It’s (Not) the Economy, Stupid

Opinions expressed here are the author’s own. Ms. is published by Feminist Majority Foundation, a 501(c)3 organization, and does not endorse candidates.

It has become something of a bipartisan mantra that the state of our economy is the key factor in the 2020 election. Nestled inside this economic determinism is another set of assumptions: that those who voted for Donald Trump in 2016 and who support him now are not “really” racist or sexist, but simply motivated by his rhetoric about lower taxes and better jobs.

This idea—that the economy narrowly construed is fundamentally determinative of electoral chances—has a long history. Bill Clinton, with the help of strategist James Carville, most famously utilized this in his 1992 campaign against George H.W. Bush. But versions of a sort of economic fundamentalism crop up in theories as various as orthodox Marxism and classical, conservative, “invisible hand” supply and demand models. In recent weeks, Trump’s trade war with China combined with other indicators such as a wildly fluctuating stock market have put this discussion back in the headlines, with both Republicans and Democrats converging in agreement that the state of the economy is the canary in the electoral coal mine.

But this is short-sighted for many reasons.

(Lorie Shaull / Creative Commons)

First, what is meant by “the economy” is surely up for debate. Most Americans, for example, are not invested in any substantive way in the stock market so record highs really only benefit the already wealthy. Unemployment might be low but tell that to the fast food worker trying to eke out a living on minimum wage or the family hit with a catastrophic health care bill that forces them into bankruptcy. Or the woman further impoverished because she is forced to miss work and travel hundreds of miles to another state in order to terminate her pregnancy. The gap between rich and poor continues unabated and what is meant by the term “strong economy” really does depend on where one is already located on the totem pole of opportunity.  

Second, and perhaps even more importantly, the focus on this narrow understanding of “the economy” misses the deep and abiding power of belief and ideology. The conceit that people simply “vote their pocketbooks” is simplistic and just plain wrong by any measure. How do you explain the support for deficit exploding Trump among the party whose core belief was always deficit reduction? Or the farmers interviewed who are suffering under his trade war yet voice continued commitment to his presidency?  

White support for Trump is not incidentally or nominally motivated by his fondness for white supremacy and xenophobia. As painful as it is to reckon with, we must now—after El Paso, after “send them back,” after Charlottesville and the astronomical rise in hate crimes—abandon the fantasy of benign voters led to the polls by the pull of the personal pocketbook. White nationalism and misogyny are core beliefs for far too many Americans. These values are motivating them to shoot up schools and big-box stores and will send them to the ballot box to support one of their own, whether or not he will bring economic stability to their lives.

Reckoning with the depth of both misogyny and white supremacy is not only critical to ethical conduct—it is strategically necessary to usher in victories for feminist lawmakers and policies in 2020. But too many voters and political leaders still buy into the apocryphal story of single-minded economic actors.

It goes something like this: Hillary Clinton lost because the Democratic party didn’t pay significant attention to the pain and dislocation of the white working class and focused too much on identity politics, ceding the economic revitalization argument to the populist rhetoric of Donald Trump. In the conservative or neoliberal version of this view, offered by critics such as Mark Lilla, Democrats had a “fixation on diversity,” and instead of focusing on the anger of rural white men, spent the campaign “calling out explicitly to African-American, Latino, LGBT and women voters at every stop.” Post-election postmortems often insisted that Democratic electoral failure was the result of a myopic focus on “identity politics” by a liberal elite woefully beholden to the politically correct trifecta of race, gender and sexuality—ignoring the supposed centrality of class and the failing fortunes of the poor white working man. According to these pundits, Democrats need to lure back that mythological block of voters, and an emphasis on economic issues narrowly construed will apparently bring them home.  

 These critics act as if the overwhelmingly white and male voters who turned to Trump in 2016 and support him now are not actually endorsing his misogyny, racism or mass deportations. These various versions of economic determinism imagine political actors as somehow de-raced and un-gendered—perceiving the world not through the lens of their own privilege and prejudice, but rather through some pristine calculus of economic benefit.  

Thankfully, some politicians are pushing back against this simplistic analysis. In a speech to the progressive group Netroots Nation, Kamala Harris, the junior senator from California and presidential candidate, argued that “these issues that they’re trying to diminish and demean…are the very issues that will define our identity as Americans.” She frankly recognized how identity politics is almost always invoked as a pejorative to, as she says, “divide and minimize issues that impact all of us.” Make no mistake, she claims: “it is used to try and shut us up.”

Stacey Abrams has made similar remarks, and the variegated and comprehensive plans of Elizabeth Warren implicitly push back against a narrow economic determinism.

Racism and sexism are no mere benign symptoms on the collective body politic. They are, when combined with the inflammatory agent of economic angst, the tumors. The only way to save this ailing body politic is to realize that, contrary to popular belief, it’s racism and sexism that we need to deal with if we are to step away from this precipice and build a sustainable future. 


Suzanna Danuta Walters is a professor of sociology and director of the Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies Program at Northeastern University. She is the editor-in-chief of Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society.