The myth of the “Rust Belt reactionaries”

July 20, 2017

At the Socialism 2017 conference in Chicago, journalist Sarah Jaffe and author Sharon Smith joined forces to lead a session on "'Rust Belt Reactionaries'? The U.S. Working Class Today." Here, we publish, edited for publication, the presentation by Sharon Smith, author of Subterranean Fire: A History of Working-Class Radicalism in the United States and Women and Socialism: Class, Race and Capital. You can click here for Sarah Jaffe's talk.

AFTER TRUMP'S election in November, we all experienced shock and horror. Some of us, myself included, experienced a full-blown traumatic episode--although now, it's settled into more of a chronic, yet excruciating, pain.

But in those early days after the election--you probably remember--mainstream news outlets all sounded the same alarm. The headlines were so similar: "How Trump won: The revenge of working-class whites" from the Washington Post; "The revenge of the white man" from Time; "Revenge of the forgotten class" from ProPublica; "Revenge of the Rural Voter" from Politico; and "Why Trump Won: Working-class Whites" from New York Times.

In this way, the mainstream media created the official post-election narrative, basically parroting Democratic Party leaders who were frantically looking to blame someone other than themselves for Hillary Clinton's loss.

They settled on a slice of voters--who they labeled white working-class--in the key Midwestern swing states of Iowa, Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Ohio, who voted for Trump. Those are the voters who, if you'll recall, Hillary Clinton labeled "the deplorables" on the campaign trail, underlining Sarah's point about the Democratic Party and its attitude toward the working class.

Kohler workers in Wisconsin stand strong on the picket line
Kohler workers in Wisconsin stand strong on the picket line

The media decided that these voters were "working class" based solely on the large number of Trump voters who didn't have a college degree--disregarding the fact that his supporters in the 2016 primaries had an average household income of $72,000 per year, which is well above the median household income. This inconvenient fact indicated that Trump's core backers actually included a solid middle-class and upper-middle-class component.

During the semi-hysterical blame game after the election, many Clinton supporters were openly contemptuous of the so-called "white working class"--which they also disparagingly called "low information voters."

The Daily Kos, for example, reveled in its disdain: "Be happy for coal miners losing their health insurance. They're getting exactly what they voted for," its headline taunted.

Just one month ago, on June 5, however, the Washington Post reversed its earlier claim about white workers electing Trump. The new headline read, "It's time to bust the myth: Most Trump voters were not working class."

As it turned out, based on the American National Election Study, which takes some months to analyze, the Post concluded: "White non-Hispanic voters without college degrees making below the median household income made up only 25 percent of Trump voters. That's a far cry from the working-class-fueled victory many journalists have imagined."

But unlike the Post's screaming headline the morning after the election that had declared as if it were fact that Trump's victory was "the revenge of working-class whites," this later story that completely reversed the earlier conclusion got very little national media attention, even from the Washington Post itself.

THIS EXAMPLE illustrates the problems we have with getting real facts from what I personally think should be called the "low-information corporate media" in this country. And for this reason, most people still assume that working-class voters are the reason Trump sailed to victory in 2016.

But let's put a few things in perspective here. One, as Sarah showed, the working class is no longer--if it ever was--predominantly white and male, even though this remains the caricature. Today's working class is multiracial, made up of multiple genders and nationalities, and many people with a variety of disabilities.

Two, Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by almost 3 million votes, but the antiquated and undemocratic Electoral College allowed Trump to win the presidency. So the real culprit that the screaming headlines should have pointed out was the Electoral College.

Yet Hillary Clinton and the entire Democratic Party establishment was silent on this issue. Why? Because they would rather lose an election than upset the status quo that works so well in the power-sharing agreement between the Democratic and Republican Parties--whichever party is in the White House. Some, like Ralph Nader have accurately called this power-sharing arrangement the "corporate duopoly."

Maybe more importantly, much larger numbers of working-class people--including white working-class people--didn't vote for either candidate in 2016 than the number who voted for either Trump or Clinton.

Many of these so-called "low information voters" were actually informed enough to realize that mainstream Democrats had turned their backs on them long ago in favor of corporate backers. Some of them ended up voting for Trump, some voted for Clinton, but a majority of them did not vote at all.

