemployment in the African-American community is vastly higher than for whites, even controlling for educational attainment, and average life expectancy for black men and women lags behind that of their white counterparts—blacks and Hispanics actually have political influence in the Democratic Party, while working-class whites have been left behind by both parties. Is it any wonder then that America’s white men have embraced candidates who promise solutions to their struggles, even if the solutions ultimately scapegoat immigrants or Debbie Wasserman Schultz?
Though working-class white men will soon no longer make up enough of the electorate to be a decisive force in national elections, the grievances of these people must be addressed in order to quell political extremism and ease the growing polarization within the national electorate. The unexpected success of two insurgent campaigns this primary season has proved that the current two-party system has failed the white working class, who will do whatever it takes to be heard.