The Return of the Middle American Radical

John B. Judis, National Journal, October 2, 2015

In 1976, Don­ald War­ren–a so­ci­olo­gist from Oak­land Uni­versity in Michigan who would die two dec­ades later without ever at­tain­ing the rank of full pro­fess­or–pub­lished a book called The Rad­ic­al Cen­ter: Middle Amer­ic­ans and the Polit­ics of Ali­en­a­tion. Few people have read or heard of it–I learned of it about 30 years ago from the late, very ec­cent­ric pa­leo­con­ser­vat­ive Samuel Fran­cis–but it is, in my opin­ion, one of the three or four books that best ex­plain Amer­ic­an polit­ics over the past half-cen­tury.

While con­duct­ing ex­tens­ive sur­veys of white voters in 1971 and again in 1975, War­ren iden­ti­fied a group who de­fied the usu­al par­tis­an and ideo­lo­gic­al di­vi­sions. These voters were not col­lege edu­cated; their in­come fell some­where in the middle or lower-middle range; and they primar­ily held skilled and semi-skilled blue-col­lar jobs or sales and cler­ic­al white-col­lar jobs. At the time, they made up about a quarter of the elect­or­ate. What dis­tin­guished them was their ideo­logy: It was neither con­ven­tion­ally lib­er­al nor con­ven­tion­ally con­ser­vat­ive, but in­stead re­volved around an in­tense con­vic­tion that the middle class was un­der siege from above and be­low.

War­ren called these voters Middle Amer­ic­an Rad­ic­als, or MARS. “MARS are dis­tinct in the depth of their feel­ing that the middle class has been ser­i­ously neg­lected,” War­ren wrote. They saw “gov­ern­ment as fa­vor­ing both the rich and the poor sim­ul­tan­eously.” Like many on the left, MARS were deeply sus­pi­cious of big busi­ness: Com­pared with the oth­er groups he sur­veyed–lower-in­come whites, middle-in­come whites who went to col­lege, and what War­ren called “af­flu­ents”–MARS were the most likely to be­lieve that cor­por­a­tions had “too much power,” “don’t pay at­ten­tion,” and were “too big.” MARS also backed many lib­er­al pro­grams: By a large per­cent­age, they favored gov­ern­ment guar­an­tee­ing jobs to every­one; and they sup­por­ted price con­trols, Medi­care, some kind of na­tion­al health in­sur­ance, fed­er­al aid to edu­ca­tion, and So­cial Se­cur­ity.

On the oth­er hand, they held very con­ser­vat­ive po­s­i­tions on poverty and race. They were the least likely to agree that whites had any re­spons­ib­il­ity “to make up for wrongs done to blacks in the past,” they were the most crit­ic­al of wel­fare agen­cies, they re­jec­ted ra­cial bus­ing, and they wanted to grant po­lice a “heav­ier hand” to “con­trol crime.” They were also the group most dis­trust­ful of the na­tion­al gov­ern­ment. And in a stand that wasn’t really lib­er­al or con­ser­vat­ive (and that ap­peared, at least on the sur­face, to be in ten­sion with their dis­like of the na­tion­al gov­ern­ment), MARS were more likely than any oth­er group to fa­vor strong lead­er­ship in Wash­ing­ton–to ad­voc­ate for a situ­ation “when one per­son is in charge.”

If these voters are be­gin­ning to sound fa­mil­i­ar, they should: War­ren’s MARS of the 1970s are the Don­ald Trump sup­port­ers of today. Since at least the late 1960s, these voters have peri­od­ic­ally co­alesced to be­come a force in pres­id­en­tial polit­ics, just as they did this past sum­mer. In 1968 and 1972, they were at the heart of George Wal­lace’s pres­id­en­tial cam­paigns; in 1992 and 1996, many of them backed H. Ross Perot or Pat Buchanan. Over the years, some of their is­sues have changed–il­leg­al im­mig­ra­tion has re­placed ex­pli­citly ra­cist ap­peals–and many of these voters now have ju­ni­or-col­lege de­grees and are as likely to hold white-col­lar as blue-col­lar jobs. But the ba­sic MARS world­view that War­ren out­lined has re­mained sur­pris­ingly in­tact from the 1970s through the present.

