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How Democrats can rebuild their ‘blue wall’ in the Midwest

Once upon a time, Democrats in the industrial Midwest could count on the votes of the blue-collar, often unionized workers of the many factory and mill towns dotting the region. But according to a new report by Democratic strategists previewed in the New York Times, over the last decade many voters who live in blue-collar strongholds that have lost manufacturing jobs have embraced former President Trump and the Republicans. Now Democrats are in a quandary, facing the prospect of the collapse of their once-fabled “blue wall.”  What happened? And what should they do about it?

Popular perceptions aside, and as I have written before, today there is no monolithic Midwestern “Rust Belt” of struggling manufacturing and mill towns. There was once a common economic storyline among the small, mid-sized and large manufacturing communities strung through the fields, forests and along the rivers and lakefronts of the upper Midwest.

But this manufacturing-based economy, rocked by globalization, technological change and new competitors has undergone decades of restructuring. and in some places the total disappearance of manufacturing plants and their well-paying jobs. Communities have struggled to adapt. 

Today there are two Midwests — the many former “factory towns” that have made the transition to a new, more diversified economy; and others that have lost their economic anchors and are still struggling.

In today’s  tech-driven, knowledge economy, economic activity has tended to concentrate in the major metros, and the Midwest is no exception. In the industrial Heartland – from Minneapolis to Indianapolis to Pittsburgh – the major metros have largely turned an economic corner. Similarly, the numerous Midwestern university towns, such as Iowa City, Iowa; Madison, Wis.; Ann Arbor, Mich.; and State College, Pa., are thriving.

The same cannot be said of the numerous small and medium-sized industrial communities that typify the Midwest economic landscape. Some have evolved their economies, but many others have not.

These small and medium-sized factory towns have outsized political influence. In Michigan and Wisconsin, for example, more than half of the voting population resides in the smaller and midsize manufacturing communities.

And as the report by Midwestern Democratic strategists Richard Martin, David Wilhelm and Mike Lux documents, in the communities that have seen the most severe manufacturing job loss, the ground is fertile for a nationalist, nostalgic and populist appeal of the kind offered by Donald Trump.

Why is this? Residents of struggling industrial communities are responsive to the messages of leaders who identify with them and against urban elites — leaders who promise to bring back the industries that once provided well-paying jobs, and blame trade deals and immigrants for their community’s woes.

And this populist message can come from the left or the right. Both Donald Trump and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) (who did very well in Midwest factory town communities in the 2016 primary, defeating Hillary Clinton outright in Michigan) offered a politics of resentment — essentially a message that says: “you are getting screwed and someone else is getting theirs at your expense.”

But rightwing and leftwing populists differ on solutions. Leftwing populists such as Sanders and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) offer policy fixes: for example, taxing the rich to provide free college, health care and a higher minimum wage. Rightwing populists such as Trump play to identity, and trumpet social and cultural issues, with a nod to nationalism and white supremacy, to appeal to voters.

Responsive to these cultural cues, many white, working-class voters have abandoned the Democrats. And no doubt progressive Democrats (particularly those representing districts and states far away from middle America) don’t help themselves and alienate Heartland voters further with hardline stances on guns, immigration and abortion.

But the root cause undergirding the embrace of populist messages is the economic condition and deterioration of once-thriving working-class communities.

And many of the Midwest’s small and medium-sized factory towns are struggling. In 2016 many of these very communities flipped to Donald Trump — enough for him to eke out electoral victories in the once solidly Democratic states of Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania.

In the 2018 congressional midterm elections and the 2020 presidential election, these struggling factory towns went even “Trumpier.” Democrats narrowly carried these elections by winning the better-off cities and their suburbs, including some historically Republican-leaning ones.

Now Democrats are ringing the political alarm bells for 2022 and 2024. The report by Democratic strategists warns, in the words of co-author Martin: “if things continue to get worse for us in small and midsize working class communities, we can give up any hope of winning the battleground states of the industrial heartland.”

The report notes that the Midwest mirrors the nation’s voting trends, with Democrats gaining votes in recent years in the bigger cities and their suburbs while losing votes in rural areas. But according to the report, the biggest losses came in the small and midsize industrial communities that shed manufacturing jobs (and the good health care that goes with them) during the past eight years. More than 2.6 million fewer Democratic votes in 2020 versus 2012 came from once solidly blue Democratic strongholds such Chippewa Falls, Wis., and Bay City, Mich.

Strategists worry that without the polarizing presence of Trump on the ballot (at least in 2022), suburban moderate Republicans, repelled by Trump, may return to their party. Absent these votes in key Midwest congressional districts, the Democrats’ electoral goose may be cooked.   

Democrats are right to be concerned. The report makes no recommendations about how to win these voters back. But the agenda for how the Democrats do better can be read between the lines.

There is evidence that when older industrial communities decline, residents are more receptive to polarizing rightwing messages. But there is also compelling evidence that where former “Rust Belt” communities find new economic footing, the lure of resentful populism wanes as residents grow more optimistic about the future.

This has been the case in the Midwest. Residents of industrial communities that have made the transition to a new economy exhibit different attitudes and voting patterns than those in communities that still struggle. Resurgent industrial communities, such as Pittsburgh, Pa., and Grand Rapids, Mich., as well several smaller Midwest former industrial communities that have turned an economic corner, see powerful trends away from nationalism and nostalgia and towards moderate centrism. This was true in both the 2018 midterm elections and in the November 2020 election results — when once solidly Republican counties such as Kent County, Mich., home to newly thriving Grand Rapids, went for both a Democratic governor and President Biden.

Democrats need to focus less energy on intra-party bickering and more energy on delivering economic opportunities and optimism to the largely white, working-class voters in and around the still-struggling industrial communities of the Midwest. They can begin that effort by refusing to patronize them or to tell them all that is wrong with their communities. It also involves not telling them that they are racists or “deplorables” for having voted for Donald Trump.

Democrats must stop using language that derides the pride and identity of factory-town denizens like “post-industrial,” or describing residents’ hometowns as part of the “Rust Belt.”

What working-class voters want to hear from Democratic leaders is: “We see you. We understand why you are upset with the conditions of your community. You and your community and future success are a national priority. We are here to support and offer resources for you to build your own future.”

Only then can Democrats begin to rebuild the blue wall.

John Austin directs the Michigan Economic Center and is a nonresident senior fellow with the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and the Brookings Institution.

Tags 2016 election 2020 election 2022 elections Bernie Sanders blue wall Donald Trump Elizabeth Warren Hillary Clinton Joe Biden Midwestern United States Political parties in the United States Populism Rust Belt

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