Ed Dolan's Econ Blog

Deplorables Didn’t Elect Trump, Jams Did

Hillary Clinton famously characterized Donald Trump’s voters as a “basket of deplorables,” but she was wrong. Our friends, the British, have figured it out: Trump was elected not by deplorables, but by jams.

“Jams,” short for “Just About Managing,” is the new term has swept British political discourse. They are defined as a social class consisting of people who have jobs and a home, but little by way of savings or discretionary income; people who see themselves as precariously comfortable at best, with nothing to fall back on if adversity strikes.

The instant popularity of the term may have something to do with the way it echoes another typically British political expression, “jam tomorrow,” meaning an often made but never fulfilled promise.

James Frayne of the British think tank Policy Exchange has written a thorough and thoroughly wonky report on jams. For statistical purposes, he equates jams with the middle half of the British class structure, sandwiched between professional and managerial classes above, and unskilled workers and those who live on social benefits, below.

What Frayne says about jams certainly makes them sound a lot like Trump voters. They work hard, pay their taxes, and play by the rules. What they want is to see “society run in a fair way.” American translation: They want to see that the system is not rigged.

Like most people, jams vote more on values than on policies. In public opinion polls, they emphasize four values above all: Family, fairness, hard work, and decency. Equality and freedom are also positives for them, but farther down the list.

A plurality of British jams think that government could be a force for good, if it would only do more to help ordinary working people. At the same time, a strong majority tell pollsters that politicians are not competent to run essential public services.

A strong majority of jams think that there is never any excuse for breaking the law and that those who do so deserve punishment rather than sympathy. They see human rights laws as a tool abused by lawyers to make spurious cases on behalf of criminals.

Much of Frayne’s report is devoted to a detailed analysis of voting patterns. He finds that jams have less party loyalty than those above or below them on the social scale. They do not ask which party their candidates belong to, but rather, whose side they are on. They no longer see the Labor party as their natural home base, but rather, are ready opportunistically to vote Conservative or UKIP or Scottish Nationalist depending on the issue of the day.

Frayne also finds that jams are more a rural than an urban phenomenon in the UK, and that they constitute a majority of voters in swing constituencies. All of this sounds very much like those middle  American counties where voters supported Obama in 2012 but switched to Trump or a third party, or stayed home, in 2016.

Although Frayne tells us that politicians have paid too little attention to jams in the past, Financial Times columnist Janan Ganesh thinks that is changing rapidly. Something strange is happening to the way we think and talk about need, says Ganesh. Brexit and Trump voters are not at the very bottom of the economic pyramid, but the angriest are not always the worst off.  Jams remember, or imagine remembering, an industrial golden age in which things were better. Theirs, he says, is “the rage of dispossession rather than the rage of unique hardship.”

Politicians are visibly responding to that anger. In their fear of again ending up on the wrong side of populist voters, continues Ganesh, “the politico-media world is going along with a reordering of moral priorities whose principal victims stand to be the quantifiably, unmistakably poor”. The jams’ sheer weight of numbers, when multiplied by the force of their anger, is not something that the poor can equal or that politicians can withstand.

I agree with Ganesh that the have-nots, in the US as in the UK, are going to see their political clout seriously diminished in the new political order. But the real contest on this side of the Atlantic, I think, is going to be between the perceived needs of the jams and those of the truly wealthy. The jams want economic security and better public services, while the wealthy, eager for tax relief, want to cut public spending for education, healthcare, and retirement benefits. The jams want better jobs and better pay, while the wealthy want relief from regulation, from labor unions, and from anything else that adds to their cost of doing business. Yes, politicians are afraid of ending up on the wrong side of populist voters, but their terror of ending up on the wrong side of the donor class may outweigh even that.

At the moment, Trump seems to have America’s Just About Managing class in the palm of his hand. Can he hold onto them? Yes, if he keeps his many campaign promises. If he does, or even seriously tries to do so, Trumpism could well become a lasting feature of American political landscape, much as Peronism did in Argentina. That is all the more likely if the Democratic party remains a coalition of have-nots and coastal elites. If, instead, he lets his promises fade into the usual Washington “jam tomorrow,” and if a populist candidate breaks through on the left (as almost happened with Bernie Sanders), Trump and Trumpism could be in trouble.

Either way, it seems that the jams, as a socio-political-economic class, have become a power to recon with, here as much as in the UK. If so, we may as well adopt this snappy new British term, thank you very much.

One Response to “Deplorables Didn’t Elect Trump, Jams Did”

windrivenDecember 14th, 2016 at 10:53 am

Jams. I love it.

We are social animals. We band together in families, clans, tribes, villages and nations and share commons. Politics is nothing more than managing the commons. Of course managing anything requires some set of goals, some object of the managing process. To whose best interests will the commons be managed?

The facile answer is that the commons are managed to all of our interests. Our management is said to be, "of, by, and for the people." But as Napoleon noted in Animal Farm, some are more equal than others. It would seem the Jams have grasped this and found it not to their liking.

Dr. Dolan has touched the fulcrum:

The jams want economic security and better public services, while the wealthy, eager for tax relief, want to cut public spending for education, healthcare, and retirement benefits.

We are entering a new phase of development where the role of labor will be increasingly supplanted by automation. There will, for the foreseeable future, be jobs for the best and the brightest, but opportunities for unemployed semi-skilled labor, miners, truck drivers are receding rapidly. Meanwhile, the seriously wealthy want to "cut public spending." Yes, well, to what end? Three fortunes aren't enough? One should have four? Five? Twenty? That is managing the commons to the benefit of the community?

There was a time when it was necessary to encourage massive capital formation and turn that capital into industrial investment. But have a look around. We have a global glut of capital desperately searching for a place to be. We have a global glut of supply amid tepid demand. There have been massive changes in agronomy, manufacturing, research, transportation, all delivering massively more goods and services with diminishing labor inputs. We seem, at least in the industrialized world, to be running into diminishing marginal utility of more 'stuff' while simultaneously producing ever more of it.

There was a news piece a while back exploring the mass push into automation of Foxconn, a large electronics assembler employing tens of thousands in China. Yes, that China, where labor is cheap. Because however cheap that labor is, automation is or soon will be cheaper. In the US, one can buy a pretty useful robot called 'Baxter' for about $20k. Depreciated over 7 years that is $3k per year, and Baxter doesn't punch out at 5:00 or take lunch breaks. As automation increasingly assumes more low skill jobs, where will the disposable income for massive consumption in developing nations come from?