In 2011, Ohio voters repealed Senate Bill 5, an attack on collective-bargaining rights. Not only was the bill repealed by a wide margin, but it was repealed in 82 of the state’s 88 counties, with huge numbers of white working-class voters rejecting Governor John Kasich’s signature piece of legislation. The fight left Kasich the second most unpopular governor in the country. Yet just three years later, Kasich swept back to reelection with a 30-point victory—and talk of running for president. Since Trump’s election, my mind keeps going back to that fight over SB5—and our failure to gain any lasting advantage from it. We as progressives are not linking key phenomena together in a way that captures the anxiety that white working-class people in America increasingly have. And worse yet, we don’t have an economic agenda that addresses that anxiety.
Why do white working-class people vote against their interests? They don’t. Corporate Democrats have never advanced their interests—and at least Republicans offer a basic, if misleading, story about why they are getting screwed. When I first started organizing in Youngstown, Ohio, many people told me I must read Sean Safford’s Why the Garden Club Couldn’t Save Youngstown, which argues that Youngstown collapsed as a result of a lack of social networks. It is an absurd explanation for what happened to the city—but embraced by many thoughtful progressive leaders there. In fact, Youngstown has been left hobbled because progressives failed to secure economic power.
The first step was the collapse of the industrial heartland. This hit white working-class people incredibly hard—and it remains a phenomenon that is not understood on the East and West Coasts. It is painted as a natural evolution of our economy and as if the onus is on people to adapt to it. This fails to capture how many families and communities were dependent on the industrial economy. Many Ohioans are now staring at a future where they themselves and their kids have less opportunity than their parents. In a place like Youngstown, that means not only an inability to get a well-paying job at the steel mill; it also means owning a house that has failed to appreciate in value for 20 to 30 years, in a city that continues to lose double-digit percentages of its population every 10 years. It is not just a stripping out of economic opportunity but a stripping away of identity for these communities. It is the sense of abandonment and perpetual decline that people feel mired in. Resources, jobs, decent housing, quality neighborhoods and schools are all in decline. It creates a “scarcity mentality” for white working-class people and others who live in the heartland.
Two narratives emerged about the collapse of the industrial heartland in America. The one from the far right has three parts: First, that industry left this country because unions destroyed productivity and made labor costs too high, thereby making us uncompetitive. Second, corporations were the victims of over-regulation and a bloated government that overtaxed them to pay for socialist welfare systems. Third, illegal immigration has resulted in the stealing of American jobs, increased competition for white workers, and depressed wages. Together these three factors led to the collapse of manufacturing in America. This, sadly, is a story that many Americans believe. The second narrative, promoted by corporate Democrats, is that the global economy shifted and the country is now in transition from an industrial to a knowledge-based economy. This story tacitly accepts the economic restructuring of the heartland as inevitable once China and other markets opened up.
The most accurate narrative is one we never hear—and that I think is illustrated well in the collapse of Youngstown’s steel mills. When the corporations who operated the mills shut them down, the community organized en masse. Key religious and community leaders stood up against “the severe consequences when corporations decide not to modernize older facilities, view relocation of industry as a logical result of corporate opportunities for profit, or shift capital altogether to other investment opportunities.”
A coalition organized to reopen the mills as cooperatives owned by the workers, community members, and private investors. After a feasibility study showed that reopening the mills was economically viable, the coalition appealed to the federal government for loans to purchase and modernize the plant. Despite an initial commitment, the Carter administration backed off. Apparently, Jimmy Carter worried that supporting the project would jeopardize his reelection bid and bowed to lobbying by steel corporations who saw it as a threat, which was countered by only tepid support from the national Steelworkers Union leadership, who worried worker ownership might undermine the union.
The collapse of the industrial heartland resulted from a choice about whether we would reshape our economic models to serve workers and communities over profits—or continue to serve corporate interests that painted the global movement of capital as inevitable. The right blamed unions and regulation. The Democrats tried to explain the collapse as a weather phenomenon that we all needed to adjust to. Efforts to reshape the economy were marginalized and defeated by both parties; business and organized labor each supported the collapse of the city of Youngstown.
The impact of this betrayal on white working-class people was a universal distrust and dislike for institutions—none of which were able to defend their livelihoods or their futures. The unions didn’t stay around to organize a new strategy for revitalizing Youngstown. They moved to another line of defense elsewhere, as they grew increasingly insular and focused on protecting their shrinking base. One of the only people not to abandon white working-class people in Youngstown was the county sheriff, who became a hero because he refused to evict from their homes people who had lost their jobs in the collapse. His name was Jim Traficant and he later became a congressman. Even when he ran for office while in prison (for corruption and bribery convictions) decades later, he still won 25 percent of the vote. He was in personality and rhetoric a precursor to Donald Trump. Deindustrialization was a traumatic experience for white working-class people. Yet we act surprised when this constituency exhibits post-traumatic-stress disorder. And it is we who perpetrate the myth that they are voting “against their interests,” despite all the facts on the ground indicating that for them it makes no difference which party is in power. They have lived through 40 years of decline.
