As the Democrats expanded the party tent to embrace more upper-middle class voters and Big Money special interests, party support and enthusiasm for traditional allies among working class voters waned. If the party of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt was a left-of-center, values-driven coalition cobbled together around the working class and family farmers, the party of Bill and Hillary Clinton is a right-of-center coalition of financial interests and identity politics with entirely transactional "values." Blue collar working families began feeling less and less welcome in the party tent. And gradually stopped showing up.
Chris Preece, a chemistry teacher from an eastern Kentucky mining family, is running for Congress in the one swing district left in the state. Today he told me that "Democrats used to be fierce supporters of unions. Voters in the midwest have seen a shift away from those issues and their lack of support in the party shows it. NAFTA and so many other free trade agreements have seen factories pour out of our country like water through a sieve. Only recently have we seen Democrats, usually progressives, pick up the union mantle and show more support, but these workers need more than a show of support. These workers need results. They need good paying jobs, and jobs that respect their livelihood. Personally, I have been an active member of the teachers union in Kentucky my whole career. I have seen the union rally the teachers to stop our previous governor, Matt Bevin, from taking away our pensions, and I have seen them fail to stop the same person from making Kentucky a "right to work" state. "Right to work '' is flowery Republican language meaning a worker has a right to work for less money and less benefits. As a party, and as individual candidates, we must pull together to show solidarity with union workers by passing laws to protect worker's rights and better enforce current laws to protect the formation and function of unions. These Midwest voters will come back to support us when they see the results of our support for them with more money to live and more benefits to live a healthier life."
When voters, sickened by Trump's excesses, gave Democrats unified control of government, the Democrats have been unwilling to give the working class even the most basic wins on the issues that keep the fragile, tattered bonds between workers and the Democrats together. No PRO-Act; no minimum wage increase; no lower drug prices; no expanded Medicare... The Republican wing of the Democratic Party-- not just Manchin and Sinema, but the Blue Dogs and New Dems that make up the Republican wing of the Democratic Party and blatantly serve Wall Street and corporate interests-- have shat all over the Democratic Party brand, moving the party further and further in a conservative, pro-business direction, especially as the GOP has transmogrified in a populist/fascist Trump party. Now, every moment spent talking about how corrupt conservative Democrats like Manchin, Sinema, Gottheimer, etc are working to undermine support for working class priorities, is another nail in the Democratic Party's coffin. And another moment when the Democratic Party are not out there promoting those priorities the way at least Pramila and Bernie understand absolutely must be done.
In 2016, these losses in small cities and rural areas handed Trump wins in traditional Democratic strongholds-- Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Iowa and Michigan-- and in former Democratic strongholds like Ohio, Florida and West Virginia. The Democratic clawed their way back to narrow wins in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan but so narrowly as to be more scary than heartening. And with a shattered brand and a party torn between pro- and anti-working class elements (Bernie, Pramila, AOC and Cori on the one hand and corporate whores Manchin, Sinema, Gottheimer, Schrader, Correa on the other hand), the midterms in these states look more threatening than promising, particularly with a New Dem mental midget like Sean Patrick Maloney leading the Democrats' House efforts.
Our old pal, Mike Lux, co-wrote a report, Factory Towns, with Richard Martin and David Wilhelm. This morning Mike told me that "Democrats need to stay very focused on delivering tangible economic benefits for poor and working class voters in middle America: raising their wages, getting them quality health care coverage and lowering drug costs, reinvigorating the labor movement, solving the opioid and mental health crises, and much more. They cannot win elections outside of big cities and college towns if they don’t deliver. At the heart of the Democratic Party’s failure to win working class votes in recent years is a lack of attention to voters in small and mid sized working class towns. Places like Ottumwa, Iowa and Youngstown, Ohio used to the most Democratic kinds of counties in their states, but after years of deindustrialization and having their lives ignored, those voters are moving hard to the messed up politicians of the far right."
Last night, the NY Times published a piece by Jonathan Martin addressing these losses. "The share of the Democratic presidential vote in the Midwest," wrote, "declined most precipitously between 2012 and 2020 in counties that experienced the steepest losses in manufacturing and union jobs and saw declines in health care, according to a new report to be released this month. The party’s worsening performance in the region’s midsize communities-- often overlooked places like Chippewa Falls, Wis., and Bay City, Mich.-- poses a dire threat to Democrats, the report warns. Nationally and in the Midwest, Democratic gains in large metropolitan areas have offset their losses in rural areas. And while the party’s struggles in the industrial Midwest have been well-chronicled, the 82-page report explicitly links Democratic decline in the region that elected Donald J. Trump in 2016 to the sort of deindustrialization that has weakened liberal parties around the world." The report is a warning. Jonathan Martin interviewed Lux's co-author, Richard Martin, who told him that if things keep going in this direction economically in small and mid-sized counties in Wisconsin, Minnesota, Michigan, Indiana, rural Illinois, Ohio, Iowa, Missouri, Pennsylvania and upstate New York, "we can give up any hope of winning the battleground states of the industrial heartland."
You may have noticed that Blue America is virtually the only progressive PAC that hasn't jumped on the Mandela Barnes bandwagon for the Democratic nomination in the Wisconsin Senate primary. There are three big reasons-- he probably can't win a statewide general election, not least of all because the rest of Wisconsin hates Milwaukee and Barnes is completely associated with Milwaukee; Barnes, perhaps feeling his left flank is secure, doesn't campaign on any progressive issues-- which is disastrous for the movement-- and... because there's a better candidate.