Most in the media failed to ask the most important questions about the 2016 election before concluding that the white working class--especially in what Hillary Clinton apparently considered to be "flyover country" during her campaign--had become a bastion of reaction.

How many of these same people voted for Obama four years earlier? Millions of them did, a fact the Clinton campaign discovered months before the November election. It's also the case that self-described socialist Bernie Sanders experienced a groundswell of support in the Midwest during the 2016 primaries. Sanders won the Michigan, West Virginia, Indiana and Wisconsin primaries--which all then went to Trump in the general election.

What does this tell us about the 25 percent of white workers who did vote for Trump in the general election? Can we assume they were primarily motivated by racism, sexism, transphobia, homophobia, xenophobia and a host of other reactionary attitudes?

I WANT to make clear that there is no doubt that Trump fed the racism, sexism and reactionary ideas that already exist among large swathes of the population--and not only among the white population or among Republicans, I want to emphasize.

But Trump as well as Sanders addressed the burning issue that Clinton completely ignored: The economic hardships of the working class, which has accelerated since the so-called economic recovery began in 2009, eight years ago.

Both these factors certainly played a role in Trump's popularity after Sanders was eliminated from the election. It's also the case that roughly 28 percent of Latino and 27 percent of Asian votes also went to Trump, according to exit polls.

Maybe the most important takeaway from this election is that the confines of the two-party system do not give voters the opportunity to vote for their ideal candidate by any stretch of the imagination. They are instead forced to settle on who they perceive as the less harmful among the two candidates.

The 2016 election elevated voting for "the lesser of two evils" to a new level, as Clinton and Trump were the most unpopular pair of candidates in decades--and undoubtedly many voters and non-voters alike considered the election as a choice of which road to take to hell.

On the flip side of the idea that Trump voters were all motivated mainly by racism and reaction, we should ask whether Hillary Clinton and her supporters are all principled anti-racists?

After all, Hillary Clinton coined the racist term "super-predators" back in 1996 to justify then-President Bill Clinton's policies that led to mass incarceration of young Black and Brown men--the majority of them nonviolent drug offenders. It is difficult to describe either Hillary or Bill Clinton as anti-racist, when their actions prove the opposite.

Yet Time magazine's article "The revenge of the white man" made it seem as if the lines were drawn firmly between racists and anti-racists in this election. This is what the author wrote: "White voters supported Trump overwhelmingly. White men were his strongest backers, although white women also favored him, with older white women, Evangelical white women and white women without college degrees helping to carry him to victory. 'Economic anxiety' was the story of this election. But the economy is good."

Really? The economy is good? As far as I know, the economy has only been good for the top 1 Percent for...well, forever.

In fact, Clinton, who is an entrenched member of that top 1 Percent, demonstrated just how out of touch she was with the working class and the once solid Democratic base when she announced at a West Virginia campaign stop that she planned to "put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business"--without offering new training or help to find new jobs for those coal miners whose local economies have been devastated by job losses.

LET'S TAKE a look at some of these working-class communities in the centers of manufacturing that were once Democratic Party strongholds--and once thrived because there were steel plants or auto plants or coal mines or other manufacturing plants that employed most of the local population--but where the best job opportunities now are at a local supermarket, gas station or diner.

Let's take coal communities first, whose populations have suffered massive job losses in recent years. In 2011, coal employed 26,000 people in West Virginia. By 2016, that number had dropped to just 12,000--a 60 percent drop in five years--with no other decent-paying jobs on offer.

In 1950, McDowell County in West Virginia coal country had almost 100,000 residents. Today, McDowell's population has dropped to just 20,000--and it is one of the poorest counties in the U.S., with a median household income under $25,000, which just happens to be the official poverty level.

In addition, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health recently discovered that the entire area of Central Appalachia is in the midst of an unprecedented epidemic of advanced-stage black lung disease--the main occupational health hazard of coal miners.

One of NIOSH's epidemiologists described it this way: "We're at the epicenter of one of the largest industrial medicine disasters that the United States has ever seen."

That wasn't a front-page headline from what I could tell. Do we still want coal miners to lose their health insurance?

