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Featured "Long Read:" The Lost Working Class, by Russell A. Kazal

The last time I felt anything close to the shock and disbelief of Wednesday morning, November 9th, was thirty-six years ago, when a former actor named Ronald Reagan won the presidency.  The horror this time, though, was distinctly new. I never saw the charm so many other Americans found in Reagan, but he could at least seem genial.  Donald Trump acted in so consistently vile a fashion over his campaign, was so clearly a narcissistic, vindictive bully—the man who cast Senator John McCain as a loser for getting himself captured during the Vietnam War, while Trump racked up five draft deferments; the man who called Mexican immigrants in general “rapists,” demanded a patently unconstitutional religious test for immigration, and attacked a federal judge overseeing lawsuits against his defunct “University” because the American-born jurist was “a Mexican;” the man who boasted about sexually assaulting women and then threatened to sue those who came forward to identify him, and on and on—that it beggared belief that anyone would want to make him president.

Clearly, though, many -- if not quite a majority in the popular vote—did.  So now we are faced with at least four years of President Donald J. Trump. This prospect leaves me genuinely worried about the future of our rapidly warming planet and the fate of constitutional government in the United States. Americans like to think that constitutional checks and balances will save their liberty, but presidents have a good deal of discretionary power, and the “checks” on it are often matters of custom and protocol rather than the Constitution and the body of law that has grown up around it. We have already seen Trump run roughshod over such customs in his campaign—not least by attacking the independence of the federal judiciary—and there is no reason to think he wouldn’t do the same as president. Then there is the wider world. It is easy to decry American global hegemony and call for its retreat, but we are very possibly about to see what that retreat would actually look like. It could be very messy and dangerous indeed, given Trump’s transactional approach to diplomacy, including his casual questioning of America’s treaty obligation to defend NATO members, and specifically the Baltic republics from a Russian invasion. I am not sanguine at the prospect of NATO being undermined by Trump’s fecklessness at the precise moment Vladimir Putin is putting the alliance to a historic test. If I were in Tallinn, Riga, or Vilnius right now, I would be terrified.

But in pondering how we got here, I am also, as a registered Democrat, deeply disappointed by my party. As we sort through the wreckage of Hillary Clinton’s campaign, it is clear that she lost in large part by losing what had been a key constituency of the Obama coalition: white working-class voters in the North. What follows is something of a post-mortem, a reflection on why this happened, the larger historical context behind it, and why Democrats should seek to win back this support, if they still can.

That working-class whites were key to Barack Obama’s victories may surprise readers who wrongly assume that such voters had long ago cast their lot with the Republican Party, driven by racial resentment and cultural preoccupations with—to use Obama’s unfortunate phrase—guns and religion. It is undeniable that segments of the white working class have been peeling away from the Democrats in national elections since at least the 1960s. Those defections represented a key factor behind the decline after 1970 of the New Deal political order, as did the waning of the labor movement more generally in the face of deindustrialization. Working-class white resentment of black aspirations played a large role here.  Indeed, as a distinguished line of historical work has argued, racial fissures plagued the New Deal electoral coalition, nationally and in the urban North -- where it linked white and black industrial workers -- from its birth in the 1930s. The historian Thomas Sugrue argues that white ethnic workers in cities like Detroit were always tenuously connected to that coalition when it came to black civil rights locally. In the 1940s and 1950s, such CIO members defended their whites-only Detroit neighborhoods—themselves shaped by racialized New Deal housing policies -- from black “invasion” through sometimes violent resistance and by voting in mayoral elections for conservative Republicans who backed segregation.[1]

Yet such workers continued to vote Democratic in national elections through the 1950s and into the 1960s, even as the party under Lyndon Johnson moved to dismantle the legal sinews of segregation in the South. And despite the subsequent defections, most notably with the “Reagan Democrats” of 1980, a significant number of Northern and Midwestern white workers stuck with the Democratic Party. In 2008 and 2012, as the analysts Ruy Teixeira and John Halpin argued, they formed an important element, along with African Americans, Latinos, women, young people, and professionals (to use the analysts’ categories), of the coalition that elected and re-elected President Obama.  In a December 2012 report for the Center for American Progress, Teixeira and Halpin depicted these constituencies as forming an incipient, progressive “Obama coalition,” pulled together not by “downplaying the party’s diversity in favor of white voters,” but rather through a “populist, progressive vision of middle-class economics and social advancement for all people regardless of race, gender, ethnicity, religion, or sexual orientation.”[2]

