Coal is the lynchpin of the Rust Belt story. In many ways, it has also been its undoing. The prodigious coal deposits of the Alleghenies were what fueled the fire (literally and figuratively) for the great industrialists of the day.
The region’s coal seam led Henry Frick to build his massive cooking furnaces in the region. Those furnaces created the coal that Andrew Carnegie needed to make steel. And that steel built the factories and mills that kept generations of blue-collar workers employed. Transportation was wildly expensive so it simply made sense to keep things local, or at least accessible from the great Rust Belt artery, the Ohio River.
Then everything changed. River and railroad became less important as highways crisscrossed the nation and transport costs plummeted. The process for making steel evolved as technology improved. And foreign companies chipped away at the United States’ manufacturing dominance. Factories closed, the market for steel dwindled, and the coking furnaces went cold. All the while, the people of the Rust Belt looked around at a world that had passed them by and wondered what happened. Some flocked to the opportunities of the Sun Belt while others hunkered down and tried to make it work.
Those who stayed behind are part of a fascinating political culture that has largely stuck by the Democrat party through thick and thin. Much of the region is like Cambria County, a steel working town tucked deep in to the dark fingers of the Allegheny Mountains. As Politico’s Keith O’Brien notes, between 1932 and 2000, voters here opted for the Democrat candidate in all but two elections.”When most of America joined the Reagan revolution in 1980, Cambria County went for Jimmy Carter,” O’brien writes. “Four years later, Walter Mondale did even better.” In short, this is just about as blue a country as it gets.
In many ways that steadfastness is surprising. Wages have stagnated. Factories have been shuttered. Youth are fleeing for better opportunities. And yet throughout it all, Democrat’s have maintained an iron-fisted (steel fisted?) grip on the region’s voters. As Ronald Brownstein writes for The Atlantic, the Rust Belt has long been a source of frustration for GOP strategists because it’s seems like natural Republican territory:
[T]hese states constantly intrigue Republican presidential strategists because the Democratic advantage in them depends largely on an act of political levitation: the ability to consistently win a slightly greater share of working-class white voters here than almost anywhere else. Explanations for that Democratic advantage range from a greater union presence, to a smaller number of heavily Republican evangelical Christians, to a more vibrant tradition of class consciousness that has elevated economic loyalties over the conservative cultural affinities that often power the GOP gains among blue-collar whites elsewhere.
But as the nation’s rural areas rebel against their fate and flock to the Republican Party, how much longer can the Democrats maintain their connection to the Rust Belt and its voters?
The answer may very well prove to be “not long.” O’Brien writes about Bill Polacek, the president of a steel fabrication company that weathered tough times in recent years, and the unofficial polls he took at some recent employee meetings.
In huddle after huddle, he asked for a show of hands from the employees gathered before him. How many folks were supporting Clinton or Sanders? How about Trump? It was an unofficial poll, with all the obvious flaws: Were people being honest? Or just following along with the others around them? Still, the results shocked Polacek. “Ninety percent of my employees are Democrats,” he said. And by his estimation, about 70 percent of the workers were supporting Trump.
“I think that’s what blew me away,” said Polacek recently from a small conference room near his office. “Engineers, project managers, accountants, welders, machinists—it was all the same. I think you’ve got a group of frustrated voters. They’re working. They’re not getting handouts. They’re proud to be working, proud to be Americans, and they’re seeing this country go in the wrong direction.”
These frustrated workers, who simply want a fare shake, can be found throughout the United States. They’ve been beaten down by taxes, swamped by regulations, and largely ignored by the party they once called home. Republicans won’t have all of the answers. There is no way to reverse the trends of technology and globalization, which are quickly changing the economy, but we can promise a better approach, one that pays attention to the needs of the working class, gets government out of the way of people’s success, and allows entrepreneurs and small businesses to thrive.
In short, Trump represents something new. And given how poorly the people of the Rust Belt have fared in the status quo, new is worth a shot.
Photo Credit: Gage Skidmore. See more of his work HERE.