More Thoughts on Trump and the Revolt of the Rust Belt

Some further thoughts on Trump and the Rust Belt Revolt, an election post-mortem I posted at the LSE US Centre’s blog and now posted here, here, and on this blog. It is now indisputable that the pivotal voters in this election were voters from urban and suburban communities that had been economically dependent on manufacturing, had voted for Obama, and swung to Trump. I have been writing about Trump’s Rust Belt appeal since it first started becoming clear that the campaign was targeting Rust Belt voters in June. But I was pessimistic about whether the Rust Belt provided a path to victory for Trump. This is not because I doubted his ability to resonate, quite the contrary. However, I doubted the electoral power of these voters. White working class voters who are dependent on manufacturing are a pretty small part of the American demographic pie and, indeed, are not even a large part of the electorate in states like Ohio. But just because they aren’t large, doesn’t mean they aren’t decisive, especially in a country that is very closely divided. NASCAR dads, soccer moms, etc. have been the story of prior elections and the same is true here. Without an electoral college a couple of hundred thousand voters would have far less ability to determine the fate of a nation of 300 million.

This is not to dismiss other important parts of the story of Trump’s election. It is clear that the Republican campaign of voter suppression, restrictive voting and gerrymandering had a large impact on the election and Democratic laziness about controlling the institutional levers that govern voting cost them dearly. It is also true that blue-collar white people were not the only Rust Belt story here. Rust Belt black voters, victimized by free trade and deindustrialization at least as much as white workers, had a large drop off in voter turnout. Some dropoff was inevitable from the highs of the Obama years, but this decline was also geographically concentrated. Cuyahoga and Wayne counties (where Cleveland and Detroit, respectively, are located) both had large drop offs in turnout and in pro-Democrat voting. These counties were heavily responsible for Obama’s decisive victories in Ohio and Michigan in 2008 and 2012. Clinton secured sizable victories there, but they were not large enough to outweigh the flipping of white blue-collar counties and Trump’s dominance in traditionally Republican, low-population counties.

There will be a lot of discussions of strategy going forward. Some will take the Rust Belt revolt as evidence that the Democrats need to turn to economic populism, while abandoning its message of multiculturalism, liberalism, and tolerance. I don’t think this is true. Democratic Party economic policy and messaging has been a disaster for years and the Party has been complicit in the destruction of workers’ organizations and exacerbated inequality. No one should be surprised that there is a price to pay for this, and Democrats are certainly paying a big price now. But the Party’s messaging on social issues has now won the popular vote in six of the last seven presidential elections. Abandoning that in order to appeal to a shrinking demographic of white people who don’t just suffer economic anxiety but a loss of status in a multicultural country seems like poor strategy. A far more productive use of time and resources would be to focus on controlling the institutional levers of government so that a reactionary party doesn’t keep winning elections despite having fewer voters supporting it. When in office, it might be useful to challenge plutocratic inequality and the privileging of profits made from trading paper securities. It might help to take a stand on what a democratic economy might look like instead of pretending that the Party can appeal to hedge-fund managers, tech companies, and unions without paying any price for the contradictions. But the first order of business must be to use the demographic power of the Democratic coalition to retake state houses and, from there, Congress. The fact that the national government is controlled by a shrinking minority must be addressed. The Democratic Party has utterly failed in allowing this circumstance to come about multiple times since 2000.

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