Working-class white voters played an outsized role in the Obama coalition because they were key to carrying electoral vote-rich states in the Rust Belt. Even though Obama won in 2012 with “a historically low percentage of the white vote” at 39 percent, he benefited from a higher share of white working-class votes in battleground Rust Belt states such as Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. Ohio was the most closely contested of the six such states Teixeira and Halpin examined in 2012—the other five were Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania—but Obama pulled out a narrow, three-point victory there because more black voters turned out and the president held on to enough working-class white voters (42 percent) to deny the state to Mitt Romney. The other states, with larger margins for Obama, told a similar tale—except Iowa, where the share of non-white voters fell between 2008 and 2012, but Obama won by maintaining a 51 percent majority of the white vote overall. What the authors termed “economically populist blue-collar whites” were thus crucial to Obama’s victories in the Rust Belt battleground states and, in turn, to his re-election.[3]

Teixeira and Halpin had a warning, though. The progressive Obama coalition was in “an early and tenuous stage” in 2012. To solidify and expand it, the president and his progressive allies had to “deliver on their agenda for the nation”—including “public investments in education and infrastructure”—in a way that would address “rising inequality and unfairness in American life” and “improve the economic standing of middle- and working-class families.” This would be difficult in the face of a Republican House majority, swept into office in 2010, that was dead-set against such measures—and sometimes, it seemed, against the idea of government itself. To overcome that gridlock, Teixeira and Halpin argued, progressives would have to build a social movement that united Obama’s multi-racial and cross-class coalition around their vision of a fairer, more prosperous, and more equal society. And they would have to make clear that in this coalition, “all voices are valued, all opinions are respected . . .. Unlike the conservative coalition, progressives should seek to invite people in rather than push them out.” Absent such coalition-building and the policy changes it would support, changes that would “improve people’s lives in a concrete manner,” the favorable electoral conditions of 2012 would not hold. “President Obama got a reprieve from the poor economy in 2012, as voters chose to give him more time to overcome the failed policies of the Bush era and to help move the economy onto surer footing.  But now the president and progressives must deliver on their promises on jobs and the economy, or the public could quickly sour on the progressive policy vision.”[4]

This was a tall order, and one progressives and the Democrats ultimately did not, perhaps could not, fulfill. Partly, they never had the breathing space.  Obama’s auto bailout earned him some Rust Belt backing in 2012, and as much as Republicans vilified Obamacare, it signified help to at least some working-class voters. But the Republican sweep in the 2014 congressional midterm elections, which solidified GOP control of the House and cost Democrats the Senate, foreclosed any possibility of major legislative initiatives on infrastructure or education.  To a certain degree, responsibility for this lies at Obama’s feet. As a number of commentators have pointed out, he created an independent campaign structure to win in 2008 and 2012, but never focused on party building at the congressional or state level.[5] One consequence was that during his administration, the Democratic Party lost more Senate, House, and state legislative seats, and more governorships, than under any previous president.[6] Having done little to cultivate House and Senate majorities, he could not push through measures that could have solidified his coalition on behalf of a Democratic successor.

The lack of such measures resonated in the Rust Belt. For at least a generation, this swath of old industrial cities and towns running from Pennsylvania and upstate New York through the upper Midwest had been devastated by deindustrialization and the accompanying loss of manufacturing jobs. And for at least a generation, both major political parties failed to grapple with that devastation, in a way that, to those caught up in it, felt like abandonment. Both developments were intimately tied to globalization, as George Packer described in a must-read article in the New Yorker exploring the disconnect between Clinton and the white working class.[7]  Globalization, in the form of surging international flows of trade, capital, information, and migration, accelerated in the 1990s in the wake of trade pacts such as the North American Free Trade Agreement. It created great wealth, but also economic winners and losers in Europe and North America, with gains going to the wealthiest, and working- and middle-class incomes stagnating.[8] And that widening inequality had a particular geography:  globalization’s costs, in the form of exported manufacturing jobs, were borne by the Rust Belt, while its benefits flowed to the coasts.