Let's look at Eastern Ohio--an area that includes Youngstown, one of the major steel manufacturing centers in the world in the 1960s and '70s. Youngstown now holds the status of having the highest percentage of its residents living in concentrated poverty among the top 100 metropolitan areas in the U.S.

Radical journalist Chris Hedges described the city this way in 2010: "Youngstown, like many postindustrial pockets in America, is a deserted wreck plagued by crime and the attendant psychological and criminal problems that come when communities physically break down."

A Washington Post reporter named Ken Stern visited the greater Youngstown area in May of this year, and discovered that far from being a solid Trump stronghold, it was almost evenly divided between Trump and Clinton supporters--but also with a large layer of people who supported neither Trump nor Clinton, and are fed up with both parties.

That is, these communities are just as politically polarized as the rest of the country. In a passage that broke my heart, Stern described one resident, Scott Seitz, this way:

Scott Seitz stares at me through red-rimmed eyes, recounting the economic devastation in his village of McDonald, Ohio. The town's fortunes have always been tied to the steel mills, for better or, more recently, for much worse. With the flight of the steel industry, the tax base of tiny McDonald has gone too, along with its only pharmacy, all of its bars, and hope for replacing its failing sewer and gas lines.

But it is not the state of McDonald that renders Seitz emotional, but the fate of his family, which is plagued with all the modern symptoms of the American working class: unemployment, heroin addiction, single fatherhood and lost opportunity. It is enough to make a middle-aged steelworker teary-eyed and a little desperate, which is why Scott Seitz--a lifelong Democrat, a committed union man, a two-time Obama voter--voted for Donald Trump in 2016. Trump spoke in plain language on the only issue Seitz really cares about: jobs, jobs, jobs.

WHAT CAN we conclude from all this? If anything, the 2016 election highlighted how the Democrats have frittered away their traditional voting base over a period of decades. It didn't just happen--it's been going on for a long time.

The Democrats have taken working-class and Black votes for granted, yet offering less than nothing in return, even as working-class living standards plummeted during and after the 2008 financial crisis. The fact that so many traditionally Democratic voters stayed home in November is the reason why Hillary Clinton lost the election in the key swing states of the Midwest.

It's also worth noting that Donald Trump is not just an orange blimp who fell down from the sky. Trump is the product of 40 years of a ruling-class offensive that began in the mid-1970s, before anyone had coined the term neoliberalism to describe it.

Maybe the most important thing is to recognize that the U.S. working class went from the highest-paid in the world during the postwar economic boom, but has entered a downward spiral since the mid-1970s. Today, it is the lowest-paid among OECD countries, with the greatest proportion of low-wage jobs, defined as paying less than two-thirds of the nation's median income.

Middle-income jobs are disappearing, while low-wage jobs are expanding exponentially--that's the explanation for what is going on in this country.

This outcome is no accident, but is central to the neoliberal project that began in the mid-1970s and continues to this day.

In 1974, Business Week put forward the corporate class's plan to shift the balance of forces decisively in its favor: "[I]t will be a hard pill for many Americans to swallow--the idea of doing with less so that big business can have more. Nothing that this nation, or any other nation, has done in modern economic history compares in difficulty with the selling job that must now be done to make people accept the new reality."

The neoliberal project over the last 40 years has been entirely bipartisan. It has continued unabated, no matter which party occupied the White House or whether the economy was in boom or slump. And both Hillary and Bill Clinton played a major role in implementing it, alongside the Republicans.

Far from its ostensibly "free market" ideology, neoliberalism has produced government austerity for the working class combined with economic welfare for the corporate class.

The U.S. is strewn with the wreckage of neoliberalism, including across the Midwest. Our landscape is dotted with once-thriving communities built around manufacturing jobs, where Walmart is now the biggest employer--that is, if Walmart hasn't moved out yet. That's what's setting the standard for low wages today.

The U.S. working class, in my opinion, is desperately seeking a voice in electoral politics, and this is going to require a third-party alternative to the corporate duopoly. It's our job to build this third-party alternative today, instead of feeding the illusion that the Democratic Party can be reformed in working-class interests--when it has proved itself time and time again that it is ultimately tied to the corporate class.

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