What do we know about the people Donald Trump turned into such a potent political force in the last election? U.S. unemployment is well below 5 per cent, so surely there was no objective basis for the economic insecurities that drove the "basket of deplorables" to vote for the Republican candidate.
Consider, though, that one of the best places to seek insight is not the unemployment rate but the labour force participation rate, or LFP. The LFP rate shows the share of working-age people who have jobs or are actively seeking jobs in the United States. In other words, it is also a pretty good measure of how many people have left the work force because they are discouraged and feel there are no opportunities for them. What do we know about them?
Nine out of 10 states with the lowest LFP rates voted for him. Of the five states that went from blue to red in 2016, three – Florida, Michigan and Ohio – experienced a drop in their participation rate relative to 2012, meaning a smaller percentage of people worked or were looking for work. The other two states had no increase in the percentage of people working, despite several years of modest economic growth.
By contrast, the years of Bill Clinton's presidency coincided with a high LFP rate, a time when workers were prepared to give Bill "I feel your pain" Clinton the benefit of the doubt about how free trade would improve Americans' standard of living and how those harmed would not be left behind. No more. That goodwill is gone.
New research from the centre-right American Enterprise Institute think tank shows that millions of American men are jobless and have given up looking. The number of men 20 and older without paid work is almost 32 per cent. That bears repeating: Basically a third of all men in America over 20 have no paid employment. Two economists at the centre-left Brookings Institution have now added that the LFP rate of prime-age women has stagnated and even declined. But the number of people collecting disability benefits has increased markedly.
This doesn't just affect their job prospects. Other research, including some by a Nobel laureate, shows that the life expectancy and health of these displaced and discouraged workers have gone into a tailspin, thanks largely to illnesses related to drug and alcohol abuse and other "lifestyle" factors. As one analyst said, these people are dying of despair, with more than half a million needless deaths since the early 1990s being attributed to bleak job prospects.
So looking solely at the unemployment rate causes us to lose sight entirely of a major part of the population. This segment is not just constituted of men – and increasingly women – left behind by economic change; it also includes their parents, friends and colleagues, who see these people they care about left on a shelf and are angered that opportunities for them seem so few and far between. This starts to be a significant part of the population – and the electorate.
It is no answer to say that these people have misdiagnosed their plight when they follow Mr. Trump in blaming free trade and immigration as the causes of their problems. Yes, the problem is far more down to automation and other productivity enhancements, as manufacturing requires fewer and fewer poorly educated, relatively low-skilled workers. Yes, Mr. Trump is wrong when he says the United States doesn't make things any more and needs to return to this economic vocation. The truth is the United States has never made more things than it does today. It just doesn't require many workers to do so.
But the fact that the diagnosis is incorrect misses the key point about Mr. Trump's voters: They voted for him chiefly because they feel he is the only political leader who doesn't simply dismiss their fears and anxieties as misguided and doesn't tell them condescendingly that their problems would disappear if they got a university degree or if the government were to institute a guaranteed annual income and basically write them off as contributing members of society.
In many parts of American society, there is a pervasive feeling that ordinary people are being made to pay the price of the ideals of the elites. Free trade is one such ideal, one in which I happen to believe, but also one whose highly concentrated destructive effects are undeniable and frequently easier to identify than its widely dispersed benefits. That is why free trade can only be sustained when the winners use the extra wealth it creates to compensate the losers – something we, as with the Americans, have done poorly and unimaginatively.