Connected to this is the phenomenon of the increasing diversification of America—primarily in strong market cities and communities. The “public” in these communities is increasingly diverse, and white working-class people who live in a climate of scarcity begin to believe that support of the “public” is supporting the “other.” Also, white working-class people have no experience of living in a place where the economy has been anything but miserable for decades, so they don’t understand how immigrants could be coming to the United States and not “steal” someone’s job. East and West Coast liberals want to frame this as the simple statement that white working-class people are just racist—or vote against their economic self-interest. That is a failure to understand the complexity of what is happening in places like Ohio. That is not to discount race. Race is undoubtedly a very important piece of this.
The issue of race is intertwined with the phenomenon of decreased opportunity for white people, scarcity of resources, and the clash of two Americas—weak market and strong market. Immigrants, by and large, are not moving to places like Ohio. In fact, a study a few years ago showed that out of the four US metro areas with the lowest immigration levels, two were in Ohio: Youngstown and Dayton. Immigrants are moving to places that have opportunity, strong local economies. White working-class people in Ohio don’t understand how those economies work, and see immigrants having more opportunity than they do. There is truth to this, in that weak-market cities offer far less opportunity than strong-market cities.
This is toxic mix for white people—little to no engagement with immigrants and people of color (Youngstown is also highly segregated), increased pressures on their family, and no one offering a clear vision forward. It is easy to see why the right-wing narrative is so compelling—it offers formidable enemies (government and unions) and an economic vision that corporations will create new jobs if those enemies are defeated. In that narrative, white working-class people will have opportunity again. The left offers no such clear enemy—and we’ve been immersed in identity politics that have further alienated white working-class people.
Imagine how different the world could be now if Democrats and unions hadn’t sold out steel workers in Youngstown. We wouldn’t have to send delegations to Spain to examine the Mondragon Cooperatives—they could just drive to Youngstown. Instead, what we have is growing resentment from these communities. This was summed up well in a New York Times article from 2012:
And as more middle-class families like the Gulbransons land in the safety net in Chisago [County, Minnesota] and similar communities, anger at the government has increased alongside. Many people say they are angry because the government is wasting money and giving money to people who do not deserve it. But more than that, they say they want to reduce the role of government in their own lives. They are frustrated that they need help, feel guilty for taking it and resent the government for providing it.
We are at a crossroads in the Midwest. We need to offer people both a simple narrative about good jobs and strong communities and the policies that create them—and an economic analysis and vision that is more than simply basic Keynesian economics of taxing the wealthy and corporations and having the government build public infrastructure. We have to have an agenda for the middle of the country. Otherwise, the right-wing narrative and people’s fear of the other will unravel us.
The philosopher Richard Rorty warned us decades ago:
[M]embers of labor unions, and unorganized unskilled workers, will sooner or later realize that their government is not even trying to prevent wages from sinking or to prevent jobs from being exported. Around the same time, they will realize that suburban white-collar workers—themselves desperately afraid of being downsized—are not going to let themselves be taxed to provide social benefits for anyone else.
At that point, something will crack. The nonsuburban electorate will decide that the system has failed and start looking around for a strongman to vote for—someone willing to assure them that, once he is elected, the smug bureaucrats, tricky lawyers, overpaid bond salesmen, and postmodernist professors will no longer be calling the shots….
One thing that is very likely to happen is that the gains made in the past forty years by black and brown Americans, and by homosexuals, will be wiped out. Jocular contempt for women will come back into fashion…. All the resentment which badly educated Americans feel about having their manners dictated to them by college graduates will find an outlet.
In the wake of Trump’s victory, there will be a temptation by progressives to redraw the electoral map and to imagine a path to winning presidential elections that abandons the Midwest, focusing instead on states with the “Rising American Electorate” such as Arizona, New Mexico, North Carolina, and Florida. Even before this election, there were numerous articles on the declining importance of Ohio as a swing state, its stagnant demographics, “hostile” electorate, and population loss that will likely reduce its number of electoral votes again after the next census. But such a path will only accelerate this country’s being ripped apart.
We are in the darkest moment of America’s history, where fascism, misogyny, and hate have propelled Trump to the presidency. He won by sweeping the Midwestern states, a place that many progressives call “fly-over” country. If we want to save this country, we will have to organize and build an agenda that addresses the issues that have propelled so many people into enough despair that they voted for Trump. It is time progressives became serious about building economic power.