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The Decline of Working Class Institutions


As I stated yesterday in my post about why the polls probably aren’t wrong, one major problem Democrats have is that there simply aren’t institutions anymore where you can reach working class people, leaving the evangelical church, the gun club, and the Joe Rogan Experience the creator of working class politics. By chance, Harold Meyerson had a long piece on this issue at the Prospect and I’d like you all to consider it.

Identifying the right messages, however, is not the main point of this study (nor, I suspect, even its primary raison d’ȇtre). Rather, it’s how those messages have to be delivered, which poses the real challenge to Biden and the Democrats in the upcoming election.

As the study notes, “The voters in our surveys are convinced that their friends and neighbors are mostly voting Republican and for Trump, and that feeling influences how people vote.” The In Union survey indicates that respondents believed their neighbors would vote Republican over Democratic by a 3-to-1 margin. “One of the key strategic elements to moving these voters,” the study claims, “is tapping into trusted sources to communicate with them. Simply airing a bunch of TV ads and knocking on doors late in the campaign is not going to break through with these voters—they are too convinced that most people like them are voting Republican and too cynical about politics as it is commonly practiced to be moved much by traditional ads and campaign tactics right before Election Day.”

This assessment echoes that in perhaps the best book that’s come out on the political shift in much of the working class: Lainey Newman and Theda Skocpol’s Rust Belt Union Blues, which was published last year. The book, which I reviewed for the Prospect in January, takes a granular look at the onetime mine and mill towns of Western Pennsylvania. In 1960, those towns (also including the cities of Pittsburgh and Erie) were home to 143 locals of the United Steelworkers; today, only 16 of those locals still exist. In 1960, those locals were not just venues for union meetings. They were also union social halls, where members and their families came to unwind after work, and hold weddings and other family celebrations. The unions were a social center of those towns’ collective life (something the movie The Deer Hunter depicted quite well), creating peer groups and communities enmeshed in the union’s values and, more often than not, its politics.

Today, not only are those union locals long gone, but the only real remaining social centers in most of those towns are gun clubs, most of them affiliated with the National Rifle Association as a way to get discounted guns for their members. Today, the peer groups and communities for most working-class residents of the once-industrial Midwest have become Republican, a transition that the In Union/Factory Towns survey completely corroborates.

So who are “the trusted sources,” as the survey puts it, the neighbors and friends who still retain credibility, who can convey the Democrats’ populist messaging to working-class voters? The study calls on unions to activate their members to be the precinct walkers who can actually talk to working-class voters, but acknowledges that due to unions’ declining numbers, they must be joined by Democratic and other movement activists. In Union has identified 3.3 million voters in those three swing states who have pro-union attitudes; 14 percent of them say they’re undecided in the upcoming presidential and senatorial elections.

But building a community where progressive populist politics is the norm rather than the exception is the work of years, and the study acknowledges that Democrats are flat out of years to do that work. “We aren’t going to transform the landscape and reverse all the problematic trends in six months in terms of working-class voters,” it says, adding, “right now this is a game of inches. But given how close battleground elections are going to be, inches are the difference between winning and losing.”

For a long, long time Democrats used unions for GOTV operations while not supporting policies that would help said unions organize more workers. Unions were an afterthought in Democratic politics from the Carter through the Obama years. Yes, for Biden it is very different. But the entire era of “laid off steel and coal workers should learn to code” politics simply left the Democratic Party barren to large numbers of working class voters. One classic example of this came from Annie Lowrey in 2015 when she argued that more jobs should leave the U.S. for Africa. You didn’t see many columns like that anymore after Trump’s election!

You can’t just turn the spigot of working class institutions that aren’t directly connected to far right politics back on overnight. Biden has tried to promote union growth whenever he can and God bless him for it. It takes a lot more than that. Instead, what you have is a generation of people who mistrust all institutions, a core constituency of the Democratic Party (white liberals) who really really believe in institutions, and no meaningful way for these two viewpoints to meet in a useful way. I don’t really know what to do about it either, except to say that if you don’t support unions, you as antithetical to Democratic Party values as you would be if you don’t support abortion rights or want to criminalize gay marriage. But even to say that doesn’t mean we can rebuild them.

Right now, Democrats simply have no answers here and that’s a real damning indictment of the party in the last half-century. Trump is the wages of the disdain for the working class that Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, Gary Hart, Rahm Emanuel, Larry Summers, Arne Duncan, and so many other leading Democrats of the late 20th and early 21st century have wrought. They wanted neoliberalism and by God, that’s what they got.

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