Trump Voters Want Respect. Here’s How to Give It to Them

Elites tend to give themselves too much moral credit for their positions.

A really cheap way to gain support.

Photographer: E+ via Getty Images

After the election, shell-shocked opponents of Donald Trump divided themselves into roughly two camps. The first group wanted to focus on understanding and reaching out to the disaffected white working- and lower-middle class voters who had given Trump his electoral college victory. The second group wanted to focus on resisting Trump; their solution to the Democratic Party’s loss of those voters was, essentially, to wait for them to die off.

As you can probably guess, my sympathies are with the “outreach” folks rather than the “wait for them to die” folks. A strategy of demographically swamping your opponents is more often discussed than delivered, as followers of Israel-Palestine negotiations, Northern Irish politics, or recent American elections can attest. Also, those people are your fellow citizens, and it is not healthy -- civically or emotionally -- to rest your dreams on the deaths of millions of Americans.

But the debate still goes on about the same groups of people: the cosmopolitans from elite schools who are connected to centers of power versus those outside that privileged circle. And the questions are largely the same, too: declining economic opportunity, social decay, and the respect that these people feel that elites have failed to hand over.

But what does “respect” even mean, asks Adam Ozimek? Arguing with Chris Arnade, who distinguishes between “front row kids” and “back row kids,” he writes:

I have for a long time pressed Chris to tell me what exactly it is that the back row kids want from democrats and from the front row kids and really all I can get out of him is… respect. Well, respect isn’t a policy… Is it rhetoric that the back row kids want? Because paeans to the working class and the rust belt are pretty popular on both sides of the aisle.

A few paragraphs later, he continues:

I guess this makes me a front row doofus but I actually place value on economic growth in developing countries who have benefitted significantly from, for example, the outsourcing of iPod production. I’m sorry if the back row kids, perhaps enlightened by their “traditional views of race,” don’t care about the welfare of people in developing countries who are much poorer than they are. But I happen to.

This is, I would say, roughly the core attitude of those front row kids. What splendid, enlightened people we are, so different from those racist reactionaries who don’t even care about people abroad! How fortunate that we happen to be smarter, wiser, and more moral than those mouth-breathing losers! You can no more ask us to pay attention to those morlocks-in-waiting than you would ask a parent to let their five-year-old pilot the family minivan!

All right, now I’m exaggerating and putting words in Adam Ozimek’s mouth, making his position sound much worse than it is, and him much nastier, in order to make myself sound better. This is, of course, also what Adam is doing to his opponents. However, I happen to think that Adam is a sharp person and a terrific economics writer, so that’s not really what I want to say. I want to disagree with him, without disrespecting him. Let’s see if we can reframe this discussion without the disrespect on either side.

I’ll start by restating Adam’s position, which is a strong one. Trade has enabled American consumers to buy a lot of stuff immensely more cheaply than they could in, say, the 1970s. Not just electronics, but basics like clothes and home furnishings. Those are serious improvements in the quality of the lives of those consumers. And they have brought with them absolutely massive improvements in the quality of living of the developing world. Those people are human beings; they have moral weight. We should care about things that make them better off.

We should also not blame trade and immigration for all the woes that beset America. Trade did not cause the opiate epidemic, and neither it nor immigration have been primarily responsible for the economic losses that former manufacturing workers have suffered. Recall that the Rust Belt’s long decline started with factories moving to the American South, not China. Technology has also enhanced that decline, and automation now looks to be doing to retail what it did to large numbers of manufacturing jobs. Critics of trade and immigration have been far too quick to pin everything on foreigners, even when those forces account for a relatively small portion of their overall problems, because bad trade and immigration policy feel like something we can fix, and “the internet is bad for traditional retailers” doesn’t.

But now let’s also restate the other side with equally charitable language. First of all, the other side might ask Adam: How much do you care about those folks in the developing world? Have you given away all of your stuff and income to the developing world, until you are living at the same level as African subsistence farmers? No? Of course not, because like (almost) everyone else, you don’t care as much about far-away people you’ve never met as you do about yourself and the people close to you. You care -- but that caring is limited. And unless you’re giving large amounts of your salary to developing world charities (for all I know, Adam may be, but most people aren’t), then it turns out that your caring is pretty limited to stuff that also happens to benefit you, or at best, cost you very little. And everyone is happy to help others when doing so is personally cheap.

But trade and immigration haven’t been so costless for everyone. Those things provide the most benefit to cosmopolitan people who enjoy global travel (and have the means -- professional or personal -- to do a lot of it), who can hire nannies and landscapers to do work that other people have to do themselves, who have a taste for strange foreign foods, who are not directly competing with immigrants for jobs, because their jobs tend to be highly language-intensive, or rely on U.S.-specific social capital, in a way that’s hard to outsource. Immigration and trade have been worse for people who compete with immigrants, or tradeable goods and services, and who value a particular community and place over novelty.

Elites, then, tend to give themselves too much moral credit for their position, overlooking the fact that it is always easier to be in favor of enhancing the welfare of others if those enhancements do not cost you anything. But I think that’s not the only thing they overlook.

For one thing, they often seem oblivious to the fact that people care more about their role as workers than they do as consumers. If you go from having a relatively high status and secure job to lower status, lower-paid, and less secure work, the psychological stress of worrying about your future and feeling that you have lost ground may not exceed the psychological benefits of cheaper stuff.

But they also discount the value of specific places and communities -- at least if those places and communities belong to their own home country. (A number of people -- though by no means all globalists -- simultaneously deride hard localism in their own community, and excuse or even celebrate it in the developing world.)

When you leave the cost side of the equation out -- easy to do when you don’t bear them -- then the residual reasons you’re left with are racism and “just doesn’t care about people in other places.” Those are sometimes the correct explanations, but they are not all of the explanation, and they are extraordinarily self-flattering for the people who rely on them, at the expense of the people they disagree with.

So why do people want respect, and what does it look like? It looks like charity towards others. Not necessarily agreement, but the simple dignity of being taken seriously, not caricatured or dismissed.

Will that be enough to resolve the deep disputes that divide us, or the rapidly degenerating political climate in this country? Not even close. But the reason to offer respect is not that it’s the most effective political solution, but that it’s the cheapest one. It costs you nothing except a certain smug sense of superiority. And it buys you the credibility to argue for more complex and costly solutions down the road.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

    To contact the author of this story:
    Megan McArdle at mmcardle3@bloomberg.net

    To contact the editor responsible for this story:
    Mike Nizza at mnizza3@bloomberg.net

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