(Or, let’s stop with the economic anxiety.)
By Anne Trubek
During the most recent Democratic primary debate, Pete Buttigieg mentioned, over and over, that he was from the Industrial Midwest. Amy Klobuchar mentioned her (non-industrial) Midwestern roots several times; before he dropped out of the race, Tim Ryan pounded his his ur-Rust-Belty cred, being from the Mahoning Valley.
These candidates are positioning themselves as Democratic answers to that regrettable, never-should-have-been-asked question the national media has indulged in reporting on for the past three years: Why did the Rust Belt vote for Trump? The explanation most default to is found in the imagined words of an imagined white, working-class man—and it is always a man—who wishes he made more money and resents others who do, spoken between bites of a #2 special in a small town diner somewhere in Ohio.
This chimeric voter fascinates a subset of the national imagination and has irrational lasting power—as David Brooks’ recent ‘Flyover Man” column attests. But Voter Man is not responsible for the results of the 2016 election. Culprits ahead of him are many, including low voter turnout; disenfranchisement; misogyny; Russian interference; the electoral college; a statistical fluke.
None of the above information is new to regular readers of this magazine. But, as Mayor Pete keeps reminding us, the Industrial Midwest, or Rust Belt, will again become a focus of national attention and Democratic nail-biting as we head into 2020. Plus, even if the Michigan, Ohio, and Wisconsin voters who made the difference in 2016 could fit into one football stadium, those states did squeak into the red in 2016.
A blue streak runs deep here. The Midwest has a long and deep tradition of progressivism, from the prairie populists to the sit-down strikers to Fighting Bob LaFollette. That legacy bleeds into recent labor movements that have arisen since 2016, including the recent UAW strike, the Chicago Teachers Union strike, and the West Virginia teacher’s strike. Plus, many of the 2016 red states have since gone blue: the 2018 elections saw Democratic governors elected in Pennyslvania, Michigan, Wisconsin and, as of this week, Kentucky. (Just look at that new gubernatorial map!)
But if we have to ask that question again—because we know others will—can we propose a few other possible answers for why the region has tilted red-ward over the past few decades?
What if the culprits were nonprofits?
Bear with me. Or, rather, bear with Josh Pacewicz, a Sociology professor whose research focuses on the dwindling power of unions, churches, and local businesses in the region during the latter half of the twentieth century, and the rising power of public-private partnerships and philanthropy in their stead. Pacewicz argues the sense of belonging afforded by unions and churches was replaced, in the 1980s, by colder, alienating public-private partnerships and philanthropy; it’s harder to identify with the Rockefeller Foundation than with the pipefitters local. As city governments turned to “building coalitions to secure grants, woo corporate subsidiaries (frequently with public subsidies) and create cultural amenities—art walks, music festivals, and farmers market,” they left many residents out. “Many voters resented what they saw as a lack of recognition by local elites,” Pacewics writes, “and…seethed with undirected populist resentment at a technocratic, corporate-friendly elite.”
Other scholars have done more recent fieldwork along similar lines. In an excellent article in Public Books, Bryan Smith discusses the findings of three researchers whose work is based on intensive interviews with American voters. He, too, finds the “economic anxiety” argument falls flat, and warns us that Democrats should not deploy it in 2020. To focus on lunch pail politics, as the Trump campaign did in 2016, Smith concludes, is to believe that Flyover Man can be “duped right back.” To do so is to avoid, again, the brute fact that racial and gender politics are always baked into American economic interests. Defeating Trumpism, he argues, means we must “unpack the connections between patriotism and prejudice, violence and alienation, gender and nationalism, and, most of all, white privilege and how the state has long exercised power on its behalf.”
The thought of another year of Rust Belt Man think pieces fills me with dread and ennui. By all indications, Mayor Pete, this week’s New York Times poll, and parachute journalists will keep these tired analyses alive. I am energized by reading and debating new research that suggests different narratives—even if it means I might write a think piece blaming art walks for Trumpism. ■
Anne Trubek is the founder and publisher of Belt Publishing, and the founding editor of Belt Magazine.
Cover image of Baker Mayfield of the Cleveland Browns at a post-game press conference. Image via Cleveland Browns YouTube and Will Brinson.
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