Environmentalism, Trumpism, and the Working Class
Photo by Zbynek Burival on Unsplash

Environmentalism, Trumpism, and the Working Class

William Murray
William Murray
11 min read

The inauguration of President Biden as the 46th US President hasn’t produced quite the catharsis that Democrats (and others) had hoped for. After only a few months of one-party rule in Washington, DC—and the sputtering finale of impeachment—there should be fear among Democrats that attention will return to the signs of real damage done to the progressive/liberal project in the wake of its collision with the Trump train.

The shifting of both American political parties into one another’s former political spaces has been head-spinning. The trend of Republicans turning into the party of labor and Democrats becoming a party of capital looks to continue in the 2020s—something few people outside of Pat Buchanan and Ross Perot would have guessed 30 years ago. And it turns out that the promise of a Democrat-voting bloc made up of well-educated whites, blacks, and the growing Hispanic population delivering a decades-long progressive era in American politics is not coming to pass.

For nearly 20 years, this promised “coalition of the ascendant” has coalesced but failed to ascend. In 2009, with the inauguration of Barack Obama, Democrats in the House of Representatives controlled 256 seats and 58 seats in the Senate. In 2021, Democrats under Biden/Harris hold 221 seats in the House, while the Senate is split 50/50.

To be fair, a major caveat to the “coalition” argument involved keeping white working-class voters in the Democrat column while the promised growing populations of Hispanic and urban singleton voters delivered on its demographic determinism. Instead, the raw numbers from the 2020 general election suggest that Trump’s class rhetoric captured parts of the working classes that the Democratic Party had previously thought were untouchable.

So, what changed in America’s politics that would cause working class Hispanics and black voters to move toward Trump? The most common answer is that Trump’s populist attacks on the status quo of immigration and trade policy broke thorough to the non-white working class in the same way it broke through with important parts of the white working class in 2016. But there is strong evidence that the country’s environmental policies and practices over the past half-century—and their contribution to lower economic growth and rising income inequality—have brought class tensions to a breaking point.

Since the Income Tax Amendment was ratified in 1913, political fights in the US have become largely about the redistribution of wealth and with it, social power. And nothing redistributes wealth more from the real, physical world and into cyber space—away from labor unions and skilled labor and into algorithmic code (where there is no regulation)—than environmental regulation.

As wide as the partisan gaps are concerning illegal immigration and free trade, none can compare to those on environmental protection and global warming. In 2019, Gallup found that 86 percent of Democrats say the government is doing too little in terms of environmental protection, while only 25 percent of Republicans believed the same. A poll by Resources for the Future found it “particularly intriguing” that 76 percent of Democrats believe that unchecked global warming will hurt them personally, but only 26 percent of Republicans believe the same.

Exit polls from the New York Times and others found that roughly 18 percent of black men voted for Trump in 2020, up from 13 percent in 2016. The same poll found 36 percent of Hispanic men voted for Trump in 2020, compared to 32 percent. And in the Midwest, the historical base of industry in the US, one in three black men voted for Trump, according to an NBC Exit Poll taken on November 3rd. Some 26 percent of Republican votes came from non-white voters in 2020, up five percent from 2016 and just below George W. Bush’s 2004 showing of 28 percent—itself the highest since Richard Nixon garnered 32 percent in the knife-edge 1960 loss to John F. Kennedy.

Trump’s populist, anti-progressive rhetoric included a climate skepticism unprecedented in the history of American politics. His climate statements served as an epiphany for many voters, who now believe that the environmental gains in the country from past industrial damage are largely complete, and that undermining job creation through climate-change policies hurts American workers in the future more than it helps.

It turns out that class warfare in America never went dormant; it has been going on for decades. Yet it has remained largely unnoticed, disguised as cultural conflict and cloaked in talk of political correctness and social justice. This would explain why environmental policy is often overlooked and undersold as the independent variable of this country’s underlying cultural battle. Why else would Trump’s rejection of the Paris Climate Accord, allowing lease activity in the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge and promoting the Keystone XL pipeline, do no net damage to him at the polls?

It’s worth repeating: A climate skeptic and Arctic driller received 10 million more votes in 2020 than in 2016. And President Biden’s reversal of all three of these policies on his first day in office won’t bring new voters into the party, but will serve as a sustaining policy for true believers. Trumpism has left a mark, and it’s deep.

