Winning Back the White Working Class in the Midwest

White Working Class Faces Unemployment

I discussed in my last blog post how Republicans have used racist appeals to the white working class since the 1960s. Trump is only different in his undisguised embrace of the tactic. However, we should be careful not to accept the phrase casually tossed around in the media, “Trump is appealing to his base.” It reflects elite opinion, from both the conservative and liberal establishments, that Trump voters are an unwashed, ignorant mass, easily led by the nose by demagogues like the president.

While the Tea Party Republicans are willful in their racist rage, there is a whole segment of white working class Trump voters who voted for Barack Obama (often twice) and only voted for the “outsider” candidate because of his populist rhetoric.

Here is an excerpt from my new book (The Roots of Defeat) that analyzes the Trump vote in the Midwest:

“While Clinton won 300,000 more total votes nationwide than Obama did in 2012, fueled by new Latino voters in Texas and California, she won 3 million fewer votes than the former president did in 2012 in the eight upper Midwestern states and Pennsylvania.

Moreover, in almost every one of the counties that flipped from Obama to Trump in that red crescent mentioned earlier (from Iowa through Wisconsin and Michigan to Ohio and Pennsylvania), local plant closings either occurred during the campaign or were announced in local papers.

In Ohio, for example: in May, GE’s century old locomotive plant in Erie County announced that it was transferring hundreds more jobs to its new facility in Fort Worth, Texas. In July, Republic Steel formally reneged on its promise to reopen and modernize the enormous three mile long U.S. Steel plant in Lorain that had once been the area’s largest employer. In August, pink slips were handed out to workers at Commercial Vehicle Group’s big stamping plant in Martin’s Ferry on the Ohio River (Belmont County). Each incident, repeated in Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, reinforced the sinking feeling that opportunity was seeping out of the Midwest and that the status quo was untenable.

As they did in 2000, many working poor voters, black and white, exercised their right to not vote. In Milwaukee’s poorest precinct, District 15, Ian Pfeiffer, a 25-year-old white male who works the grill at Jake’s Delicatessen, told a reporter he did not vote. ‘I felt cornered. We were stuck between Trump and Hillary. They really left us with no choice.’ A local barber who voted twice for Obama told the NY Times that he and the three other black men who work in their barber shop did not vote because Clinton gave them no reason to think she would make life better in Milwaukee. ‘I do not feel bad… Both of them were terrible. They never do anything for us anyway.’

The question of whether Trump’s white working class supporters were motivated by racism or by economic distress has a simple answer. There is no “typical” Trump voter. Some of his supporters, especially those who packed his rallies, were long standing converts to the Republican Party’s racist messaging. Covert racism has been a Republican tactic for decades. The Tea Partiers, most of whom are small businessmen and lower level professionals – usually long-time Republicans – supported Trump to express their resentment over having a black president. But another cluster of Trump’s supporters were people left behind by globalization, desperately gambling that Trump might try to improve the Midwest’s economy.

In the Midwest, the “economic distress” case for the Obama-to-Trump voters in the counties that Obama won (usually twice) seems relatively strong. We have seen that these communities have received a series of blows over the last 40 years, blows to the bedrock economy that have shredded the social and mental health of their residents. Focus groups held in January of 2017 revealed that 50 percent of Obama voters who switched to Trump say their income is falling behind the cost of living, while another 31 percent said they were barely keeping up. Similar percentages of Obama voters who did not vote in 2016 were also under these economic pressures. Their views about race were simply subordinate to their pressing economic situations.”

As we saw in Virginia and Alabama, black voters are highly mobilized and white Republican women are turning against Trump. The next step is advancing populist policies that address the needs of both white and black workers in the Midwest.

12 thoughts on “Winning Back the White Working Class in the Midwest”

    1. Hey Gary, a voice from Seattle. No, Mr. Biden, as you will see in the book, is a Third Way Democrat, who talks like regular folks when he campaigns, but governs with the big banks, tech companies, and wealthy donors in mind. The book will finally be out in April – hopefully worth the wait.

      1. We’ll then like a lot of analysis what do you think should be done as V.I. once asked? We’re stuck with democracy and if people like Bernie can’t beat Trump what can we expect? Living in a blue bubble kind of distorts your perspective.You should try talking to people in Spokane to get some ideas about what the other half think. I hope I’m not sounding like a Republican!