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Trump is squarely with­in the Wal­lace-Buchanan tra­di­tion. Speak­ing on be­half of the “si­lent ma­jor­ity,” he blames un­doc­u­mented im­mig­rants for urb­an vi­ol­ence (“A lot of the gangs that you see in Bal­timore and in St. Louis and in Fer­guson and Chica­go, you know they’re il­leg­al im­mig­rants”) and for driv­ing down wages and rais­ing wel­fare costs. But he has also ac­cused hedge-fund spec­u­lat­ors of “get­ting away with murder” on their tax bills, while the middle class is be­ing “decim­ated” by taxes; and he has chided in­sur­ance com­pan­ies for get­ting rich off of the Af­ford­able Care Act.

It isn’t just pop­u­lism that un­der­girds the MARS world­view, however; an­oth­er key com­pon­ent is na­tion­al­ism. Wal­lace saw him­self as de­fend­ing Amer­ica against its en­emies at the United Na­tions. He op­posed most for­eign aid. He presen­ted him­self as “a man who would lead Amer­ica to new great­ness” and would “stand up for Amer­ica.” Perot and Buchanan, who ran for of­fice after Amer­ica’s trade sur­plus had turned in­to a grow­ing de­fi­cit, ad­voc­ated na­tion­al­ist eco­nom­ic po­s­i­tions that dis­tin­guished them from most Re­pub­lic­an politi­cians and from “new Demo­crats” like Bill Clin­ton. {snip}

Trump has gone even fur­ther on trade. He has prom­ised to rene­go­ti­ate or junk NAF­TA and to slap a pun­it­ive tax on Chinese im­ports. In his an­nounce­ment speech, he pledged to “bring back our jobs from China, from Mex­ico, from Ja­pan, from so many places. I’ll bring back our jobs, and I’ll bring back our money. Right now, think of this: We owe China $1.3 tril­lion. We owe Ja­pan more than that. So they come in, they take our jobs, they take our money, and then they loan us back the money, and we pay them in in­terest, and then the dol­lar goes up so their deal’s even bet­ter.”

He also ar­gued, in his 2011 book, for get­ting “tough on those who out­source jobs over­seas and re­ward com­pan­ies who stay loy­al to Amer­ica. If an Amer­ic­an com­pany out­sources its work, they get hit with a 20 per­cent tax.” And he has prom­ised to end cor­por­ate tax “in­ver­sions,” whereby a com­pany moves its of­fi­cial headquar­ters to a tax haven in or­der to avoid U.S. taxes. Re­cently, I asked Buchanan wheth­er he thought Trump’s pop­u­lism and eco­nom­ic na­tion­al­ism were in line with what he and Perot had ad­voc­ated. “Trump is a bil­lion­aire, but he gets it,” Buchanan told me. “It’s a very pop­u­list ap­peal and it works.”

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But can he suc­ceed where Wal­lace, Perot, and Buchanan fell short? Can a MARS can­did­ate ac­tu­ally win the White House? One hes­it­ates at this point to of­fer any pre­dic­tions, but my sus­pi­cion is that Trump will fail like the oth­ers. There is, of course, his volat­ile per­sona, which seems likely to cause self-in­flic­ted wounds (just as Perot’s did in 1992). But the big­ger lim­it­ing factor for Trump is that there are only a cer­tain num­ber of MARS in the coun­try: They con­sti­tute maybe 20 per­cent of the over­all elect­or­ate and 30 to 35 per­cent of Re­pub­lic­ans. That was enough to al­low Trump to lead a crowded GOP field. But as the field nar­rows, he will have dif­fi­culty main­tain­ing his lead un­less he can ex­pand his ap­peal bey­ond the MARS. And it will be hard to do that without threat­en­ing his base of sup­port.

It there­fore seems un­likely that we will end up with a MARS pres­id­ent in 2016 or bey­ond–es­pe­cially since their per­cent­age of the elect­or­ate is con­tinu­ing to shrink. Still, that doesn’t mean MARS will ne­ces­sar­ily fail to have a polit­ic­al im­pact. After all, tea-party act­iv­ists–a group Har­vard so­ci­olo­gist Theda Skoc­pol es­tim­ated at 250,000 dur­ing Obama’s first term–have had a de­cis­ive in­flu­ence on the bal­ance of power in the House of Rep­res­ent­at­ives since 2010.

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