The differential impact of globalization coincided with a longer-term shift in the character of the two major political parties. As Thomas Frank, Steve Fraser, and others have argued, the Republican Party emerged from the 1970s with a leadership dominated by a business elite; Democratic Party leadership came to reflect professional and managerial elites. Both elites benefited from and were comfortable with globalization, and both, in effect, pawned its economic costs off on Americans further down the social scale, including constituencies within their own parties. Business-friendly Republican leaders were happy to harvest votes from a socially conservative base while doing their best to cut taxes for the rich and tear down government social programs on which many in that base relied, a stance exemplified most recently by House Speaker Paul Ryan and his calls for “entitlement reform.”  Democratic leaders, starting with Bill Clinton, pursued free trade deals and financial deregulation, measures that drew Republican support even as the GOP blocked Clinton’s initiatives on health care and job training, and Clinton himself acceded to “welfare reform.”[9]

Globalization accentuated migration flows that had already made the United States more racially diverse, following the dismantling in 1965 of a racist system of national origins quotas on immigration. In distinct contrast to the Republican base, the Democratic one diversified along with the country, creating the big tent party of the Obama coalition -- a good thing, in my view.  But the decline of manufacturing, the rise of a service economy, and the concomitant weakening of organized labor, meant that working-class voices -- white, black, Latino, and Asian -- had less and less purchase in that coalition. Packer characterizes the Democratic Party of the late Clinton years as wedded to a creed of meritocracy that celebrated “the rising young professional class” typified by I.T. entrepreneurs, financial analysts, bankers, and lawyers.[10] This portrait of the party’s new cutting edge may be somewhat unfair, but it touches an essential truth. And the coastal and globalized world of this upper- and upper middle-class meritocracy was very far away from the Rust Belt.

That distance made it hard for the established elites of both parties to see the economic devastation of the former industrial heartland and the populist rage that devastation helped to provoke, and easy for some to condescend. In a notorious article last March in National Review, the conservative journalist Kevin D. Williamson assailed not just Trump’s supporters, but “your sanctimony about struggling Rust Belt factory towns,” telling readers that “[t]he truth about these dysfunctional, downscale communities is that they deserve to die. Economically, they are negative assets.  . . . The white American underclass is in thrall to a vicious, selfish culture whose main products are misery and used heroin needles.  . . . They need real opportunity, which means that they need real change, which means that they need U-Haul.”[11] Clinton’s September remarks placing “half” of Trump’s supporters in a “basket of deplorables” were less brutal but carried a similar ring—although less noticed was her description of the other half as people who felt abandoned by the government and the economy, at a loss for their future, “desperate for change,” and deserving of empathy.[12] Clinton’s choice of “half,” though—for which she subsequently apologized—overshadowed the second part of her message, to say the least.

Here and elsewhere, Clinton herself seemed to understand Trump’s appeal to disaffected working-class whites and the need for a Democratic economic vision that would win them back.[13] But while she could lay out a list of needed policy changes, sketching a compelling vision of economic fairness was not her thing. Her campaign decisions suggested a certain blindness to the depth of Rust Belt disaffection; she poured resources into Ohio and Pennsylvania, but essentially ignored Wisconsin and, until the very end, Michigan. And, in retrospect, she herself was her own worst messenger. Clinton not only was the Democratic establishment; she and her husband could easily be seen as embodying the whole arc of that meritocratic, deregulating, free trading, coastal establishment’s rise since 1992.

On Election Night, the chickens came home to roost. The most stunning news of that sorry evening—the moment when we realized that Trump would be president—was word that Clinton was trailing in her “firewall” states of Wisconsin, Michigan, and even Pennsylvania.  And what became painfully clear over the next few days was that Trump’s margin in these and other Rust Belt states came at least in part from counties and localities that had twice gone for Barack Obama. Northeastern Pennsylvania’s Luzerne County, which includes Wilkes-Barre, turned out majorities for Obama in 2008 and 2012; in 2016, it went by 20 percentage points for Trump. Reliably blue Erie County, Pennsylvania, in the economically hard-pressed northwest corner of the state, gave Obama a 20-point landslide in 2008, and close to that in 2012; this year, Trump edged Clinton there by two percentage points. The New York Times’ Nate Cohn noted that Youngstown, Ohio, where Obama won by over 20 points in 2012, was “basically a draw” in 2016, while some old industrial counties along Lake Erie that backed Obama in 2012 went for Trump by up to 20 points this year. One of them was Erie County, Ohio, home to Sandusky, which gave Obama majorities of 13 and 11 percentage points, respectively, in 2008 and 2012, and Trump a 10-point margin in 2016.[14]

