Donald Trump’s campaign slogan, “Make America Great Again,” has been a rallying cry for his supporters — many of whom feel they’re losing power within their country, and their country is losing its power within the world. In a September Washington Post-ABC News poll, more than three-quarters of Trump supporters said America’s greatest days were behind us.
Do you think the U.S. is less great than it’s been in the past, is greater than it’s been in the past, or about the same?
About the same
Source: Washington Post-ABC News Poll, September 5-8, 2016. “No opinion” answers not shown.
When the poll asked other demographic groups the same question, most whites agreed with the view that America is less great, but 1 in 6 African Americans did. The disparity in these answers reflects the changing power balance in America during the past half century, where movements toward equality also decreased white male dominance.
We explored some of the factors that could affect how “great” America seems — like income, political representation and employment — and found the country’s greatness largely depends on your gender, race and education level. In short, white working–class men have lost a good deal of power, while others have gained.
For Trump’s core supporters, America was at its greatest decades ago. The people most likely to support Trump in the primary were white, male and high school–educated, according to a December Washington Post/ABC News poll. Though they comprised a small subset of all his supporters, the strength of their support suggests “Make America Great Again” really struck a chord with them.
It makes sense; their economic and political power has faded over the decades, and the slogan hints at reversing that. Professor Enid Logan at the University of Minnesota, who has written on the issue, says the underlying message is that “Whiteness, masculinity and American global dominance” will be “restored to [their] rightful place of superiority.”
White men without college degrees have lost their economic power. With the decline of strong unions and increased outsourcing, working-class incomes have fallen over the past few decades. Virtually every other group — women, people of color, the highly educated — has seen an increase. In short, Trump’s core supporters are being left behind by the growing economy. And Trump, with much of his campaign focused on bringing back working-class jobs from abroad, has positioned himself as the savior for this demographic.
White male incomes have been stagnant since the 1970s, inflation adjusted, while all others have climbed.
In the , median incomes for from to and were than the average.
Source: Census Bureau. Amounts in 2015 dollars. Data is for individuals 25 and older and represents “white” and “black” before 2002, and “white alone” and “black alone” in 2002 and later. “White” includes white Hispanics.
More-educated men have seen their incomes increase since 1991, the first year data was available, while less-educated men saw a stark decrease.
Source: Census Bureau. Amounts in 2015 dollars. Data is for men 25 and older.
It’s not just economic — white men have lost political and social power, too. As women and minorities have gained seats at the table, white men have lost them. The share of women and people of color in Congress has gone up nearly ten-fold since the 1950s, though they still make up a minority of members.
In the , were in Congress, taking up about of seats.
Sources: Brookings Institution, U.S. House of Representatives archive. Based on first day of each congressional session. Native American men included in “white men” due to lack of historical data.
The group’s decline of power is not only evident in the composition of the government, but also in the country’s population. With the increase in Americans attending college and people of color immigrating to the United States, the white working class now makes up a minority of Americans.
Between that and the decline of union power, they’ve lost a significant amount of political pull. Larry Mishel, the president of the Economic Policy Institute, a nonpartisan think tank, said, “The erosion of unions … had a big impact on wages,” but also on “the political voice” of working-class people.
Source: Census Bureau. Data is for individuals 25 and older.
Scholars have dubbed the consequence of this power shift “white racial resentment,” which studies have found to be a bigger driver of Trump’s success than economic factors. In Logan’s words, as a result of the country’s demographic changes and minority rights movements, white people “started feeling imperiled and under attack and victimized.” Add in the election of President Obama, and you’ve got “a racist backlash.” The nomination of Hillary Clinton: “the ultimate emasculation.”
But, things are getting much better for most Americans. “If you look back in the last 50 years, a lot of things have really changed tremendously for women,” said Ariane Hegewisch, a study director at the Institute for Women’s Policy Research. “Education has opened up in a big way, and with that, access to better paying jobs.” Women saw not only an increase in employment and the financial independence that came along with it, but also gained political power as the glass ceiling began to crack.
In the , women made up of the workforce, up from in 1950.
Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics. Data is for individuals 16 and older.
People of color are seeing similar gains. Since the 1950s, with the decline of segregation and Jim Crow laws, there has been an increase in black individuals going to college, buying homes, living above the poverty line, leading businesses and governments, and succeeding along a variety of other measures.
In the , black poverty to , while white poverty to .
Source: Census Bureau. Data is for individuals 25 and older and represents “white” and “black” before 2002, and “white alone” and “black alone” in 2002 and later. “White” includes white Hispanics. Data before 1966 is not available for all demographics.
Despite their trajectory, women and people of color still face wage gaps, discrimination, glass ceilings and a stifled political voice. Still, for many of these people, the answer to “When was America great?” is now.