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Can Democrats Make a Comeback in Factory Towns?

NASHVILLE, : US President Bill Clinton clinches his fist during a 27 October speech on welfare reform at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, Tennessee. The US general election is two weeks away on 05 Novemeber. (ELECTRONIC IMAGE) AFP PHOTO Paul J. RICHARDS (Photo credit should read PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP/Getty Images)

A recent report suggests the answer is yes, though I remain highly skeptical.

Issued by a nonprofit group called American Family Voices, it was written primarily by Mike Lux, a Democratic strategist and Biden ally with roots in the region. It builds on research that was published last fall and highlighted by my colleague Jonathan Martin at the time. The study used polls, focus groups and several hundred interviews and meetings with local officials, political operatives and activists, as well as a deep dive into voter file and census data.

The authors have emerged with a richer set of findings to recommend “a messaging and organizing path forward” for the Democratic Party in the 10 states, 565 counties and nearly 55 million voters they studied.

The polling, which was conducted by Lake Research Partners, shows a population buffeted by the rising cost of living and suffering from health-related crises. A majority, for instance, said they or a family member had a chronic health condition. Majorities also said they had personally struggled with disabilities, job loss, mental health problems or addiction.

The political challenge Democrats face in these communities is stark. The Democratic share of the electorate in so-called factory-town counties shrank from 33 percent to 24 percent from 2012 to 2020, according to TargetSmart, a Democratic data firm that was hired to work on the project, while the Republican share ballooned to more than 51 percent during the same period, from 40 percent.

Voters in this “factory towns” demographic, which still makes up nearly half of the electorate in those states, often view Democrats as too weak to enact their economic agenda, and are cynical about politicians’ ability to help them in general.

Democrats deserve a ton of blame here. Everyone wants to talk about the racism and cultural stuff and, yeah, sure that’s an issue. But it was an issue in the 1960s and 1970s too and those workers still mostly voted for Democrats, even if not always liberals.

The problem to me comes down to one basic issue–Democratic leaders were indifferent to the fates of these communities when the factory jobs left for Mexico, Central America, and Asia. If you want to get these voters back, you have to provide good jobs in the communities in which they live. That’s the agenda. Create good union jobs in Flint and Youngstown and Erie and Canton. For way too long, not only Democratic leaders such as Bill Clinton handwaved the impact of globalization on these places by talking up job creation elsewhere, entrepreneurship, or…Christ…teaching 50 year old unemployed factory workers to code. These attitudes were huge in the pre-Trump era among your liberal internet writer too. Yglesias is a classic example. And remember when Dylan Matthews and Annie Lowrey basically said that Paul Theroux was history’s greatest monster for suggesting we create jobs in poor communities in the U.S. instead of sending them all to even poorer communities overseas? You can see these are isolated voices, but they are not. They are powerful voices within the Beltway who people read. They reflect the feelings of those Beltway voices.

You can say, oh this is hard to create jobs, etc. And sure, it is hard. But this is what politicians are elected to do. For decades, Democrats justified all of this by looking at the world from 30,000 feet and not really paying attention to what was going on in these towns. The problem with that is that while you can justify it all morally, you have to live in the nation you create. And Democratic leaders helped create this nation as it is today. Our leaders opened the door for fascists and left it there for a half-century. You want to do something about it? You have to create jobs in the place where people live. You work from there. Without that? Forget about it. Without it, the people who can get out, do get out. We all know tons of people from Michigan and Ohio and Pennsylvania who have moved to Colorado and New York and Oregon. The people left get more and more bitter. The nation becomes even more polarized. And because of the disastrous political system created by our terrible Constitution, these communities have outsized power over our nation. And sure, Republicans were just as indifferent to these communities but they gave the people there one thing to hold on to–hate. And in the absence of anything else, that’s worked for them.

These are the realities. What we do about them will say a lot. Heck, it already has.

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