When Midwest Workers Have Nothing Left but Their Votes

By Richard C. Longworth

A sign marks the city limits of Steele City, Nebraska in this picture taken March 10, 2014. REUTERS/Lane Hickenbottom

About a decade ago, I was in Dayton, Ohio, talking with factory workers caught in the end of the industrial era. Dayton drove that era. It had more patents per capita than any other American city. The Wright brothers, two proprietors of a Dayton bicycle shop, invented the airplane. Dayton also invented the cash register, microfiche, the bar code, the parking meter, the parachute, the pop-top can and much more. Mostly, a Dayton engineer named Charles Kettering invented the electric ignition for cars and turned it into the Dayton Engineering Laboratories Company, or Delco for short. Delco became Delphi, a giant auto parts maker, and eventually employed 185,000 people, nearly 20,000 of them at five big plants around Dayton.

When I was there, Delphi was closing almost all its Dayton operations. It still supported 5,700 jobs in Dayton, but all but a few hundred would go. Men and women who had spent their working lives on the line at Delphi, clocking in on time and doing a good job, would be cut loose. A local community college offered retraining for jobs that didn’t exist. Thousands of other industrial companies were laying off workers, not hiring.

The workers had paid their dues. Now they blamed Delphi executives, and tone-deaf Washington administrations, and foreign trade, especially NAFTA, a word they spat out — “NAFTA! — almost as a curse. I even found some of them harking to the conspiratorial teachings of Lyndon LaRouche, a fringe demagogue of the day.

In a book I wrote about Dayton and other cities and states across the vast Midwestern Rust Belt, I concluded that “globalization is made to order for demagogues and conspiracy theorists. By its nature, it exposes the vulnerable to distant and mysterious forces. It enriches a new class of global citizens, but undermines a way of life for middle-class workers who can’t understand what is happening to them and don’t feel they deserve it. This is not the way life was supposed to be, and they seek someone to blame.

“There soon will be workers with nothing left but their votes.”

Dayton is the county seat of Montgomery County. It’s part of John Boehner’s old congressional district, but the county voted for Barack Obama in both 2008 and 2012. This year, it voted for Donald Trump, and helped elect him president. In 2012, Obama won 17 Ohio counties. In 2016, Hillary Clinton lost 12 of those 17 counties, and lost the election.

Ohio was a keystone of Clinton’s Blue Wall, the old industrial states — Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin and Iowa — that she had to win. She lost them all, and lost a presidency she was favored to win. A stunned punditry and almost half of American voters are trying to figure out what happened.

Clinton certainly ran an incompetent campaign: it’s amazing how often the word “deplorables,” spoken almost as a badge of honor, comes up these days in interviews with Trump voters. And there are plenty of racists and misogynists out there, as any time spent in neighborhood bars (or their upscale counterparts in the clubhouses of golf courses) will show.

But the real reason is the economic disaster that has swallowed an entire civilization based on the industrial heart of America. This industrial Midwest sweeps from western Pennsylvania through eastern Iowa. For a century, it powered the American economy. Immigrants flooded in, mostly from Europe, to work in the steel mills and auto plants that were the locomotive of that economy, pulling entire cities and states behind it. Millions of Americans went straight from high school to the factory floor and built a middle class way of life. Men might work on blast furnaces and carry their lunch in lunch pails, but they owned their own homes, a car or two, a cottage by their lake. Big corporations paid the bills and big unions solved the problems. It was hard, sure, and often dangerous. Men professed to hate the drudgery and dehumanization. But it was all they had, and it worked.

And then it went away. Actually, it was a long time going. I talked with the workers in Dayton and other industrial cities before the 2008 recession began. Their industries and towns had already been in recession for years: the 2008 collapse only made things worse and, in their minds, permanent. The Great Lakes states supported nearly 5.3 million manufacturing jobs in 1979. In the first four years of the Reagan Administration, this dropped to 4 million, partly because of the recession and partly because of the growing movement to the Sun Belt.

This stayed steady until 2000. Then the full force of globalization hit. Between out-sourcing and automation, more than one-third of these jobs vanished. By 2010, barely 2.5 Midwesterners worked in industry. Usually, a slight recovery followed each sharp decline, and this happened after 2010. The region regained a few jobs, but nowhere near enough to make up for the losses.

The decline was economic but the impact was social. Across the Midwest, whole neighborhoods hollowed out. Families broke up. Men whose esteem rested on their status as breadwinners found themselves at home as their wives supported the family. Drug use soared. The brighter young people went to college and then decamped to the state capitals or Chicago: almost none went back home. The kids who never left ended up living with parents and working two or three minimum-wage jobs.

As factories closed, unions shriveled. For the jobs that remained, wages stagnated and the people who held them hung on, grateful for the work, but adjusting to an ever lower standard of living.

