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US Presidential Election: Technology and Trade in the Industrial Swing States

Written by Simon Toubeau.

So there it is, again. The unlikely becomes plausible, possible, likely, and then real, in the space of a few hours. Liberal bien pensant and pollsters are left sitting uncomfortably, hot under their collars, baffled that estimates and predictions were wide of the mark and that democracy in action could yield such a ghastly outcome. Surely democratic exercises should get it ‘right’? Surely, the establishment candidate with the requisite persona, credibility and wherewithal is the natural choice for leader. Not the unpredictable outsider, not the rambling demagogue. But the point of democratic exercises is that the outcome is and should be uncertain. The only ‘right’ thing about it is the fairness of the procedure.  But what does the outcome of this procedure signal?

What is remarkable about this Presidential election is how quickly it has channelled the long-felt anxiety of large swaths of voters with their current and future economic standing. These sentiments have simmered under the surface for a long time, indeed, over decades.  Past incumbents, such as Jimmy Carter or George.H.W Bush lost re-elections on the basis of how they mishandled a short-term downturn in the economy. Even when the contest was more open, like in 2000, economic fluctuations again dominated debates. This time, however, individual voters reacted to gradual economic transformations that have unfolded over a much longer time-span.

These transformations came from two articles of faith in liberal capitalist orthodoxy: the power of technology and trade. These two vectors have always been assumed by economists and policy-makers to lead societies onto a new frontier of ever-growing prosperity. But while they have done so, for some, they have also been at the source of highly disruptive social dislocations, for many. These dislocations have revealed the frailty of the human condition before sudden and threatening changes to one’s livelihood and before the erosion of one’s broader community of neighbours, colleagues and families. Such frailty can bring out the worst of emotions: despair, anger, resentment and protest. Trump, with his contemptuous bravado, is merely the mouthpiece of such emotions, now feeding their way back into the highest office of the US political system.

As the election results have shown, these emotions have been especially strong among a particular demographic: the white rural and urban communities in the four swing states of the industrial rust-belt that handed the victory to the GOP candidate: Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin and Ohio. Collectively, these states offered the 64 electoral college votes that Clinton needed to win. All these states supported Obama and were predicted to vote Democrat. But this year, they flipped their support. If we look past the vitriol that inflamed the campaign and the red herrings of the debates, there were two areas where Clinton’s policies sat uncomfortably with core elements of the Democratic party base, and where Trump, instead, managed to persuade.

These policies were meant to address fundamental questions related to how technology and trade affect the sinews of the American economy. First, what future is there for employees working in sectors facing long-run industrial decline and threatened by the introduction of machine technology, such as coal mines, steel plants, automobile factories? What kind of industrial policy can be put into place to revive the local economy, create jobs and maintain wage levels? Neither candidate offered a plausible solution. Both missed the opportunity to develop a vision for sustainable growth in which existing industries and labour force could be harnessed to redevelop new industries related to a green economy. But Clinton’s promise of pro-investment tax incentives for tech start-ups seemed less re-assuring than Trump’s blank promise to go back to coal, to create jobs by spending public money in infrastructure projects.  Waving his magic wand, Trump offered continuity.

Second, what kind of trade relationship should the US establish with third countries, in Europe and in Asia? For many voters in the industrial swing-states, trade, especially with China, has had devastating effects, resulting in job losses and wage reduction in the manufacturing sector. So, any trade policy that appealed to the Democratic party base needed to square a difficult circle: reaping the advantages of cheaper imported goods, but without the costs of industrial re-location and competition from lower-wage countries. Here, Clinton’s ambiguity was a source of weakness. She actively supported multi-lateral trade with European and Pacific partners. She only revised her stance when competing with Bernie Sanders during the primaries and recruited the Ohio Senator, Sherrod Brown, a leading critic of free trade, to give authenticity to her conversion. Trump, on the other hand, promised to withdraw from any ongoing trade negotiations and to raise tariffs on imported vehicles and manufactured goods. Waiving his magic wand, Trump offered protection.

The white working classes of the industrial swing-states delivered the verdict for this election. They were pessimistic about the condition of the economy, about their own financial situation and about their children’s prospects. For decades, their lives had been disrupted by technology and trade and their concerns remained unheard or ignored. They could only bear witness to how the better-off continued to strive. And so they voted for the outsider who offered continuity and protection. The documentary film maker, Michael Moore, who hails from Flint, Michigan, was one of the few voices predicting a Trump victory. He attributed this to the pain experienced by his community. They had lost everything, except the right to vote.

Simon Toubeau is an Assistant Professor in Politics and International Relations. Image credit: Wikipedia Commons.

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