Working class goes broke “gradually, then suddenly”

One of the most important developments of the past decade has been an acknowledgement of the decline of relative incomes for the middle classes of North America and Europe over the past 30 years when globalization reigned supreme. Brexit, the yellow jackets of France, the Tea Party, Occupy Wall Street, BLM, and MAGA all happened in societies that have seen decades of stagnant and even negative household income among those groups between 20–80 percent of most-developed countries’ income distributions. While academics argue over the scale of this redistribution—shown graphically in the so-called “elephant graph”—there is little argument that it represents the “greatest reshuffling of individual incomes since the Industrial Revolution.”

Countries that have seen the most dramatic growth in political populism—France, the United States—are places where the manufacturing base has fallen the most. Economies like Germany and South Korea, where fewer manufacturing jobs have been lost, have not seen this uptick in populist unrest.

It turns out that “environmental-regulation privilege”—the kind that people unknowingly benefit from by working in parts of the economy least affected by environmental regulation, like the New Economy of digital technology—exists. And those who don’t have it—wage workers in fly-over Red States and up and down the Mid-Atlantic, New England, and California—suffer the consequences.

The elevation of the underclass to the middle class is one of the key attributes of the American experiment since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution in the 1800s. From the stockyards of Chicago to the coal mines and steel mills of Pennsylvania, millions of immigrants found their way into greater American society. Meanwhile, the Great Migration of African Americans north to industrial cities during the 1910s–1920s had a similar, if lesser effect (due to continued legal discrimination).

Because manufacturing, agricultural, and energy production jobs can be done as well (if not better) without the educational credentials typically desired in many New Economy industries, upward mobility in America starts with these types of jobs. Yet in one of the worst historical ironies in American history, the need for environmental protections by the 1970s began to eliminate the same jobs that were the workforce entry points for immigrants who successfully assimilated into industrializing American society in the 19th and early-20th centuries. Indeed, just as black Americans finally gained full legal access to the American labor markets, these jobs became increasingly scarce.

The disincentives of environmental regulations are real, and while they were justified on human health grounds during its first decades, they have achieved a law of diminishing returns. Since the 1990s, these policies have led inexorably to the generational trend of offshoring jobs that undermines the social stability and upward mobility of the working and underclass—the very groups the civil rights movement was most interested in helping.

Ignorance of this economic truth is why it’s so disappointing that President Barack Obama believed one had to “wave a magic wand” to bring back manufacturing jobs. If there is one thing we’ve learned from the American economy’s experience under Trump, it’s that technological change and globalization are embedded in political choices, not historical determinism. Manufacturing and industrial jobs can return if economic incentives are aligned through public policy.

Comparing job creation numbers between the Obama and Trump administration is difficult; Obama’s net loss of over 300,000 manufacturing jobs occurred during both the Great Recession and the slowest economic recovery on record. But what can’t be denied is that nearly half a million manufacturing jobs were created during the first three years of the Trump Administration, driving unemployment down to 3.5 percent in the middle of 2019—a half-century low.

Working class wage gains surpassed upper income wage gains between 2017–2019 for the first time since the late-1990s, a fact not lost on members of the working class who happen to be African American and Hispanic. According to a University of Colorado study published in 2020, during the first three years of the Trump Presidency, about 380,000 African Americans exited poverty, compared to 80,000 during the Obama era. More than half-a-million Hispanics moved up the economic ladder past the poverty line in each of the three years of Trump/Pence, compared to only 150,000 for the Obama/Biden era.

This economic growth and its distribution among the labor market is not happenstance. It’s no accident that the trade, immigration, and environmental policy reversals made by Trump from those of the Obama administration coincided with both the lowest unemployment levels and lowest poverty rates for African Americans in history in 2019, at 5.5 percent, and 18.8 percent, respectively.

Hence, the growth in electoral support by black and Hispanic voters, men in particular, should come as a frightening, even existential threat to the demographic promises made by left-leaning commentariat. While it took decades to manifest, the working classes went broke in the wake of the 2008 Recession, with major political consequences.

Life, liberty and the pursuit of cleanliness

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was established in 1970 to reverse the trend of terrible pollution that had become so bad it was affecting human health and the Nixon administration was forced to take dramatic action.

Rachel Carson’s bestselling 1962 book Silent Spring acted as a catalyst for the environmental movement by demonstrating the public health costs of pollution. A growing trend of human health problems directly linked to pollution throughout the 1950s and 1960s proved too much for local and state authorities to handle. Week-long smog events in New York in 1953, 1963, and 1966 killed hundreds of people at a time when pollution from automobile use and coal-fired electricity skyrocketed. By the mid-1960s, more than 60 metropolitan areas in the US suffered from serious air pollution problems.