Unlike Barnes, Outagamie County Executive Tom Nelson is campaigning on the issues Lux mentioned about. A former Bernie delegate, he's all about Medicare-for-All, a livable minimum wage and union rights. His book, One Day Stronger, should be read by everyone who finds the Factory Towns report important.
"Until Democrats prioritize paper, auto, and steel workers, we will continue to get our clock cleaned by China," Nelson told me this afternoon. "For the sake of our workers, our communities, our economy and our national security we must adopt a national industrial strategy that makes it easier for workers to organize, invests in research and development, ends the bad trade deals that have shipped Wisconsin jobs overseas and reforms the tax code. The workers of Appleton Coated prove that labor will lead the way in the resurgence of American manufacturing. Democrats need to listen to our workers. They know what they are talking about. Only then can we grow good paying union jobs in our communities and win back seats in the midwest like Wisconsin."
Lucas Kunce is an inspiring Senate candidate unlike any Missouri has seen in decades-- and the Democratic Party's only hope, not just for a win but for a model of how to compete in the Midwest. This morning he told me that "The Democratic Party lost the midwest when it sold out to Wall Street and Big Tech. When it doubled down on the lie that free trade works for working people. Democrats were supposed to stand between the people and the powerful. But, instead, the party joined Republicans in a bipartisan consensus to sell states like Missouri for parts."
"When I would come home to Missouri between deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan," Kunce continued, "I saw the devastating impact Wall Street had on our state. Jobs outsourced. Industry moved to the coasts. Corrupt Missouri politicians selling our farmland to China! While politicians dumped trillions of dollars into a useless war, they turned a blind eye to the destruction happening in our own backyard. It's criminal. And Big Tech is no better, as we've seen in the news lately, converting people into profits regardless of the damage. And Wall Street and Big Tech get away with it because they have an ironfisted grip on Washington. That's why we need to fundamentally change who has power in this country. The only way to beat these monopoly overlords is to build a movement of working class people, of union workers and working families. That's what I'm building in Missouri, and it's how we're going to break the grip of corporate power on our community, on our state, and on our country."
Comparing Barack Obama’s re-election to President Biden’s election last year, he notes that Democrats gained about 1.55 million votes in the big cities and suburbs of the region surveyed. In the same period, they lost about 557,000 votes in heavily rural counties.
But in midsize and small counties, Democrats lost over 2.63 million votes between the two elections. Dubbing these communities “factory towns,” Martin separates them by midsize counties anchored around cities with a population of 35,000 or more and smaller counties that lean on manufacturing but do not have such sizable cities.
Taken together, the changes illustrate the degree to which Obama relied upon the votes of working-class white voters to propel his re-election-- and how much Biden leaned on suburbanites to offset his losses in working-class communities that had once been a pillar of the Democratic coalition.
What alarms Martin, and many Democratic officials, is whether the party can sustain those gains in metropolitan areas. It’s uncertain, as he puts it, “if moderate suburban Republicans will continue to vote for Democrats when Trump is not on the ballot.”
Democratic gains up and down the ballot in fast-growing Sun Belt states like Arizona and Georgia garnered significant attention last year. Yet Biden wouldn’t have won the presidency and Democrats couldn’t have flipped the Senate without victories in 2020 across the Great Lakes region.
However, those wins proved more difficult than many pre-election polls concluded because of the G.O.P.’s continued strength in manufacturing communities. And, the report noted, these communities made up a significant portion of the region’s vote share. In Wisconsin, midsize and small manufacturing counties make up 58 percent of the statewide vote. In Michigan, half of the voting population is in these communities.
This is where the decline in manufacturing has been most damaging to Democrats. The ten states included in the survey have lost 1.3 million manufacturing jobs since the beginning of this century.
In the small to midsize “factory town” counties in those states, where support for the Republican presidential nominee grew between 2012 and 2020, the losses were acute: More than 70 percent suffered declines in manufacturing jobs.
The elimination of those jobs also led to declines in health care, according to data from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute.
In the counties that suffered manufacturing losses and health care declines, Republicans surged between 2012 and 2020. Nearly half of the party’s gains in these states came in communities where there were both manufacturing cuts and worsening health care.
Republicans also prospered in communities hit hard by the decline in manufacturing that were predominantly white. With fewer well-paying industry jobs, the power of local unions declined as well, silencing what was always the beating heart of Democratic political organizing in these areas. In 154 such counties, Democrats suffered a net loss of over 613,000 votes between the elections in 2016 and 2020.
Perhaps most striking was the decline in union membership across the region.
Nine of the 10 states included in the survey have accounted for 93 percent of the loss of union members nationwide in the last two decades. And just in the last 10 years, these states have lost 10 percent of their union membership-- an average that is three times greater than nationally.
Former Orlando congressman and progressive icon Alan Grayson is running for a Senate seat in Florida held by nothing-politician Marco Rubio. Chuck Schumer, 100% responsible for placing Kyrsten Sinema in the Senate, has another candidate who promises to be nearly as bad, in Val Demings as an opponent to Grayson. This morning Grayson told me that, "As many others have noted, the experience of working together in a factory, and jointly producing things that you can see and touch, creates a 'class consciousness' that just isn’t there when you work alone. U.S. manufacturing today is less than it was 13 years ago, and that’s probably not going to change anytime soon. The way to retain those ex-union voters (and win over more like them), is solve problems in their lives, take credit when credit is due, and then draw the contrast with the GOP. For instance, you can argue that the Social Security Act of 1935 gave the Democrats 50 years of Congressional dominance. If the Democrats actually delivered on universal, comprehensive and affordable healthcare, free higher education, etc., then you might see the same thing again. The current reconciliation bill actually is the best effort to do so since the New Deal."