The Midwestern Problem for Democrats

I corresponded earlier today with Andrew Levison about my post on his TNR piece arguing the white working class problem of the Democratic Party extended beyond the South, and he directed my attention to a long-form article at the Prospect by Anna Clark on that very problem in the Midwest. I’m glad he did.

Clark paints a picture of the industrial Midwest (focusing especially on Michigan) that represents more or less the flip side of Democratic optimism about the Obama Coalition. The region isn’t attracting many new minority residents; indeed, African-Americans are fleeing it for the Sunbelt. The population outside urban centers is increasingly white and elderly, which at the moment means more Republican. And Republicans have been aggressively using the power they gained in state after state in 2010 to gerrymander congressional and state legislative districts, but more importantly, to accelerate the de-unionization trends that are having profound economic and political effects on the region. Read this and weep:

The nationwide fall in union membership has been particularly steep in Michigan, where unions had more members to lose than just about anyplace else. Membership dropped by nearly 30 percent over the past five decades in the state—even before the Republican legislature enacted a right-to-work law in 2013….

Deunionization isn’t limited to Michigan, of course. In Indiana, nearly 41 percent of workers were union members in 1965, but that fell to 11 percent in 2011. After Indiana’s right-to-work legislation was signed into law that year, union membership fell further, down to 9 percent after one year. Ohio saw the unionized share of its workforce fall from 38 percent to 14 percent between 1964 and 2011.

Republicans have deftly capitalized on this growing display of political impotency by gutting what remained of the Democrats’ labor machine. Wisconsin’s Scott Walker put severe restrictions on public employees’ collective bargaining. (In Ohio, Kasich also seriously restricted collective-bargaining rights, but voters overturned this.) The subsequent union-led campaign to recall Walker failed decisively: The governor defeated his Democratic challenger by 7 percentage points. Wisconsin’s union membership abruptly dropped after Walker’s curtailment of collective bargaining. Exit polls in 2012 revealed that the union-household vote made up the smallest share of Wisconsin votes in at least 20 years, according to a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel analysis. Walker himself acknowledged how this directly affected the Democrats’ support system: “Their power before was the power of numbers, both in terms of turning people out and more important how much money they could draw from that,” he told the paper.

These are all familiar trends and developments, but when you put them together and think about them regionally, it’s alarming. Finding a way to offset de-unionization–other than fighting laws and policies that encourage it, of course–is one of the big organizational challenges for Democrats outside big urban areas that Levison talks about. Added to the demographic challenges, and the real-life challenges of finding ways to improve the lives of the people involved, and it’s apparent Democrats are wrong if they think of the “Rust Belt” as a place where they are guaranteed future victories.

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Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore is a political columnist for New York and managing editor at the Democratic Strategist website. He was a contributing writer at the Washington Monthly from January 2012 until November 2015, and was the principal contributor to the Political Animal blog.