The electoral advantage that Trump has acquired from his strategy of targeting the white working class voters is built on very fragile foundations. His majorities/pluralities in the Midwestern states is quite small. A few things change, and they can evaporate easily. However, I suspect that there is a significant flip side to this line of thinking, reflected in my take on Sen’s argument that I had not realized until now: the re-focusing of the electoral coalition on class and economy is necessarily taking place on top of the existing socio-cultural cleavages, but superseding and obsoleting it for the populations in question. The reason I suspect that the Democrats will not, contrary to Sen’s prediction, become an “upscale, cosmopolitan, and religious” coalition is because religion, as the politics reorients towards class and economy, will no longer be the decisive divide, at least among those voting the economy. This was already becoming apparent during the primaries: many Evangelicals voted for Trump because of the economy during the Republican primaries, not necessarily because they were less religious. Religious vote, so to speak, is a normal good: you vote religion if you feel you can afford it. If the economy and class become the dominant divide in the electoral landscape, only the rich vote religion.
Might the logic work differently for other socio-cultural groups? In a sense, the first domino has fallen: among the African-Americans, turnout has fallen sharply. I expect, once the better data is in, the turnout drop will have been especially sharply felt in low income areas. Some noise has been made about Trump seemingly doing better among African Americans than Romney, but I think this is a mistake: there is a very small, but reliable cadre of Republicans among African Americans–say, about 10% (think Condi Rice). The relative size of the African-American voteshare for GOP fluctuates not so much because this piece is growing, but because the turnout among the rest fluctuates. The increase in Trump’s vote share and the turnout drop, I think, should be quite correlated. The bottom line is that African-American working class is not really impressed by the present program offered by the Democrats. The opportunity to capture African-American support, at least among the working class–a vast majority–now lie in the hands of the Republicans, if they don’t screw up. If they can genuinely improve the lives of the downscale voters across all races and creeds–a tall order–a significant chunk of African Americans might be won over. Let us not forget that FDR was first Democrat to be able to make significant and consistent inroads with African-Americans on national scale, at least in the areas where they were able to vote, even while his party was still the party of Jim Crow. Whatever gains that Trump and his “new Republicans” might be able to make with the African-Americans will be modest, but it will be enough to subvert the idea of cosmopolitan + upscale coalition that the future Dems might be thinking about.
Hispanics are slightly different, and a more complex story. Trump’s aversion to immigration will probably make inroads with recent immigrants difficult, and Mexican-Americans, in particular, of relatively recent immigration history make up a vast fraction of the Hispanic population still, but this needs not stay constant. Assimilated Hispanics are not immigrants with ties to a particular country, but working class or affluent. Offending Mexico will not bother them too much. Especially among the working class, the cultural ties take back seat to the immediate economic concerns. Again, the logic of working class appeals cutting across cultural and social divides will find an echo–again, with the huge if concerning whether Trump and his people can actually pull it off with sufficient credibility. Appealing to cultural solidarity alone will not suffice to stem this erosion. I’m curious, again, about the data here: one group that I always thought would be particularly receptive to the kind of appeal that Trump makes are the Puerto Ricans, who have no reason whatsoever to care about immigration but do have a distinct socio-cultural identity and who are largely working class–and as such, mostly Democrats, at least on the mainland. Did a significant chunk of Puerto Ricans break for Trump? In a state like Florida, that would have been quite decisive, and the unusually large proportion of Floridian Hispanics breaking for Trump seems too high to be justifiable by the presence of Cubans alone–but exit polls at the state level make for lousy data.
The turn towards the working class–not just white working class–by Trump thus marks a significant change in American party politics, IF it can be sustained. If the break stops at the “white working class,” then the Republican party is doomed, with or without a serious transition by the Democrats. There just aren’t enough votes to sustain a majority in the long run. It is significant precisely because economy can trump socio-cultural divides, making it potentially easier for the Republicans to make inroads with other socio-cultural groups. This is the danger that I’d worry about if I am the Democrats, and this is why I’d try to shore up the support among the working class, regardless of race or creed. The temptation for the Democratic Party leadership, upon hearing the kind of arguments that Shor and Sen have to offer–which are, in a sense, eminently reasonable by themselves–is that the socio-cultural allegiances can be maintained only on the basis of socio-cultural appeals, and I am skeptical that that can hold–unless the Republicans prove themselves utterly incompetent, which should not be counted on, especially given the uncanny ability Trump has demonstrated for reading his audiences so far.
PS. I suppose another way of putting this is that socio-cultural issues can define party politics for those who can afford it. This requires a society that is not merely affluent, but enjoy a reasonably equitable distribution of wealth so that nearly everyone can afford to partake in the socio-cultural debate. For a significant chunk of the country, this is an absurd luxury distant from their daily concerns. Furthermore, it does not take a very large number of those who are sufficiently disaffected economically to destabilize an electoral landscape otherwise dominated by sociocultural concerns. The vast majority of the voters voted party, defined by sociocultural values for the most part. The defections were relatively few and concentrated geographically. To emphasize this is not to diminish the importance of the economy, but in fact to draw attention to how important it is, beyond proportions.