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Trump’s politics of recognition

Image credit: Jamelle Bouie (Flickr: Creative Commons)

In the reckoning that has followed the November elections, it has been tirelessly repeated that Clinton failed to gain the support of white-working America in contrast to Trump, whose victory depended on their support. Commentators and academics have further been puzzling over the paradox of why so many white working class voters voted this way, considering that Democratic policies largely benefit the lower and middle class—promoting health insurance subsidies, tax cuts for the middle-class and a higher minimum wage—and yet working class voters turned to Trump, whose policies consistently work against their interests. Trump has advocated for top-heavy tax cuts and the decimation of the Affordable Care Act—just two of many policies that would decrease the standard of living for much of the white working class.

Many have tried to answer this question by understanding the logic of Trump’s voters. Vox Senior Editor Sarah Kliff has done some impressive journalism on why many of those who benefited greatly from the Affordable Care Act voted for Trump, travelling to southeastern Kentucky to talk to many Obamacare enrollees. In particular, Whitley County, Kentucky, encapsulates a wider phenomenon in the US: while the uninsured rate dropped by 60% under Obamacare, the County voted overwhelmingly for Trump, with 82% in favour. While many of Kliff’s interviewees complained about the high cost of Obamacare, key frustrations were not about money, but rather about the ‘undeserving’ who, in their eyes, pay less under Medicaid, but benefit from better coverage.

Kliff’s general findings about working class sentiments towards government and establishment politics have been further supported by Katherine J. Cramer, Professor of Political Science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, who’s known for her work on the rural ‘politics of resentment’ towards cities. Starting in May 2007, Cramer travelled to rural areas of Wisconsin to listen in on community conversations, where the typical individual was a white male. She found that people in small communities deeply resented the state capital, metropolitan areas of Madison and Milwaukee. Again, many were eager, in Cramer’s words, to ‘stop the flow of resources to people who are undeserving’, as they felt that they were not (and still are not) getting their share of power, resources or respect.

The key problem that both Kliff and Cramer have stumbled upon seems to be not simply a misunderstanding of the implications of Democratic versus Republican policies, but rather a sense of being forgotten and unrecognised by local and national governments. This is furnished by a questionable logic that being recognised is the same as being served. A long-standing problem in America is that many white Americans associate government spending with ‘undeserving’, unemployed, non-white people, and often cannot recognise when they themselves benefit from it.

The way that Trump took advantage of this issue in the lead up to the November election was by enacting a politics of recognition to cater to this politics of resentment, in which he singled out communities and regions, declaring that their beliefs were important, and that if were elected, he would meet their needs. When he promised to ‘bring back coal’ to Western Virginia or proclaimed that he would restore factories in Ohio and Pennsylvania, the power of his statements came from their recognition that forgotten classes had been deprived of their place in the American economy and were in fact indispensable to American dominance.

The subtle irony is that Trump may be better served achieving nothing in order to retain the support of these constituents, as many of his proposed policies would do more harm to these regions than good. This is the harsh reality that the Republicans now face: while they have widespread support to tear down Obamacare, if they do so, they will hurt millions of their supporters and real consequences will follow.

It’s worth noting that this politics of recognition is not confined to one side of the political spectrum. Democrats, as well as Republicans, are guilty of singling out particular groups to demonstrate that they recognise and comprehend the issues they face. This politics of recognition has garnered decades of loyalty to the Democratic Party from African Americans and Latinos, even though they continue to be underserved communities. Bill Clinton, in particular, gained widespread support from African Americans, while implementing policies that saw huge increases in unemployment rates and mass incarceration of the African American population. The politics of recognition seem to elicit greater psychic benefits and deeper loyalty than policies enacted by either party.

In all, the politics of recognition often caters to the politics of resentment by reaffirming that a specific group—whether the white-working class or otherwise—holds a place in the national narrative. Now more than ever, the US has no one, streamlined story of itself-becoming, but rather several competing narratives. Different racial, gendered or socio-economic groups continue to fight for in-group participation in these national narratives; for the recognition that they are indeed a valued part of the fabric of the United States. President Trump is not the first to recognise and take advantage of this phenomenon, and, as the country grows both more unequal and diverse, he will certainly not be the last.

Whitney McIntosh is a Research Assistant at the Stanford Program on American Democracy in Comparative Perspective.

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