When reporters fanned out to talk to these voters, they found plenty enough evidence of the racial resentments Trump promoted. At an August rally in Erie, Pennsylvania, Trump went after trade deals and refugees—several thousand of whom have been resettled in Erie. But the mood among a number of Erie County voters interviewed by a New York Times reporter was one Teixeira and Halpin might have feared. In a county hammered by job losses over the last two decades, including the layoff this year of 1,500 workers at a General Electric locomotive plant, some spoke of having been abandoned.  One GE retiree said he cast his ballot for Trump this time “ ‘for a change.’ ”  “ ‘That’s why I voted for Obama . . . I thought he was going to do something.  He didn’t do anything.’ ”[15]

Whether Hillary Clinton, or any Democrat—even Bernie Sanders—could have retained the support of such workers this year, after eight years when the party failed to do much to help them economically, is very hard to say. It is certainly easy to understand the impulse not to try to regain their support in 2020.  Whatever the depths of their desperation, they lent their votes to a man who gave license to and encouraged open racism, sexism, misogyny, and bigotry, in a way that has already endangered vulnerable people. The Black Lives Matter movement has highlighted just how endangered African Americans are in their everyday lives. Given those stakes, attempts to appeal to voters who have just helped to elect a candidate with a (barely) racially coded slogan of “Law and Order” may seem worse than wrong-headed. And white working-class voters are, needless to say, hardly the only working-class people in America in dire need of economic help. African American, Asian, and Latino workers—including many Trump would like to run out of the country—face equal or worse economic straits. If white workers are lost to the Democrats, other workers still demand their attention.

Yet Democrats may not have a choice, demographically speaking. Even as the electorate as a whole grows more diverse, there is no guarantee that this will automatically generate Democratic victories. As FiveThirtyEight.com’s Harry Enten points, out, Republicans could aim to run up even larger margins among white voters in the Midwest, akin to those they now enjoy in the South.[16] More than this, it would be a mistake to see working-class whites as casting their identities in fixed and final ways along with their ballots. Packer argues that Trump has made “working-class whites” a “self-conscious identity group,” and perhaps he has helped to do so, or to further a process already long underway.[17] But Teixeira and Halpin are right to argue that Obama was able, over two elections, to put together a coalition that included these voters without downplaying the Democratic Party’s diversity. One could posit that the last eight years showed that many white working-class voters were willing to vote, twice, for a black Democrat who promised them economic hope, but not for a white Democrat whose party had yet to make good on that promise. That white Democrat was, of course, also the first female Democratic nominee in American history, which leaves one wondering whether this particular part of the electorate was less open to change that ran to gender rather than race.

What does seem clear is that, if progressive Democrats are to have a chance of reconstructing the Obama coalition beyond Obama, they will have to think, hard, about how they might “do something” in concrete economic terms for voters like those in Erie.  They may or may not get that chance in 2020. One could see a Trump presidency pushing through—over Paul Ryan’s fiscally conservative opposition—an infrastructure bill that brought jobs to the Rust Belt, in a way that cemented such voters to Trump’s brand of white nationalism for a generation to come. One could as easily see the Republican Party imploding over just such an internal conflict and failing to deliver on the jobs Trump promised over the campaign. Democrats should ready themselves for such an opening. They should learn from the last eight years and strive to rebuild in a way that speaks to the Rust Belt’s economic desperation, that shows they take such voters seriously, and that wins them legislative as well as presidential majorities. They can only hope they get that second chance.   

 

   Russell A. Kazal teaches American political and social history at the University of Toronto Scarborough and as a member of the graduate faculty of the University of Toronto. His work focuses on the intersection of politics, immigration, ethnicity and race, and nationalism; his current book project explores the origins of multiculturalism as an ideology in the United States.

Russell A. Kazal teaches American political and social history at the University of Toronto Scarborough and as a member of the graduate faculty of the University of Toronto. His work focuses on the intersection of politics, immigration, ethnicity and race, and nationalism; his current book project explores the origins of multiculturalism as an ideology in the United States.

