Economy & Work

Too Long Ignored: How Democrats Lost a Key Constituency

The party of the working class is reaping the harvest of decades of neglect.

Too Long Ignored: How Democrats Lost a Key Constituency

Trump sentiment is flying high in once-Democratic strongholds of Ohio. (Photo by Sean T. Posey)

Too long ignored, the voices of the Rust Belt and deindustrialized America finally had their say election night. “The forgotten men and women of our country,” as President-elect Donald Trump called them in his acceptance speech, delivered what can only be described as the most stunning upset in American political history. However, it’s far less stunning to those of us who live in the hollowed-out American heartland.

There’s little doubt that racism and sexism played a role in the election. From Trump’s own comments about women to the fact that white nationalists have endorsed him and his rhetoric, it’s clear that bigotry was a factor.

It’s equally clear, especially here, in a region with a long history of violent labor struggles and class-based politics, that something else is at work.

In 1964, 37 percent of Ohio workers belonged to a union; that number fell to 12 percent by 2016, and incomes for the working class tumbled in tandem. It’s a similar story in Pennsylvania, Michigan, Indiana, West Virginia and Wisconsin. Republican policies are largely responsible, but Democrats have done little to address the precipitous decline of the working class.

When Hillary Clinton famously referred to half of Trump’s supporters as a “basket of deplorables,” it rang hollow for voters who had waited in vain for her to acknowledge their economic plight. Ohio, Pennsylvania and Michigan helped elect Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012. However, for working families, the economic hangover of the post-industrial era never went away. Clinton’s campaign failed to fully appreciate their pain.

Until the late 1970s and early 1980s, those same states formed the heart of industrial North America. From this furnace of productivity emerged the manufactured goods that made the US a global powerhouse. During World War II, the great factories of the Industrial Belt retooled to produce tanks, bombers and guns that allowed the Allies to vanquish the Axis war machine.

By the time I was born in the late 1970s, an entire way of life was ending.

By the time I was born in the late 1970s, an entire way of life was ending in steel towns, automobile manufacturing centers, coal country and the “China Belt,” where generations of people crafted fine china for American households. As I entered kindergarten, a regional depression began to settle over my northeastern Ohio home. As the great mills of the Mahoning Valley fell silent after eight decades, thousands of unemployed steelworkers took to the roads in search of employment. By the early 1980s, as plant closings gathered momentum across the Midwest, more desperate workers joined them.

Journalists Dale Maharidge and Michael Williamson documented the trials of these new “Okies” of America’s “Rust Bowl” in their 1985 book, Journey to Nowhere: The Saga of the New Underclass. In the book’s forward, Bruce Springsteen referred to these displaced workers as “people who all their lives had played by the rules, done the right thing, and come up empty. Men and women whose work and sacrifice had built this country, who’d given their sons to its wars and then whose lives were marginalized or discarded.”

As the Rust Belt replaced the Industrial Belt, a new reality set in. From Gary, Indiana, to Wheeling, West Virginia, from coal country in Pennsylvania to Ohio’s steel valleys, life diminished: populations shrank, municipal budgets collapsed; neighborhoods and businesses emptied out.

But much of America moved on. The economic engines of the country shifted to places like Silicon Valley and Route 128 outside of Boston. Yuppies in suits, and later, dressed-down techies, replaced blue-collar workers as the symbol of economic strength and prosperity in the US. Leaders of the Democratic Party turned their backs on their working-class base. Bill Clinton and the Democratic Leadership Council moved the party toward the professional class of upwardly mobile “knowledge workers.”

I couldn’t turn my back, even though my father was a knowledge worker and we moved to a comfortable suburb far removed from his working-class roots. During my teenage years I sometimes drove through the decaying industrial towns of Ohio. The sight of old brick streets, trees growing through factory floors and the wary eyes of people alert to the presence of an outsider remained indelibly etched in my mind, even after I moved to California for college.

I returned to my native Ohio during the aftermath of the Great Recession. Once again, I took to the road — charting a path through the heart of the Rust Belt. I photographed the ruins of once-proud places. But these were still places where people lived — people who were told that they and their communities no longer mattered. People who could vote.

In the past year, I began to notice the “Donald Trump: Make America Great Again” signs. That simplistic slogan drew derision from the New York and DC pundits, but it had an undeniable resonance in a region of the country where as Trump so often says,
people had almost forgotten about “winning” anything but a local football game.

For those of us on the ground and paying attention in these once-Democratic strongholds, the formidable nature of the Trump message was immediately apparent. You could see it in the eyes of former steelworkers and hear it in the voices of those old enough to remember “the good old days.” It wasn’t just about the economy, either. It was about a time before Ohio and other states became “flyover country,” denigrated and mocked by the culture on the coasts, so ignored by journalists and pollsters and politicians that they never saw what was happening.

Trump, despite being very short on specifics, spoke directly to people who have felt overlooked for decades. “Today is our Independence Day. Today the American working class is going to strike back, finally,” he said as he ended his campaign in the hard-luck state of Michigan. Trump stepped directly into a vacuum left by the fall of unions and the Democratic Party’s abandonment of the white working class.

The results bore him out: Not only did Trump carry Michigan — a state Obama won twice — but the rest of the Rust Belt. In Ohio, Trump won half the union vote, an unprecedented accomplishment for a modern Republican candidate. Trump even triumphed in Wisconsin, a Rust Belt state that hadn’t voted for a Republican presidential candidate since Ronald Reagan’s 1984 landslide.

The Rust Belt took its revenge, and it appears that the Clinton-era Democratic Party will be swept into the dustbin of history because of it. Today, Trump flags and signs are flying high in Ohio while the rest of the country reels.

Maybe next time, somebody will listen.

Sean Posey

Sean T. Posey is a freelance writer, photographer and historian. Sean’s recent work centers on the landscape and the people of the American Rust Belt. The History Press released his first book, Lost Youngstown, in April. Follow him on Twitter: @seantposey.