It’s no secret now that Donald Trump won the presidency largely because of support for working-class voters in Rust Belt States. More specifically, he did better among union households than any Republican since Ronald Reagan, losing the demographic by just 8 points, as compared to the 18 points that Romney lost them by.
In many ways this is amazing. After all, union bosses spent around $100 million of their members’ money to try and elect Hillary Clinton and other Democrats across the country. And Donald Trump did not exactly tailor a purely pro-labor platform to pander to union members. He, for instance, has supported right-to-work laws, which impede unions’ ability to force workers to join and pay dues under penalty of law.
Then again, there has been a growing undercurrent among the American working class that suggested a split between laborers and elites was imminent. It began with a gradual shift in emphasis from “kitchen table” issues of importance to the working class — unemployment, wages, economic growth, education, etc. — to issues of importance with the elite, whose relative financial security gives them the freedom to focus on second-tier issues.
Tom McCabe writes for RealClearPolitics:
This disconnect between Democratic elites, their union boss pals and rank-and-file union members has been a long time coming. Decades ago, organized labor made a pact with the Democratic Party. Democrats would support legislation approved by the union leadership and in return labor leaders would support Democratic politicians and liberal causes, even when those candidates and causes were objectionable to most of their members.
The labor agenda became nearly indistinguishable from that of the East Coast liberals and Hollywood elites who run the Democratic Party. This agenda focused on climate change, immigration reform, and liberal cultural issues rather than working to improve their members’ economic condition. This was particularly true when it came to public employee unions that are especially close to Democratic politicians who control government purse strings.
As McCabe goes on to write, there were portents of this shift in both Indiana and Michigan, where Govs. Scott Walker and Rick Snyder were easily reelected despite their right-to-work bona fides in union-heavy states. Unsurprisingly, it turns out, union members don’t like to feel as though their union dues are being thrown down the drain on political causes they don’t care about rather than as political leverage to re-focus the agenda on their needs.
Democrats have also thrown labor under the bus by a shift in political strategy. Previously, they understood that political fault lines tended to fall along economic lines, where Democrats successfully painted a picture where they were the guardians of the workers while Republicans were the representatives of the bosses. Of course, it was never true, and relied on a blatant twisting of free market principles to make it convincing, but it nevertheless seemed to work.
But as Marilyn Katz writes for In These Times, Democrats quickly abandoned the working class in order to focus on their “demography is destiny” hypothesis:
It was easy to do. As demographics changed, Democrats and the left were able to cobble together coalitions of urbanites, women, African-Americans and Latinos that won elections with slim pluralities. While I have always been a critic of Todd Gitlin’s and others critique of identity politics, it may be true that the left abandoned the fundamentals of class politics and drifted into the comfort of identity politics, mistaking the ability to mobilize a slim plurality for real power, at its peril.
Of course, that didn’t quite work. In spite of Democrats attempt to slice-and-dice the population based on some arbitrary notion of what demographic group “best” represents a voter, and then targeting policies and outreach to win them over, it turns out that people’s identities defy such rigid categorization. Perhaps more importantly, an individual’s economic concerns may outweigh the other identity variables that lay underneath.
All told, Democrats have willingly let go their grip on working-class voters in order to pursue alternative policies and voting blocs. Given that Faustian bargain, it’s going to be very hard to win the working class back.