How Biden lost working class voters to Trump — and how the left can get them back
Even though Joe Biden won the popular vote and a decisive victory in the electoral college, the bad news for Democrats is they lost House seats, didn’t win a majority in the Senate and somehow Donald Trump picked up ten million more votes. In 2016 Trump got 62 million votes, in 2020 so far he’s got at least 73 million — which to anyone who pays attention to politics, is mind blowing.
So what the left should be asking now is how did this incompetent and impeached president manage to PICK UP millions of new voters in the middle of a bungled pandemic thats killed hundreds of thousands and caused a recession putting millions out of work? How did ten million extra people look at an increasingly divided country, increasingly resembling a failed state with its health response, and then say “Well I didn’t vote for Donald Trump last time, but his record impresses me enough to get down to the polls and cast a ballot for him this time!”
Well I got a glimpse at part of the answer when I heard Pennsylvania Trump voters interviewed on a recent episode of the New York Times podcast The Daily. One Trump supporter was a laid off blue collar worker who spent twenty years employed in a factory that made VHS tapes, vinyl records and blu-ray discs.
“But then the jobs started fizzling out, you know they started going to Mexico and China… a lot of people lost their homes over it.”
Of course while a lot of factory and unskilled jobs have fled overseas over the last twenty years, simply saying your VHS tape factory job went to Mexico overlooks technological changes that probably lead to the factories demise. It’s almost sounds a bit like saying “I used to have a job delivering newspaper, til I lost it to those damn Swedes!” Or claiming “I used to have a job as a bank teller until all the bank teller jobs went to Bulgaria!”.
I’m joking of course but this shows how easy it is for a right wing strongman like Donald Trump to win votes by claiming foreigners stole jobs and then blaming the elites who wrote the enabling trade deals. When really the truth is a lot more complex, that a lot of the jobs have disappeared due to digital innovation and streaming technologies replacing labor intensive physical media manufacturing, which is all just a by-product of companies prioritising profits over jobs. Even as consumers we’re all guilty of causing jobs to be shifted off shore. Every time you buy a cheaper pair of socks made in China or Bangladesh, you forget you’re impacting local jobs perhaps even in your own community.
I sometimes joke that the endgame of this jobs-depleting innovation might be that all the machines and factories in the world being run by one guy, Bob, sitting at home alone pressing a button on his computer like Homer Simpson did in his MuMu, making $5 an hour while his boss Jeff Bezos lives on Mars and the rest of us are all homeless grifters. And then the one day Bob gets sick we’re all screwed because nobody bothered to train a costly replacement!
But back to the election. Trump as a politician quickly learned to tap into the anxieties of the precariously employed and unemployed. On the 2020 campaign he talked up record jobs numbers (all pre-pandemic) despite the fact a lot of these jobs didn’t pay a living wage and many of them were a flow-on effect from the Obama presidency.
As well as talking up “jobs, jobs, jobs” at his super-spreader campaign rallies, he painted his Democratic opponents as being anti-jobs for prioritising lives during the pandemic by saying
“Biden is the shutdown candidate. The Democrats are the shutdown party. They will shut down your job, shut down your schools, your businesses.”
In October, during the thick of the campaign, Trump claimed the record for the most job creation on record, 11.4 million jobs since April. “It’s never happened like this,” he thundered at a rally. Of course, he failed to acknowledge the real reason “it’s never happened like this” was of course because the pandemic shutdown large sections of the economy in March.
But even before COVID, Trump won over many of the precariously employed working class by painting the Democrats as being obsessed with free trade and therefore anti-American jobs.
“After NAFTA’s adoption more than 25 years ago, the United States lost nearly one fourth of all of its manufacturing jobs”
he declared when signing it’s replacement, the USMCA, which many claim made little progress on creating jobs. He also spuriously claimed that withdrawing the US from the Trans-Pacific-Partnership trade deal saved the automobile industry, something which Joe Biden and Barack Obama actually did back in 2009, but Biden barely mentioned during the debates.
