Growth and Power
Edited by Elizabeth Rose
What the Midwestern states flipping Republican in 2016 tell us about the history and future of the political left
In the 2016 United States presidential elections, Donald Trump managed to win by flipping five Midwestern states - Iowa, Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania - from Democratic to Republican. There are of course factors unique to that specific year, as well as differences between the states, but the 2016 elections can be seen as a symptom of a longer trend, one which consists of all five states becoming more right wing (Levitz 2022). The history of these five states, each characterized by struggling economies and a majority white working class population, tells us the story of multiple intertwined socio-economic and political processes applicable to most of the Western world. Like many of my fellow left-leaning members of Gen Z, I feel a sense of urgency, a feeling that we don’t have much time left to address the multiple interwoven crises of the world caused by decades of right wing ideological hegemony in government and the economy. The resulting need to figure out how to acquire political power for the left, combined with my fascination with politics and society, have led me to write this article. I feel that to address the many challenges of the 21st century, from climate change to growing wealth and income inequality, we need a strong left that can win elections. And to win, we first need to understand why we have been losing - the story of which is inseparable from the changes that our countries have undergone in the past five decades, illustrated here through the example of the American Midwest. I have chosen this specific example because, as I’ll show later, the electoral changes in these states are a direct consequence of their socio-economic transformation, which itself is extremely similar to what is happening throughout the Global North.
To understand why the five above mentioned states flipped from Obama to Trump, we need to know why they leaned Democratic before, and for that, we have to go back to 1945. Driven by a desire to rebuild from the war, prevent another disastrous economic depression, compete with the Soviet Union, and provide enough social stability and security to its citizens to avoid any backslide into authoritarianism, countries in the free world entered a new era in terms of socio-economic structure. With power in the hands of left of center governments and with pressure from trade unions, the model of the Keynesian welfare state was adopted in most of the West – named after the economist John Maynard Keynes and characterized by anti-cyclical government intervention in the economy, a strong and organized labor movement, full employment, social welfare and capital controls (Schwartz 2009: 183, 189-192). To put it simply, the Keynesian era was a compromise between capital (those owning the factories) and labor (those working in the factories), who agreed to share productivity gains equally among themselves. If we think of the economy as a pie, back then it was a continuously growing one, with its ever larger slices evenly divided among the two groups in society. During this era, the American economy expanded significantly, with its leading sector being car manufacturing, which provided millions of high paying union jobs to residents of states such as Michigan (Schwartz 2009: 178). Here I want to emphasize that while this period does represent a highly prosperous and secure time for working and poor people across the West, it wasn’t like that for everyone, with disenfranchisement and segregation of black people being the norm in the US South. The Keynesian era shouldn’t be idolized without reservation by the left today, even if the underlying idea of sharing productivity gains is something we should aspire to achieve. Going back to our story, and more specifically electoral politics, the party system stabilized across all of the West with unionized factory workers voting for centre-left social democrats (Democratic party in the USA), while business owners, professionals and intellectuals voted for centre-right conservatives or Christian democrats (Republican party in the USA) (Hague et al. 2019: 271, 288). Today, the correlation between income and party preference in the USA has reversed among white people (this process doesn’t apply to black Americans, due to the Republican party being openly racist towards them). The loss of the original association is referred to as class dealignment, while the rise of a new type of connection between educational level and party preference, a significant contributor to this reversal, is called ‘educational polarization’ (Ghetin et al. 2022: 1). Now let’s consider the, in my opinion, quite fascinating story of why these two processes have come about and what it means for us today.
In the 1970s, the ‘pie’ stopped growing, which made sharing it between capital and labor demographics more difficult, so the post-war Keynesian consensus came crashing down. Amidst an oil crisis, high inflation, high unemployment and stagnating growth, leaders decided to try something new. The neoliberal era, characterized by a reduction in social security, privatization, liberalization and free movement of capital and most trade was ushered in (Hague et al. 2019: 346). The seemingly necessary changes to get the pie growing again meant that any new growth would primarily go to capital, with whatever trickled down going to labor. For our story, this meant that in the new open market American cars couldn’t compete with Japanese and German ones, (Schwartz 2009: 282) nor could American steel or garments compete with Chinese produced ones. This led to the outsourcing of production, to make a wide range of products more cheaply in China and the Global South, resulting in domestic deindustrialization, meaning a loss of manufacturing capacity and jobs here in the West. Organized labor went from striking for higher wages to striking to keep their jobs in the first place. Societies structured around a strong unionized industrial working class changed to societies consisting of unorganized and often precarious service workers - bartenders, clerks, salespeople - and a rising class of educated professionals (Van Hooren 2017: 80-81). The neoliberal revolution, therefore, destroyed the organized basis of left of center parties, and undermined beyond discussion left of center economics. Since the Democratic party no longer advocated for an economic system which favors the working class, and no longer had the institutions of a strong labor movement behind it, it could no longer count on the votes of working class people. But there’s more.
