Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Just About Managing: How the "Jams" Elected Donald Trump

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.

Reposted from Ed Dolan's Econ Blog at

1 comment:

  1. Hey Ed I'm a big fan of the blog. Continuing the conversation we started on Twitter. A few points here:
    1. In the top of your piece you primarily describe JAMS as an economic class. It’s an interesting frame. And in the UK it may explain voting behavior. Not in the US presidential election. When you look at voting behavior by income group, the parties are virtually split in every category, except the poorest group which leaned Democratic. (Remember, Clinton won the popular vote)
    2. You argue Democrats are a coalition of have-nots and coastal elites. That seems to be exaggerated. At the presidential level, Democratic coalition is 2.6 million larger than the Republican one. Democrats won women by 13 points, 18-44 year-olds by 14 points, blacks by 81 points, Latinos by 38 points, Asians by 38 points, college grads by 10 points, union households by 9 points, immigrants by 33 points, and first-time voters by 19 points. They won virtually every large- and mid-sized city, north, south, east and west. And they won rural areas from South Texas to the Mississippi Delta to New England. Yes, they lost badly in white, rural areas—worse than they have before. But the point is, the defining features of these groups are not their income but their whiteness, their oldness, and their rural-ness. Middle-income people also exist in cities (some booming, some struggling) and in less-white rural areas. And in those places, Clinton won.
    3. You also linked to a Times story that argues that whites have been losing jobs. That data is pretty badly misleading. It doesn’t reflect the relative decline of whites as a share of the working-age population. When you look at these groups’ employment-to-population ratios—a more sensible approach than net jobs added—you see a much more static picture. All race/gender groups, except black women, have seen a small drop in employment-to-population.
    The point is there’s a temptation, in the wake of a really surprising election, to see really sweeping economic trends that fit the political narrative. But sometimes the numbers just don’t support the narrative.