Meanwhile during the 2020 campaign, Joe Biden was fixated with talking about Trump’s character and his racism. “Abraham Lincoln here is one of the most racist presidents we’ve had in modern history,” Biden pointedly said at the second debate, winning over precisely zero Trump voters with this historical-laden sarcasm, which even confused the President too.
While we all know Trump’s racist dog whistling and courting of white supremacists and the far-right is should instantly disqualify him from being President, anyone living in debt, pay check to pay check or worried about losing their jobs, probably tuned out or was too distracted to take much interested in this name calling anyway.
Then Biden possibly lost a large chunk of blue collar workers in the energy industry with his gaffe in the second debate, in which Trump got him to admit that his climate plan, which involves transitioning entirely to renewables, would eventually involve closing down the oil industry. Trump jumped on this theme immediately:
“Basically what he’s saying is that he is going to destroy the oil industry. Will you remember that Texas? Will you remember Pennsylvania?”
This gaffe, which also helped paint the Democrats as being anti-job, became a fixture in Trump’s stump speeches from then on.
Now with the world constantly on fire recently, of course we desperately need to replace the fossil fuel industry with renewables as soon as possible. This is undoubtedly an important, urgent and life saving policy position. I lost a family friend in the Australian bushfires in December 2019, and am still haunted by the weeks of unbreathable air and raining ash we lived with here in Sydney.
But with this transition to renewables, where do all these people employed in fossil fuel industries go and work? I hear the VHS tape factories in Mexico aren’t hiring anymore!
To his credit, Joe Biden says he has a plan for people losing their jobs in dying industries — but it sounds incredibly vague and fails to win over swing voters. Here is exactly what he said when asked by Stephen Colbert in 2017 about trucks drivers who would lose their jobs due to self-driving trucks:
“The answer is we’ve got to talk to them and tell them there’s ways to do this. The way we can do this is first of all acknowledge. My dad also had an expression, for real, he said ‘Joey I don’t expect the government to solve my problems but I expect them to understand my problem’. So you go out and you say ‘Look, these changes we can mold, like we’ve done every other technical revolution going all the way back to the cotton gin and when the luddites back in England in the early eighteen hundreds’. And what we have to do though, is we have to let them know there’s things we, for example, we have to have continuing education. And I mean, continuing education. That is, when you’re out of school, and you’ve gone through high school and you’ve gone on a job and you end up finding out you’re out of work. Well, there are a hundred thousands jobs out there in high tech manufacturing, that people can learn. But you need to be able to train people. So you have to be in a position where you team up with community colleges and corporations, and you teach people how to run a photovoltaic machine on a floor that makes you know, ummm… ahhh… solar panels. People can do these things, they have to know.”
So the shortened version of that was basically we can train truck drivers to make solar panels, forgetting the fact that the USA will probably never need as many solar panel makers as truck drivers and a lot of truck drivers probably don’t want to face the burden, inconvenience and cost of retraining in a completely new industry. This policy needs to be better sold to voters!
Jobs are not just disappearing in blue collar industries. I’m a TV editor by day and a lot of the tasks I did 15 years ago as I was starting out, like transcribing and syncing footage, can all be done by apps now. Those entry level jobs that got hard workers a foot into the door a decade ago seem to have largely disappeared.
So with jobs disappearing due to technical innovation and globalisation, right wing parties around the world have successfully tapped into the fear and xenophobia of the precariously employed working class to win elections, while successfully painting the left into a corner using culture wars to force them to shout ‘racist’.
The left needs to start reaching out to working class voters — perhaps first by reminding them that their employment anxiety and financial stresses are largely a result of the neo-liberal, for-profit policies of conservatives politicians. The myth that the conservative parties are for the working classes needs to be thoroughly debunked and pulled apart while the left wing implement policies that ACTUALLY improve the lives of the working classes, like paid family leave, free childcare and above all, lifting the minimum wage to be a living wage.
Dylan Behan is the creator and presenter of the podcast News Fighters. This article was adapted from Episode 49 “Why Joe Biden didn’t win over Trump voters”