The EPA has delivered on its promise, preventing millions of premature deaths in the half-century since its creation. Aggregate emissions of the six common regulated air pollutants dropped 77 percent between 1970 and 2019, with lead air pollution falling 98 percent since 1990. But these changes in regulatory policy have come with long-term costs, especially when considering the extra-constitutional ways in which these changes were embedded in the US economy. While the legislative changes on the environment were needed and even overdue, the law of unintended consequences followed, with 1960s idealism allowing the federal judicial branch to be captured by the legal theories behind the success of civil rights in the previous decade.

The migration of legal tools and reasoning from civil rights to environmental law is another story, but the simplified version is that the shift of arguments like third-party standing—a necessary innovation to fully recognize the 14th Amendment protection of African American citizens—into the body of environmental law helped weaken the most industrialized parts of the US economy starting in the early 1970s.

Christopher Caldwell’s recent bestselling book The Age of Entitlement details at great length how the 1964 Civil Rights Act created a second parallel Constitution that focused on group rights and judicial impositions in the name of erasing historical injustices, and how this movement defines the current moment of political conflict. Missing in Caldwell’s argument, however, is the link between environmental regulation and the slow economic recoveries that were once rare, but have become the new normal since the early 1990s. Economists like Raghuram Rajan argue that these slow recoveries are linked to the gradual rise of American income inequality.

This judicial fiat has operated as a one-way ratchet and, over time, diminished economic freedom for wage-earning Americans for decades. In this way, these events support the unfortunate maxim that in order to establish new liberties (from environmental pollution) one must ultimately extinguish old ones (upward class mobility).

A study of the negative influence of regulation on US economic growth and job creation suggests that the increase in federal regulation between 1980 and 2012 cut cumulative growth of US domestic product by about 25 percent due to regulatory disincentive for investment. And this loss of cumulative growth has been seen in the near disappearance of wage growth in the past 40 years. Put another way, wages for the 80 percent of the US workforce considered non-supervisory—a proxy for the bottom 80 percent of workers—increased at a rate of two percent annual rate between 1947 and 1979. From 1979 through 2018, it decelerated sharply, to just 0.3 percent per year, or about one-eighth the earlier rate, and below the rate of long-term inflation.

It is clear that the environmental movement’s constraints on innovation and job creation have played a big part in the destruction of the labor market’s role in political integration for the American underclass. Yet the sacred narratives held by the political Left mean this will never be acknowledged, something clearly seen in the early days of the current administration.

It’s worth noting that evidence of class identity is supported among the non-white electorate more than the white electorate. The General Social Survey, one of the longest-running public opinion surveys, found that black and Hispanic individuals were more likely than white to identify as working class. Seventy percent of Hispanics consider themselves working class, compared to 54 percent of blacks and 41 percent of whites.

Biden’s strange bid for working class votes

With the obvious challenges facing American workers in 2021, the rapidity of President Biden’s Executive Orders to eliminate thousands of industrial jobs by ending the Keystone XL pipeline and banning fracking on federal land in places like New Mexico, where federal royalties pay for school funding, is breathtaking.

The Trump Administration’s rewriting of the administrative state rulebook over the last four years—streamlining of the NEPA Act, the EPA’s cost-benefit rule—all support an effort to make the rules transparent for capital investment in ways that can both create jobs and protect existing jobs here at home.

Biden’s campaign platform calls for zero emissions from power plants by 2035 and reaching net-zero emissions economy-wide by 2050. This action implies a dramatic upending of potentially millions of working-class jobs—not just in manufacturing and energy production, but also in transportation, utilities, and business services as well. By returning to the Obama Administration’s focus on climate regulations that includes carbon markets and cap-and-trade, the Biden White House will simply produce another market for financial speculation and another round of factory reshuffling, leaving American workers poorer and less well employed.

A cynic might even suggest the language of identity politics that drives so much elite political debate in this country is simply a diversion by the winners of the last decades of policy decisions to distract from the legitimate grievances of the losers. It turns out that Trump’s powerful class rhetoric could compete and even win votes against the progressive preoccupation with identity that has grown throughout the past decade.

The next four years will decide whether this shift of working class voters toward Republicans can outlast Trump, and with it a more explicit rejection of the uneven, unfair environmental policies pushed so aggressively by the Left. A “multiethnic, multiracial, working-class coalition” as described by Senator Marco Rubio and others in the wake of last November’s election would be “narrative changing” to say the least, and of great consequence to the country’s long-term social stability.

That such a new coalition would influence America’s future environmental policy choices is a forgone conclusion, and a weakened saliency of environmental policy would again surprise every determinist pundit in this country over the past 20 years.

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