In 1996, Bruce Springsteen’s Ghost of Tom Joad tour stopped in Youngstown. In the intimate setting of Stambaugh Auditorium, he dedicated his song about this struggling steel town to the community and a displaced steelworker family. The song was based on interviews with Joe Marshall and his son, Joe Jr., quotes in Journey to Nowhere: The Saga of the New Underclass, a book by journalist Dale Maharidge and photographer Michael Williamson.
From the Monongahela Valley
To the Mesabi iron range
To the coal mines of Appalachia
The story’s always the same
700 tons of metal a day
Now sir you tell me the world’s changed
Once I made you rich enough
Rich enough to forget my name
We were reminded of this piece of history from (to reference another Springsteen song) our hometown over the weekend, when The New York Times ran a clever bit of political musicology, analyzing the prospects of presidential candidates Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton in places Springsteen made famous in his ballads of middle-class America.
“Youngstown” didn’t sound like the New Jersey cruising music that many of Springsteen’s fans expected. In the late ’90s, Springsteen presented the song as a lament, its working-class sense of loss embedded in a mournful, almost dirge-like sound. By the time Springsteen recorded a Madison Square Garden concert with the E Street Band five years later, it had become an anthem, simmering with red-hot anger and ending with wild guitar riffs. That’s the version Springsteen played in get-out-the-vote concerts in the early 2000s, as he traveled the US in support of Democratic presidential candidates.
Too bad the candidates — and the media elites — were too busy listening to The Boss to hear the voices of the people he was singing about. They might have picked up earlier on the resentment that accompanied the economic losses of deindustrialization — resentment that has prompted the shift of northeastern Ohio voters away from the Democratic Party, starting about the time Springsteen visited Youngstown in the mid-’90s, soon after NAFTA was implemented.
Political historians have noted that the white working class largely shifted its allegiance to the Republican Party decades ago, but it took several decades for the shift to reach the so-called Rust Belt. In the 2012 election, The Atlantic suggested, Obama mobilized a new Democratic coalition of young people, minorities, college-educated whites and women, especially in the Sun Belt, to overcome the dwindling support of blue-collar workers and educated white men. In critical battleground states, especially Ohio, Obama received just enough white working-class support overcome the Republican challenge — not a majority, but enough to nudge Ohio into blue-state status.
This may be the year the shift becomes complete in old Democratic strongholds like northeastern Ohio, where the Democrats having been losing working-class support over the last few elections. Despite warnings not to neglect the working class, who will likely play a crucial role in this year’s election, the Democratic Party has continued to ignore the feeling of many in that traditionally reliable constituency — white men especially — that the party doesn’t understand or care about them. It hopes its new Democratic coalition will carry Clinton to the White House.
What is key to this year’s election, and what threatens those Democratic hopes is this: The economic struggles and social displacement that Springsteen chronicled in The Ghost of Tom Joad are no longer the exclusive province of the lunch-bucket set. Many in the middle class are now feeling the same insecurity and the same resentments. In Ohio, both the long-struggling working class and the newly vulnerable middle class are desperate enough to see hope in a billionaire who has demonstrated that he views workers and small business owners as potential objects of exploitation and wage theft. Donald Trump is clearly rich enough to forget not only their names but also the stances he has taken and, potentially, many of the promises he has made. But these voters have heard enough empty promises from the Democrats over the years.
This year it looks like Ohio is lost. The most recent Quinnipiac poll following the first debate shows Clinton has lost ground in the last month. The Democratic Party has effectively written the state off, cutting financial and staff support in hopes using its resources in more diverse and educated states, like North Carolina. Clinton returned to Ohio Monday for the first time in a month, but that was apparently in an effort to draw Trump resources from other battleground states.
Springsteen has said the purpose of art is to give people a sense of their commonality, and his songs have taught us much about working-class life in the US. Songs like “Youngstown” don’t suggest solutions for economic change, of course. But they can inspire empathy and help careful listeners understand the social costs of deindustrialization.
It’s too bad the Democrats didn’t listen. They might be doing a better job now of earning the support of the men and women whose stories “Youngstown” captures. The Democratic establishment and many in the media wonder why so many white working-class voters have abandoned the party. Unfortunately, for many of those voters, the Democratic Party feels it’s rich enough to forget their names.