But through it all, most of this industrial Midwest stayed reliably Democratic. Ohio voted twice for George Bush. Iowa went for Bush in 2004. Otherwise, all five swing states formed a solid Democratic bloc since at least 1992.

(Indiana, the most southern of the Midwestern states, voted for Obama in 2008, but is otherwise the reddest of red states. Illinois and Minnesota remain Democratic bastions but mostly because Chicago and the Twin Cities dominate their states, politically as well as economically.)

Through it all, rural areas voted Republican and swelled the growing sea of red that has come to dominate America’s political map. But the industrial cities, for all their pain, stuck with the Democrats. On that political map, they were easy to spot — the urban islands of blue that, along with university towns and the big cities, gave the Democrats their reliable blue wall.

That’s changed. I realize now that, when I toured the Midwest nearly ten years ago for a book on the impact of globalization on the region, I was talking with Trump voters, but I didn’t know it.

U.S. President-elect Donald Trump speaks at a USA Thank You Tour event at U.S. Bank Arena in Cincinnati, Ohio, U.S., December 1, 2016. REUTERS/Mike Segar

I was in Muncie, Indiana, on the day the BorgWarner plant closed for good. The company had been founded in Muncie, along with the town’s dominant employer, Ball Glass. Ball State University and Ball Memorial Hospital remain, but the Balls — the family and the company — have been gone for nearly 20 years. Muncie and its Delaware County went for Obama in 2012, by three points, and for Trump this year, by 14 points.

The Balls exercised almost feudal power in Muncie and virtually created the town. The Maytags did the same in Newton, Iowa. I was in Newton shortly after Maytag was sold to Whirlpool, which closed the big appliance plant east of town, with most of its 3,800 jobs going to Mexico. I sat with Ted Johnson, whose jobs those days was closing the United Auto Workers headquarters in town.

“We’ve got these terrific trade agreements,” he said. “They open up the whole world to Third World countries with American incentives. They put impoverished workers to work, then sell the stuff back to the United States. Our government doesn’t even want us to have a decent standard of living.”

Johnson and his wife both had 20 years in at Maytag, but were ten years short of retirement. They had been saving to send their two daughters to college. On that day, that seemed a forlorn dream.

Newton and its Jaspar County voted for Obama and then for Trump. So did Galesburg and Knox County, across the Mississippi in Illinois, where another big Maytag factory (1,600 jobs) closed. A few good railroad jobs opened up, but not enough. Chad Broughton’s book, Boom, Bust, Exodus, charts the decline. When Maytag closed, 42 percent of the children in the Galesburg school district were “low income.” A decade later, they were 67 percent of the school enrollment.

Janesville, Wisconsin, may be Paul Ryan’s home town but the town and its Rock County have always been Democratic. Obama won Rock County by 64–36 percent in 2008. In 2009, Janesville’s big General Motors plant closed. It once employed 7,000 workers, and still had 1,200 when it stopped work. This year Clinton still won Rock County but by only 52 to 42 percent, part of the sharp Democratic vote decline that cost her the state.

Is this racism? Well, these supposedly racist towns did go twice for Barack Obama? Is it misogyny? Maybe. I talked with an old mayor, a diehard Democrat, in a downstate Illinois town with a Ku Klux Klan past and a meatpacking economy. This was early 2008 and he supported Obama in the Democratic primary. What about Hillary? Not yet, he said. His neighbors were ready for a black president but not a woman president.

I heard a lot of this, from women more than men. Clinton’s career, her ambition, her scorn for women “who stayed home and baked cookies,” was an affront to traditional Midwestern women who had stayed home, baked cookies and generally deferred to their husbands. To urban feminists, this sounds like Victorian, and maybe it is. But it’s a reality, and it lingers. Donald Trump won 53 percent of the vote of white women, and no less than 62 percent of white women without a college education.

But there’s more here than a misogyny that spans genders or reflect lifestyles. My bet is that these women voted for Trump for the same reason their husbands did, which is that a new and scary economy has distorted their lives and killed their dreams, and they were ready for a messiah who promised to put it right.

These people voted for Obama because he promised change, and seemed to mean it. They would have voted for Clinton if they believed she was anything other than the old political wheelhorse she is. For better or for worse, Trump is different, really different, and so they voted for him.

This doesn’t mean these voters shared Trump’s views on race or immigrants or women, or admire his many marriages and scurrilous language or tax-dodging or his draft-dodging. Most of these white voters work with blacks and Hispanics, treat their wives decently, pay their taxes and are the men and women who answer the call when America fights a war. Asked to choose, most favor equal rights. Most know that their cities would be even smaller today without immigrants.

But these issues — race, gender, immigration — rank low among these voters’ priorities. They want jobs. They want a decent wage, and a pension. They want some security. They want a future for their children. Trump promised them that. Or rather, he promised to make America great again, and in that meaningless catchphrase they heard what they wanted to hear, and they voted for him.

