Blue-Collar Dems: a Case Study of Party Defection

(Illustration of file photo by Brian Grosh/CNS)

Hillary Clinton’s loss in the 2016 presidential election did more than paint the executive office red. With Republicans at the helm of the federal and most state governments, the Democratic Party is at a crossroads. This three-part series looks at what they are doing to get back on track.

WASHINGTON (CN) – Unable to fashion a golden ticket to the White House from Hillary Clinton’s 3-million-vote lead over Donald Trump, Democrats begrudgingly began the process of introspection. Courthouse News spoke with four experts to figure out what became of the blue-collar Democrat.

“Don’t look for rationality,” said Marvin King, an associate professor of American politics at the University of Mississippi. “That’s not useful here. We’re dealing with Americans.”

While he awaits peer-reviewed studies on the issue, King offered up a theory on how the Trump campaign drew out the traditionally white base Democrats thought they had on lock.

Think “economic dislocation,” King said. “Not folks without jobs, but those who feel they’re relatively underemployed. They might have a job and are paying bills, but in the last eight years, wages stagnated, and they didn’t move forward.”

Marvin King, associate professor of American politics at the University of Mississippi. (Photo from university website)

Couple this with emphasis on identity politics over policy, he says, and voters who no longer felt represented by the Democratic Party came running to a message of inclusion.

Marvin compares 2016 party defection to the allure of President Ronald Reagan in the 1980 and 1984 elections.

“He was able to skillfully create this narrative that white, working-class people are paying for benefits they don’t receive, like affirmative action,” Marvin said of the Gipper.

Feeling that someone was giving voice to their concerns, the white working class turned turn to Reagan in droves.

The Democratic Party opted to “double down on identity politics then,” Marvin said.

“They said, anyone who is not a white male, you are welcome. That’s not their intent nor their strategy necessarily,” Marvin noted, “but it’s easy to caricature Democratic policies as favoring nonwhite males. If you feel the Democratic Party cares more about females or black males or Hispanic females, then your sense of attachment to the party dwindles.”

 

Ted Ownby, a historian colleague of Marvin’s at Ole Miss, is director of the school’s Center for the Study of Southern Culture. As what he called a “student of the American South,” Ownby said he was not surprised by the defection.

“The traditionally Democratic voter in the past few generations have been floaters,” he said. “They’re the ones that move from perspective to perspective more readily than Republicans do.”

Ted Ownby, director of the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi. (Photo from university website)

Like the Reagan administration and Nixon before that, Ownby agrees, the “language of the silent majority” regained control.

The persistent campaign message by Trump – that he understood the plight of Americans who felt pinched by the government – was persuasive enough to cut through old party firewalls.

Chock it up to globalization in part, says Ownby, but laying blame on it alone doesn’t do justice to more complex forces at hand.

“It’s harder to pin down but I would argue it’s a backlash by swing voters against several years of a liberal president who also is, not insignificantly, African-American,” Ownby said.

Stressing the importance of not generalizing voters, Ownby speculated like King that lack of inclusion could be responsible for the Democrats’ undoing.

“That connection, in a number of white people’s minds, is that people of color go into government to get something for other people of color alone,” he said. “And sometimes that comes out overt or angrily.”

Ownby admitted he “couldn’t figure out the anger” of those who make those correlations, but he did venture a guess as to why some “soft Democrats,” as he called them, gave their ballots to Trump.

“The combination of Hillary Clinton as the first woman president after the first African-American president,” he exclaimed. “It was like, ‘Enough! We’ve had enough firsts and that’s enough of a frustration.’”

Recalling how Trump invited women allegedly assaulted by Clinton’s husband to view their debate, Ownby said this maneuver pandered to tolerance fatigue among noncommittal Dems.

“I suspect a number of people, including the combination of soft Democrats who didn’t vote for a woman or a first woman president, also didn’t want to vote for a woman who had been in Bill Clinton’s household,” Ownby said. “Whatever Hillary was, she was/is a member of a household of disrepute to a number of people in the country.”

And, the historian was quick to add, “there’s a lot of people for whom they judge by their household and not by their individual acts.”

For twice-divorced Trump, it seemed, a lot of voters also proved less forgiving of a woman’s household than a man’s.

 

John Kilwein is an associate professor of political science and the director of undergraduate studies at Ohio State University.

In the Buckeye State, Kilwein said, the bottoming out of the Democratic Party can be traced back well before the emergence of Trump. A native Pennsylvanian who spent years living in West Virginia and Ohio, Kilwein knows the region well. He said the desertion to the GOP kicked off in 2008 election and continued in 2012.

“A lot of jobs that would have gone to blue-collar voters, in general, were and are leaving the state,” Kilwein said. “A lot of union mines are closing, nonunion mines are increasing.”

As direct employment by coal companies decreases, Kilwein predicts voters will have to confront “a lot of uncomfortable facts in an overwhelmingly white state” when the “bucket that is Barack Obama can’t be filled with anger anymore.”

“You look at a place like West Virginia or Kentucky that solidly came out and voted for Trump but then does away with the Affordable Care Act,” Kilwein said. “There are going to be hundreds of thousands of people much worse off. They directly voted against their own self-interest.”

“You can blame the Obama administration, but to get people to admit that they benefitted under him at all,” Kilwein said, is a feat both “comical and sad at the same time.”

People wanted a change agent, he added. And now they’ll have to deal with getting one.

 

Phil Keith, a lifelong Republican voter, is the great-grandnephew of President Calvin Coolidge. (Phil Keith)

Phil Keith, a great-grandnephew of President Calvin Coolidge, has deep Republican roots and knows his party well. After serving in the Vietnam War, the former naval aviator taught at the Rhode Island School of Design and now lives in a wealthy Long Island enclave.

A Harvard alum and decorated military man, Keith checks off many of the “typical GOP voter” boxes. On Nov. 8, however, Keith avoided pulling the lever for the Republican nominee. Instead he cast a write-in vote for Sen. John McCain.

As with Kilwein, Keith sees desperation for change as swaying once blue states to red.

“I think a lot of Democrats crossed over because people said, ‘Screw it! Let’s see what happens when we throw a monkey wrench into this. What do we got to lose? We’re getting screwed every which way to Sunday from these crooked politicians anyway,’” he said.

The so-called coastal elites with more than two nickels to rub together went all in for Hillary. But Keith said those same Democrats left a lot of their own people behind.

“When you watch television and see the crowds cheering Trump on, you’ll see a lot of those same faces,” he said.

 

This has been Part I of a three-part series. Part II, a look at the Democratic Party’s efforts to rebuild, will debut Wednesday, and the series closes Thursday with Part III, studying the February race for party chair.