Why Did the Rust Belt Flip?

There were many tipping points in the recent U.S. presidential election: white women who voted in unexpected numbers for Donald Trump, Latinos who voted more heavily for Trump than for Mitt Romney in 2012, African Americans who stayed away from the polls. But the group we have heard most about is working-class whites, particularly those 77,744 in the so-called Rust Belt who tipped the electoral college vote for Trump even as Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by nearly three million ballots. The most distressing aspect of this divisive and hate-filled election has been the profound bigotry it brought to the surface. But are there other questions to ask and lessons to learn from the election’s focus on the white working class and the Rust Belt?

As someone who conducts research in the former steel mill region of southeast Chicago and northwest Indiana,1 I suggest two. First, how did particular media definitions of class shape dominant narratives about the election in potentially distorting ways? And, second, why did longstanding economic dislocations in the Rust Belt become so critical at this particular historical moment, flipping a region that had twice voted for Barack Obama?

Wisconsin Steel, after the shutdown
Wisconsin Steel, after the shutdown. Photo courtesy of the Southeast Chicago Historical Museum.

Class is an inherently fuzzy concept, and media coverage of the election only enhanced the confusion. Academics regularly debate the complexities of social class: Should we define it based on occupation, income, wealth, education, status, or family background? How do we link its economic dimensions to social, cultural, and historical ones? How is class in the United States bound up with projections onto others of our own hopes and fears about the future, as Sherry Ortner (1991) has argued, and coconstituted in complex ways in relation to race and gender?

In coverage of the election, however, the dominant definition of class was generally a crude one. There is a growing trend to ascribe class based on a binary distinction between those who have—or do not have—a college bachelor degree. This means that the 64 percent of non-Hispanic whites in the United States who lack a college degree were often referred to in election coverage as working class, a category far broader than common usage (Metzgar 2016). This can be misleading at both ends of the economic spectrum. On the upper end, it lumps together Occupy Wall Street’s rhetorical 1 percent of the wealthiest Americans with elementary-school teachers, shifting discussion of elites away from economic issues toward the presumed cultural difference of the educated. At the same time, the category of the less educated lumps together middle-class office workers, small business owners, and suburban dwellers with the traditional working class of industrial and former industrial regions, service workers, and the poor. While Trump made a strong bid for traditional white working-class votes through promises to renegotiate trade deals and bring back industrial jobs, exit polls showed that those who voted for him in the primaries averaged $72,000 in annual earnings, well above the U.S. median income of $56,000. In the general election, he won the suburban vote 50 percent to 45, as well as the majority of college-educated white men. So did an overly broad categorization of the white working class downplay middle-class support for Trump?

Some commentators seemed surprised by the centrality of Rust Belt concerns to the election: hadn’t those industrial jobs already largely disappeared in the move toward a service- and information-based economy? On the contrary, Sherry Lee Linkon (2011) observes that the “half-life” of deindustrialization has turned out to be far longer than many anticipated. While some older postindustrial sites linked to dynamic regional economies have gentrified (begging the question of what happened to those displaced), many others remain devastated. In the Calumet region of my own research, massive toxic brownfields and rampant unemployment remain thirty-five years after the steel mills began to close. The hemorrhaging of jobs has continued. While seven million manufacturing jobs have been lost in the United States since 1980, an estimated five million have disappeared since 2000.

Despite stereotypes of the working class as white male industrial workers, deindustrialization, like the 2008 financial crisis, has most profoundly affected African Americans (Wilson 1996; Doussard, Peck, and Theodore 2009). There is rampant white privilege or worse in Rust Belt whites’ ability to vote their perceived economic interests without fear of backlash, or to blame “others” for economic loss. Yet we cannot understand the electoral flip of Midwestern states without acknowledging the ongoing effects of deindustrialization and their intensification in recent years. The number of manufacturing jobs has continued to decline due to automation, and many are now nonunion or temporary contract work. For whites, employment rates have declined relative to other ethnic and racial groups since 2008. Mortality rates for middle-aged American whites have risen alarmingly, driven by a spike among those with no more than a high-school education (Case and Deaton 2015). These so-called deaths of despair have been linked to suicide, alcohol, and drug abuse, and they appear related to increased economic vulnerability.2 Such transformations have also affected the children of the working class, who may no longer define themselves as such. Those young people, who strive for higher education as the only available path upward, too often end up holding massive debt, facing elusive, unstable jobs, sleeping in their parents’ basements, and foregoing marriages to which they feel economically unable to commit (Silva 2013; Cherlin 2014).

In The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class, Guy Standing (2011) argues we need to rethink class for the twenty-first century. It is not education or its lack, but increased insecurity and an inability to envision a future path that is realigning existing classes and creating new ones. The resentments born of insecurity, Standing argues, can turn affected groups against each other and make them vulnerable to neofascist demagogues, a trend distressingly borne out in this election. Given the spread of job precarity to the middle classes, the Rust Belt may not be a disappearing vestige of a past economy but an alarming harbinger of the future. Fighting Trumpism thus requires forging alternative public understandings of these growing class divides.

Notes

1. My own research consists of the multimedia Exit Zero Project, which includes a documentary film “Exit Zero: An Industrial Family Story” (2016), directed by Chris Boebel; a book, Exit Zero: Family and Class in Postindustrial Chicago (2013); and an in-progress collaborative website project with the Southeast Chicago Historical Museum.

2. The spike in the death rate for high-school-educated whites was enough to offset the continued decline in mortality rates for educated whites; such trends have not been seen in other wealthier countries experiencing deindustrialization.

References

Case, Anne, and Angus Deaton. 2015. “Rising Morbidity and Mortality in Midlife among White Non-Hispanic Americans in the Twenty-First Century.” PNAS 112, no. 49.

Cherlin, Andrew J. 2014. Labor’s Love Lost: The Rise and Fall of the Working-Class Family in America. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.

Doussard, Marc, Jamie Peck, and Nik Theodore. 2009. “After Deindustrialization: Uneven Growth and Economic Inequality in ‘Postindustrial’ Chicago.” Economic Geography 85, no. 2: 183–207.

Linkon, Sherry Lee. 2011. “Navigating Past and Present in the Deindustrial Landscape.” Paper presented at the Working Class Studies Conference, University of Illinois at Chicago, Chicago, Ill., June 23.

Metzgar, Jack. 2016. “Misrepresenting the White Working Class: What the Narrating Class Gets Wrong.” Working Class Perspectives, March 14.

Ortner, Sherry. 1991. “Reading America: Preliminary Notes on Class and Culture.” In Recapturing Anthropology: Working in the Present, edited by Richard G. Fox, 163–90. Santa Fe, N.M.: School of American Research Press.

Silva, Jennifer M. 2013. Coming Up Short: Working-Class Adulthood in an Age of Uncertainty. New York: Oxford University Press.

Standing, Guy. 2011. The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class. New York: Bloomsbury Academic.

Wilson, William Julius. 1996. When Work Disappears: The World of the New Urban Poor. New York: Vintage.