Unions and the White Working Class Vote

Harold Meyerson

MT. PLEASANT, SC - DECEMBER 7: (EDITORS NOTE: Retransmission with alternate crop.)  Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks to the crowd at a Pearl Harbor Day Rally at the U.S.S. Yorktown December 7, 2015 in Mt. Pleasant, South Carolina. The South Carolina Republican primary is scheduled for February 20, 2016. (Photo by Sean Rayford/Getty Images)

MT. PLEASANT, SC – DECEMBER 7: (Photo by Sean Rayford/Getty Images)

It is now, as the Post’s numbers in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Ohio (where Trump holds a three-point lead) clearly suggest. The decline of white working-class support for the Democrats has engendered a debate as to its causes: whether it’s due to the declining economic condition (and, indeed, life expectancy) of working-class whites, or to their racial and cultural resentment at the rising number of minorities and the programs the Democrats have championed for the past 50 years to help them. Clearly, the cause isn’t simply one or the other. The sense of abandonment that many working-class whites feel is rooted both in economics and culture. It’s worth noting, however, that even at the height of the United Auto Workers’ power in Michigan, as far back as 60 years ago and more, it could persuade its white members to vote for Democrats for state and federal office, where economic policies were formulated and implemented, but never could persuade them to vote Democratic for Detroit city officials, who held sway over policing, school and housing policies—that is, over the policies with the greatest impact on race relations and discrimination.

Still, the presidential contest is for a federal office with huge power over economic policy. Shouldn’t unions be moving their white members toward Clinton? They probably are: The AFL-CIO released survey data yesterday that showed Trump is polling just 36 percent among its members in five swing states (Florida, Nevada and three in the Midwest: Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin). That, of course, is a survey of all its members, not just its white working-class members, whose level of Trump support is certainly higher than these aggregate totals. But more important than the preferences of these union members is the preferences of non-members who would have been members before the near collapse of private-sector unionism—that is, before corporations abandoned their employees for cheaper labor in China, before American management began to oppose and thwart unionization all across the private sector, and before a number of these states (Wisconsin and Michigan most notably), under Republican government, went right-to-work. In 2015, just 15.2 percent of the Michigan workforce was unionized, just 12.3 percent of Ohio’s, and just 8.3 percent of Wisconsin’s—all states where close to 40 percent of the private sector workforce was unionized in the mid-20th century.

The AFL-CIO’s Working America program, which goes door to door in white working-class neighborhoods to talk with non-union voters, does yeoman work, but there’s no question that unions’ capacity to reach and impact the kind of voters they once had as members isn’t what it used to be. Looking at exit polling since the early 1970s, white working class union members have tended to vote Democratic at a rate 20 points higher than their non-union counterparts—a tribute to the unions’ ability to get its white members to consider economic issues, not just what for some is their racial fear and loathing. Looking at the numbers in the Post’s poll, then, one explanation for the surprisingly high level of Trump support in the Midwest—beyond the purely economic or racial—is the declining level of unionization.

However large a role white racism is playing in this year’s election—and the evidence suggests it isn’t small—what the Post poll illustrates is the degree to which racial composition is playing a decisive role in many states.
However large a role white racism is playing in this year’s election—and the evidence suggests it isn’t small—what the Post poll illustrates is the degree to which racial composition is playing a decisive role in many states. In those states to which immigrants have flocked since 1980, Clinton is doing better than Democrats have done before; in the states that immigrants have largely shunned, most particularly where the white working-class share of the population has remained high, Trump is doing better than Republicans have done before. Trump’s candidacy has clearly mobilized both minorities (con) and working-class whites (pro) in greater numbers than we’ve seen in previous elections, but the movement of these two constituencies into the Democratic and Republican camps, respectively, didn’t begin with this election and won’t end with it.

It’s hard to envision what changes the Republicans are likely to make that will win them a substantial share of minority voters, since the party has been trending in a white nationalist and xenophobic direction for many years, and isn’t likely to transform the racial attitudes and provincialism of its base voters. And unless the Democrats can create a vibrant full-employment economy (no easy task in an age of globalized and robotized production), or unless Republicans regain executive power and plunge us into another disastrous war or recession, it’s hard to see what would impel those working-class whites who have drifted right to return to the Democrats’ ranks.

In other words, in elections still to come, the Democrats are likely to pick up the growing Southern border states and states with increasing percentages of college-educated whites, while the Republicans may run stronger than they have in the shrinking states of the once industrial Midwest. Electoral advantage: Democrats.
Read the entire piece. http://prospect.org/article/shifting-electoral-map-gives-democrats-advantage


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