How Donald Trump Filled the Dignity Deficit

logoBy Arthur C. Brooks

Over the past half century, the percentage of working-age men outside the workforce doubled.

For decades, progressives have emphasized the “income gap” separating rich and poor. Their cries have only grown louder since the financial crisis. They contended that income inequality would ignite a new class struggle, causing unprecedented political turmoil.

This was half right. There is indeed a gap in this country, and it has now led to a political revolution, a significant realignment in American politics. But the relevant gap wasn’t income. It was dignity.

Too many Americans have lost pride in themselves. We sense dignity by creating value with our lives, through families, communities, and especially work. That is why American leaders so frequently talk about dignity in the context of labor. As Martin Luther King Jr. taught, “All labor that uplifts humanity has dignity and importance and should be undertaken with painstaking excellence.” Conversely, nothing destroys dignity more than idleness and a sense of superfluousness—the feeling that one is simply not needed.

That is the circumstance in which millions of Americans find themselves today. Best-selling books over the past few years such as Charles Murray’s “Coming Apart” and J.D. Vance’s “Hillbilly Elegy” tell the story. The U.S. is bifurcating into a nation of economic winners and losers, and this distinction is seeping into American culture. The dignity gap grows every time those who lose out start hearing, “We don’t need you anymore.”

Who falls on the wrong side of this dignity gap? These days it is working-class men. In his new book “Men Without Work,” my colleague Nick Eberstadt shows that between 1965 and 2015 the percentage of working-aged men outside the workforce increased to 22% from 10%. Many millions more are underemployed. The employment-to-population ratio for men aged 25-54 is 6.8% lower today than it was in 1930, in the teeth of the Great Depression.

These secular trends were amplified by the nonrecovery that most Americans experienced after the Great Recession. Only about the top fifth of the economy saw positive income growth for most of the Obama presidency, Census Bureau data show, while most others averaged no growth at all. This stagnation has decimated middle-aged men without a college education, especially in rural areas.

Men without work are much less likely than working men to be married with families, Mr. Eberstadt also shows, further compounding the problem. Does modern society tell many working-class men they are needed and valued as husbands and fathers? This question answers itself.

Life without dignity can produce shocking results. In a 2015 paper, Princeton economists Anne Case and Angus Deaton showed that the mortality rates of middle-aged American whites have actually increased since 1999. They are the only demographic group for whom this is true. The main reasons? Cirrhosis of the liver (up 50% since 1999 among this group), suicide (up 78%), and poisonings due to drugs and alcohol (up 323%). These trends are mostly driven by those with less education.

Many of these Americans didn’t bother voting in the past. Others threw their lot in with President Obama or his traditional opponents. But they were ready for an outsider who promised to blow up the old ways of doing business. When he appeared, they didn’t hesitate to embrace him.

Many people from all walks of life voted for Donald Trump, but the demographic core of his support matches the vulnerable group that Mr. Eberstadt, Ms. Case, and Mr. Deaton identify. Exit polls show Mr. Trump expanded significantly on Mitt Romney’s advantage with white men, without forsaking the limited support that Mr. Romney received from African-American and Hispanic men. These new voters were key to flipping the 230-plus counties that went blue in 2012 but landed in Mr. Trump’s column on Tuesday.

What precisely did Mr. Trump offer these voters? Snake oil, say critics. Most economists predicted that policies built on Mr. Trump’s anti-immigration and antitrade rhetoric would hardly help unemployed, working-class people in places like Kentucky and West Virginia. But where these experts heard incoherent specifics, many voters heard a consistent deeper theme: A promise to work hard at restoring left-behind Americans’ dignity by bringing back jobs and striking back at the cultural elites who disdain them.

This story is not merely crucial for understanding this extraordinary election. It is also the lodestar for cultural renewal and better politics, no matter one’s place on the ideological spectrum. Leaders on both sides will likely take issue with some parts of Mr. Trump’s agenda. But all must contend with the central reality he has unearthed—the hunger for dignity in communities where it is most absent.

Mr. Brooks is the president of the American Enterprise Institute.

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