[1]Thomas J. Sugrue, “Crabgrass-Roots Politics:  Race, Rights, and the Reaction against Liberalism in the Urban North, 1940-1964,”  Journal of American History 82 (September 1995):  551-578; Thomas J. Sugrue, The Origins of the Urban Crisis:  Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit (Princeton, N.J.:  Princeton University Press, 1996); Gary Gerstle, “Race and the Myth of the Liberal Consensus,” Journal of American History 82 (September 1995):  579-586.

[2] Ruy Teixeira and John Halpin, The Obama Coalition in the 2012 Election and Beyond (Washington:  Center for American Progress, 2012), 2-3; available at https://www.americanprogress.org/issues/democracy/reports/2012/12/04/46664/the-obama-coalition-in-the-2012-election-and-beyond/.

[3] Ibid., 1, 12-14.

[4] Ibid., 1, 2-3, 18-19.

[5] Suzy Khimm, “The Obama Gap,” New Republic, 21 June 2015, https://newrepublic.com/article/122062/obama-gap-case-study-electoral-failure; Frank Bruni, “The Democrats Screwed Up,” New York Times, 13 November 2016, SR3.

[6] Mara Liasson, “The Democratic Party Got Crushed During the Obama Presidency.  Here’s Why,” NPR, 4 March 2016, http://www.npr.org/2016/03/04/469052020/the-democratic-party-got-crushed-during-the-obama-presidency-heres-why.

[7] George Packer, “The Unconnected,” New Yorker, 31 October 2016, 48-61, http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2016/10/31/hillary-clinton-and-the-populist-revolt.

[8] Ibid., 53.

 

[9] Ibid., 58, 52; Thomas Frank, Listen, Liberal:  Or, Whatever Happened to the Party of the People? (New York:  Metropolitan Books, 2016; Steve Fraser, The Limousine Liberal:  How an Incendiary Image United the Right and Fractured America (New York:  Basic Books, 2016).  See also the perceptive review of Frank and Fraser’s books by Beverley Gage, “ ‘Listen, Liberal,’ and ‘The Limousine Liberal,’ ” New York Times Book Review, 26 April 2016, http://www.nytimes.com/2016/05/01/books/review/listen-liberal-and-the-limousine-liberal.html?_r=0.

[10] Packer, “The Unconnected,” 53.

[11] Kevin D. Williamson, “Chaos in the Family, Chaos in the State: The White Working Class’s Dysfunction,” National Review, 28 March 2016, http://www.nationalreview.com/article/432876/donald-trump-white-working-class-dysfunction-real-opportunity-needed-not-trump.

[12] Packer, “The Unconnected,” 60; Angie Drobnic Holan, “In Context:  Hillary Clinton and the ‘Basket of Deplorables,’ ” Politifact, 11 September 2016, http://www.politifact.com/truth-o-meter/article/2016/sep/11/context-hillary-clinton-basket-deplorables/.

[13] Packer, “The Unconnected,” 48.

[14] Nate Cohn, “Why Trump Won:  Working-Class Whites,” New York Times, 9 November 2016, http://www.nytimes.com/2016/11/10/upshot/why-trump-won-working-class-whites.html.  Figures for 2008, 2012, and 2016 for Luzerne County, Erie County, Pennsylvania, and Erie County, Ohio are taken from the New York Times state- and county-level election results maps for those years, available at http://elections.nytimes.com/2008/results/president/map.html (2008), http://elections.nytimes.com/2012/results/president (2012), and http://www.nytimes.com/elections/results/president (2016).

[15] Trip Gabriel, “How Erie Went Red:  A Democratic Bastion Undone by Job Losses,” New York Times, 13 November 2016, A15.  See also Sabrina Tavernise, “Amid Years of Decay, Ohioans Flipped Votes, Seeking Change,” New York Times, 13 November 2016, A1, A14, and Abby Goodnough, “Michigan Voters Say Trump Could See Their Problems ‘Right Off the Bat,’ ” New York Times, 13 November 2016, A14.

[16] Harry Enten, “ ‘Demographics Aren’t Destiny’ And Four Other Things This Election Taught Me,” FiveThirtyEight, 14 November 2016, http://fivethirtyeight.com/features/demographics-arent-destiny-and-four-other-things-this-election-taught-me/.

[17] Packer, “The Unconnected, 51.

 

American Heartbreak, by Rick Halpern