        1. I think people have to organize themselves by Congressional Districts and elect Democrats who are populists – people who think banks are a problem and billionaires are a problem and who are willing to write new laws like raising the minimum wage. Democrats now will say the right thing during elections, but don’t vote and agitate for new laws. If we show Dems will do things to make their lives better, then we can win back white folks in Spokane and Walla Walla.

          1. That’s a good point.1 district that’s open in Washington is the 8th Congressional which stretches from East Lake Sammamish to Cle Elum currently held by a moderate R Dave Reichert who as King County Sheriff caught the Green River killer and my brother in law worked for.Anyway he is quitting and the R who is running is Dino Rossi who ran for governor twice once losing by 124 votes out of 2 million cast.The D’s are all unknowns so I’ll be watching them to see if they follow your ideas. I’ll keep you informed

  1. It will be interesting if at least one of the Democrats in the primary race adopts a populist/Saunders approach and takes the nomination. I think the populist approach has a solid amount of support among the Democrats who are active enough to participate in a primary elections.

    1. One issue that doesn’t motivate voters out here is free trade due to Boeing,Microsoft,Amazon,big ag from Eastern Wa. It favors all of on a national level that tends to split D’s.The coasts tend to benefit from free trade whereas the Midwest has suffered some I feel although currently the economy most every where seems to be doing well.So if the D’s need some issues besides not Trump I foresee the same Hillary/Bernie split in 2 years as we saw last cycle.I hope your book helps cure us of the Hillary syndrome but a unified message is needed to win the White House in 2020 .The question is who will that person be?

      1. I think you can pose the “free” trade issue in a way that doesn’t split folks. We don’t want fewer exports, we want more exports. To close the trade gap (which is running at a rate of $550 billion per year right now) we need to end unfair trade practices that limit our exports and unfair practices that increase our imports. For example, only 0.3% of the cars sold in Japan each year are U.S. autos! Only 6% are from European countries. There are similar weird things with China and South Korea. Each billion dollars of trade deficit costs roughly 6,000 U.S. jobs, so cutting the deficit in half would increase the number of good paying export jobs in the U.S. by 1.5 million. A tidy sum.

        1. I like your thoughts Monte . I’m hoping the D’s can take the House this November but there’s no guarantee.Trump’s numbers are hanging in there.I just hope the Russia affair takes its toll. I’m still looking for the right presidential candidate that could beat Trump.Who do you think can do it ?

          1. Trumps numbers are unlikely to go lower than they are now; 35% of the population would vote for a groundhog if it was nominated by the Republicans. So he is at the bottom. The Dems have to think of what they want to do, not just be “not Trump.” That will only take them so far. Actually, the Russia affair won’t hurt him anymore because the Republican base won’t believe the media or the courts – the grounds for neo-fascism have been well fertilized over the last generation.

  2. With so much corporate money flooding into politicians pockets, the voice of corporate entities is much louder than the voices of common folk. And this corporate money controls the message that is poured into the unquestioning minds of the populace through TV, radio and the internet. We are, after all, herd animals. They have become very good at it. Just consider the NRA. They used to look after the interests of common folk gun owners. Now they only do the bidding of gun makers. But their messaging is finely honed propaganda about 2nd amendment rights. Truth is they put gun maker profits ahead of the lives of school kids, and the politicians who suck on the NRA’s hind tit put power and re-election ahead of school kid lives. Pro-life my ass.

    Corporate money has also captured most government regulatory agencies. Big Pharma runs the FDA. Big Ag runs the USDA. Big Telecom runs the FCC, and on and on.

    How does this current state of affairs resemble in any way a democracy?

    How do we successfully uproot this entrenched money? Most likely a massive economic calamity will have to occur first. And this is probable given the unstable nature of highly concentrated wealth systems. “This has all happened before, and it will happen again.” (Battlestar Galactica)

    The underlying problem here is greed and the worship of the ‘Golden Idol’ (profit). We need to embrace the triple bottom line. Planet first. People second. Profit third. If we don’t stop making profit the only measure of worth, we are doomed. I can’t believe our DNA is that stupid. Hopefully we are not a failed experiment.

    Sorry for the gloom. I just don’t see how we change direction from oligarchy or kleptocracy or whatever we are in back to democracy without some pain.

    1. The gun situation really highlights our situation. A rich industry rallies an impassioned few to defend a situation the majority of Americans oppose. With cash as the ultimate weapon, only a huge outpouring of energy from the majority can overcome the multiple barriers in Congress, the administration, and the presidency to create real change. Mostly we find ourselves awash in whatever corner of popular culture appeals to our tastes.

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