You might expect things to be a bit different in the United States.
The American welfare state has always been weaker than its counterparts around the West. Correspondingly, you see the highest rates of inequality in the developed world, with 3 million American children living on less than $2 a day and a health care system that ranksdead last in the respected Commonwealth Fund's measures of performance among 11 developed countries. It's a level of material suffering that, you might think, should be to be fertile ground for left-wing populism.
"The working class of this country is being decimated. That's why Donald Trump won," Bernie Sanders said in his Boston speech. "We need all of those candidates and public officials to have the guts to stand up to the oligarchy. That is the fight of today."
There's at least suggestive evidence, as my colleague Andrew Prokop writes, that Sanders misread the election results — that embracing left-wing populism won't, in fact, win over Trump voters.
Take a look at results from several pivotal Senate races. In two Midwestern states, Wisconsin and Ohio, Democrats ran Sanders-esque populists — former Sen. Russ Feingold and Gov. Ted Strickland, respectively. Both lost by a wider margin than Hillary Clinton did in their state. By contrast, the Democratic candidates who most outperformed Clinton's statewide results — Missouri's Jason Kander and Indiana's Evan Bayh — ran as economic centrists.
The bigger issue is that America's welfare state is weak for the same fundamental reason that Donald Trump captured the Republican nomination in the first place: racial and cultural resentment. That profoundly complicates efforts to make left-wing populism successful in America.
In 2001, three scholars at Harvard and Dartmouth — Alberto Alesina, Edward Glaeser, and Bruce Sacerdote — found that the higher the percentage of black residents in a state, the less its government spent on welfare payments (see chart here).
This, they hypothesized, was not an accident. People are only willing to support redistribution if they believe their tax dollars are going to people they can sympathize with. White voters, in other words, don't want to spend their tax dollars on programs that they think will benefit black or Hispanic people.
The United States is marked by far more racial division than its European peers. Poverty, in the minds of many white Americans, is associated with blackness. Redistribution is seen through a racial lens as a result. The debate over welfare and taxes isn't just about money, for these voters, but rather whether white money should be spent on nonwhites. "Hostility between races limits support for welfare," Alesina, Glaeser, and Sacerdote conclude flatly in the paper.
Now, it's been a decade and a half since this paper was published, so it's possible the evidence has shifted. I called up Sacerdote to ask him whether any subsequent research has caused him to change his mind. His answer was firmly negative. "It's almost sad that it's held up so well," he told me.
Another study, by Korea University's Woojin Lee and Yale's John Roemer, used data from the American National Election Studies (ANES) to identify the percentage of white voters who express high levels of racial antagonism in the United States. They then use this to build a statistical model of American elections that, roughly, attempts to measure what percentage of the Republican and Democratic vote can be attributable to the parties' differing opinions on racial, economic, and other issues — and to what extent racial attitudes negatively impact white voters' views of economic redistribution.
Lee and Roemer found that if racism played no role in determining whom Americans voted for, and people voted only on the basis of other cultural and economic preferences, the Democratic vote share between 1976 and 1992 would have increased dramatically. The average national income tax rate, they estimate, would be 11 to 18 points higher, as voters would be more willing to use taxes to finance a European-style welfare state.
"Voter racism," they conclude, "pushes both parties in the United States significantly to the right on economic issues."
The upshot is that a significant shift to the left on economic policy issues might fail to attract white Trump supporters, even in the working class. It could even plausibly hurt the Democrats politically by reminding whites just how little they want their dollars to go to "those people." One can only imagine what Trump would tweet.
Indeed, this kind of politics — not-so-subtly manipulating racial grievances to undercut support for social spending — has been practiced by Republicans and conservative Democrats for decades. Ronald Reagan, for example, famously used the specter of the "welfare queen" — an (implied) black woman who lived lavishly by manipulating the welfare system — as a rationale for his budget cuts.
"What Reagan had succeeded in doing was tarnishing liberalism as a giveaway to people of color," Ian Haney López, a professor at UC Berkeley who studies race and American politics, says. "Investment in our cities, investment in our schools, investment in social welfare programs, all of that was branded as giveaway to undeserving minorities."
The uncomfortable truth is that America's lack of a European-style welfare state hurts a lot of white Americans. But a large number of white voters believe that social spending programs mostly benefit nonwhites. As such, they oppose them with far more fervor than any similar voting bloc in Europe.
In this context, tacking to the left on economics won't give Democrats a silver bullet to use against the racial resentment powering Trump's success. It could actually wind up giving Trump an even bigger gun. If Democrats really want to stop right-wing populists like Trump, they need a strategy that blunts the true drivers of their appeal — and that means focusing on more than economics.
Commentary by Zack Beauchamp, world correspondent at Vox. Follow him on Twitter @zackbeauchamp.
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