In 2011, Ohio voters repealed Senate Bill 5, an attack on collective-bargaining rights. Not only was the bill repealed by a wide margin, but it was repealed in 82 of the state’s 88 counties, with huge numbers of white working-class voters rejecting Governor John Kasich’s signature piece of legislation.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.