The Keynesian era lifted hundreds of millions out of poverty, securing for them the conditions for a decent life. As one can learn in any introduction to psychology, Maslow’s hierarchy of needs posits that if someone’s basic needs are met, they start prioritizing higher level needs, such as self expression. Wide-scale surveys by 20th century social scientists show a huge distinction between the values of pre-war and post-war generations. Baby boomers, having their material needs met, prioritize postmaterial values more (Van der Meer 2017: 118). As this baby boomer generation came of age, postmaterial values became more salient in politics - which was already moving away from economic debate, due to the triumph of neoliberalism. For example, during an election campaign, focus on issues such as wages decreased while focus on issues such as freedom of speech, gender equality and environmentalism increased. Furthermore, the number of college educated citizens increased extremely quickly in the latter half of the 20th century in the USA, from around 4% of the population in 1950 to around 33% today. To be clear, this is pretty unambiguously a good thing - a more educated society not only is more productive and prosperous, but has a larger number of critical thinkers and people holding democratic and liberal values. Furthermore, highly educated people are significantly more culturally progressive than those without degrees (Levitz 2022). This growing progressive class, which notably has no economic incentive to help those who are worse off, naturally took to the Democratic party, becoming both its voters and its politicians - speeding up desertion of the party by the more socially conservative working class and making Democrats the party of the highly educated. And if no party represents the interests of the working class, but at least the Republicans align with white working people culturally, then it is no wonder why the five states at hand – Iowa, Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania – flipped Republican in 2016.
It can feel tempting to assume all hope is lost for those of us on the political left. But this isn’t true, and I can think of at least three reasons why . First, as I briefly mentioned before, class dealignment in the USA only applies to white communities. When you look at the entire society, lower income people- who are disproportionately ethnic minorities - still vote for the Democrats (Levitz 2022). Similarly, while Northern English white former industrial towns may desert to the Conservative party, Indian or Nigerian immigrants and their children won’t, because right wing parties are still too explicitly racist for this to be in their political interests. With growing immigrant populations in the West resulting in multicultural and diverse communities across our countries, and an ever increasing share of the population being highly educated, the left still has a path to hope and to victory in most countries – as Biden’s success has shown.
Secondly, political debate is centered on whatever we, as a society, explicitly show we prioritize. Alternative conceptions of how our economy could, and perhaps more importantly, should function, can be brought into the mainstream with enough time and effort. Indeed, with the current height of inflation, and the looming global recession, the salience of economic issues is sure to surpass those of cultural ones. And while this is far from ideal, it may yet force economic alternatives currently considered inconceivable, to soon become inevitable.
And finally, as the effects of climate change are felt ever more acutely by an ever growing number of people, the next inexorably recurring crisis will give us a chance to demand alternatives to the economic system, which is rapidly destroying the ability of Earth to sustain human life. The slow but sure realization of millions that our economy is harmful ecologically, might just lead to the realization that it is harmful socially, too. The climate crisis presents both a challenge and an opportunity. Restructuring our socio-economic system is our only way to ensure the survival of human civilization as we know it, and the way we go about doing that is up for debate - so let us fight to build a fairer, more just system based on sharing prosperity among everyone.
Gethin, A., Martínez-Toledano, C., Piketty, T. (2021). “Brahmin Left Versus Merchant Right: Changing Political Cleavages in 21 Western Democracies, 1948–2020”, The Quarterly Journal of Economics, 137(1): 1-48.
Hague, R., Harrop, M. and McCormick, J. (2019). Comparative Government and Politics. London: Red Globe Press.
Levitz, E. (2022). “How the Diploma Divide Is Remaking American Politics: Education is at the heart of this country’s many divisions”, New York Magazine, https://nymag.com/intelligencer/2022/10/education-polarization-diploma-divide-democratic-party-working-class.html. Consulted on 01-12-2022.
Schwartz, H. M. (2009). States versus Markets: The Emergence of a Global Economy. New York, USA: Palgrave Macmillan.
Van der Meer, T. (2017). “Citizens and Politics: Political Participation and Political Trust”. In: Van Praag, P. (ed.) Political Science and Changing Politics. Amsterdam, The Netherlands: Amsterdam University Press.
Van Hooren, F. (2017). “The Welfare State under Pressure”. In: Van Praag, P. (ed.) Political Science and Changing Politics. Amsterdam, The Netherlands: Amsterdam University Press.