For Catholics and evangelicals, single issues such as abortion, can be decisive, and Trump pushed this button, too. Otherwise, it’s economics — how much food is on the table, and who pays for it. It’s an issue that crosses gender lines.

Did Trump mean what he said? Who knows? Who cares? Trump bottled up decades of resentment and rage and, like any county fair barker, sold it by the carload. In the cities and on the campuses, his tirades sound like racist rants. But the left-behind reaches of the industrial Midwest have long stopped caring what the cities and college towns think, for the good reason that the cities and college towns have stopped thinking about them.

This sheer alienation — between the great cities and their hinterlands, between the global citizens and the global victims — is a major key in this election, epitomized in that red-and-blue political map. Clinton sounds like what she is — Chicago-born, Yale-educated, Washington-hardened, New York-wealthy — and so personifies the heedless urbanites who have taken globalization and run with it, a skillful secretary of state who, by now, has more in common with the bureaucrats of Brussels than with the voters in her blue wall. When Trump railed against her paid speeches on Wall Street, he knew his audience.

The great cities — Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, Washington — have thrived on globalization. So have college towns, which is one reason why rural-dominated state legislatures across the Midwest are trimming funding for the state universities that bear their name: in Michigan, the state provides barely 8 percent of the operating expenses for the university in Ann Arbor. So, somewhat surprisingly, have state capitals such as Columbus or Des Moines or Indianapolis, which have inhaled most of the economic vitality and young talent of their states, once Chicago and New York have skimmed off the cream.

The old, forgotten towns know the cities don’t care about them, and they’re right. The Chicago Tribune, still the Midwest’s biggest newspaper, doesn’t even have a Midwestern beat any more, seldom sends reporters outside the Chicago metro region (which voted for Clinton) into the hinterlands (which didn’t), and didn’t even try to report on voter attitudes in the region it once dominated. After the election, it atoned by sending one lonely reporter to do a short piece from a small town in western Illinois, on the same weekend it sent four reporters and two photographers to Tampa Bay to cover the Bears’ football game there.

In journalism, this is called missing the story. Not only the Tribune but every other major Midwestern newspaper missed this one.

The key to all this is globalization. It is the dominant force of our time, as powerful and transformative as was the industrial revolution that preceded it. That revolution created the industrial Midwest. The global revolution is reshaping the region — all of it. So far, the grandees of government and academia have hailed this new force. It has revitalized many American cities and turned them into global cities. It has been a boon for universities that have tapped into a global student body. It has enriched many. More important, it has pulled hundreds of millions of peasants in China and other countries out of hopeless poverty and given them, for the first time, a taste of the economic decency that we in the West have taken for granted.

But it asks the question that has not been answered: must this be done on the backs of American and other western workers? Can globalization work for both Chinese peasants and the factory workers of Dayton?

So far the answer is no. For all its blessings, globalization is the source of the inequality that is igniting a political backlash across the Western world. This backlash is called populism and it has become a force everywhere that people have something to lose. The left-behind hinterlands of England rebelled against London and, with Brexit, voted to cut that city off from the global markets that made it rich. Populist parties in Europe, from France to Poland, threaten to shatter the European Union and rekindle national animosities that we thought had been doused years ago.

Despite promises, the Washington Consensus has not delivered the goods to Dayton and Galesburg. Free trade economists who insist that trade raises all boats need to spend more time in places such as Muncie and Newton. The men and women who used to work the lines at BorgWarner and Maytag are innocent of classical economics. But each person is an expert in the circumstances of his or her own life, and could teach these economists some valuable lessons. Academics and government officials who still favor trans-Atlantic and trans-Pacific trade deals lost those arguments on Nov. 8.

Two things now are vital. First, globalization must continue and grow, because it is what we have. We cannot go back to the old industrial era, locked inside national boundaries, and uninvent the globalizing technologies that have propelled us into this new era. For all globalization’s faults, this cure would be worse than the disease. Our earlier shot at globalism, the belle epoque at the turn of the twentieth century, was derailed by two world wars and the Great Depression, not a price worth paying. The industrial era began with the crushing poverty of the dark satanic mills and emerged into an upland of middle class stability that cut across classes. And now we’ve got to do this all over again.

But second, we can do this only if we attend to the very real pain that has led millions of decent Americans — a majority of decent Americans — to elect a man who, by common consent, is not fit to be president. The presidential election this year was a cry for help from good people left behind and a warning that if we leave too many people with nothing but their vote, we deserve what we just got.

Richard C. Longworth is a Distinguished Fellow at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and author of Caught in the Middle: America’s Heartland in the Age of Globalism.

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Commentary from the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, an independent, nonpartisan membership organization exploring ideas that will shape our global future.

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