Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Judith Stein: Why Did White Workers Leave The Democratic Party? (It's more complicated than you have been told.)

Scholar, author and activist Judith Stein died recently. She had a way of cutting through liberal analysis to get the point of things and drawing out interesectionality in its historic contexts, returning the conversation to how race and class coincide and don't coincide at important historic junctures. She brought her considerable skills to a interview published in Jacobin awhile back and helped to show the particular failures of liberal analysis regarding Sanders, race, class, labor history, the New Deal and shifts in the Democratic Party. That interview can be read here. Here is a lengthy excerpt from the interview.

What happens to the New Deal order in the 1970s?

Democratic losses among white workers began in the election of 1980. After the aberrant 1972 presidential election, the 1976 contest saw a return to class voting, North and South. There was much racial debate and divisiveness at the national and local levels in 1976, but it did not affect the voting. Whatever their racial views in 1976, most white workers did not abandon the Democratic Party.

Many whites, especially more affluent ones, left the Democratic Party in the South. But those who remained had characteristics similar to Democratic whites in the rest of the nation — older, Catholic, union member, blue-collar, working-class, less education, and less affluent — according to political scientists Richard Nadeau and Harold W. Stanley, who studied white Southern voting from 1952 to 1990.

During the 1970s white Southern Democrats learned to represent biracial constituencies. The addition of black voters and the departure of more affluent whites made white Democratic politicians more liberal than their predecessors on economic matters. The addition of new black Democrats added to the liberalism. Then in every region in 1980, Democrats lost votes because of the economy, the terrible economic conditions.

What are some of those conditions?

You have unemployment, you have inflation. If you look at the white working-class vote in 1980, first of all, there was less of it.

Then, every group, except blacks, gave a greater proportion of their vote to Reagan in 1980 than they gave to Ford in 1976. Suburban women, North, South — you name it. Catholic. Every group.

The big issue in 1980 was the economy. So you go back to race? That just doesn’t make sense to me. Still, the class dimension of the vote in 1980 remained. Carter was weakest and Reagan the strongest in the white suburbs and other affluent communities.

The South had been in play during the 1970s. But the Democrats did not offer white workers (or black workers) social democracy.

National Democratic leaders did not nurture a biracial, class politics. Democrats promoted black mobilization (and eventually black districts, to ensure racial representation), but not biracial unions, the surest way to anchor white Democratic voting.

Whites belonging to unions voted Democratic more than nonunion whites. But President Carter only perfunctorily supported the labor reform in 1978, which would have advanced the unionization of Southern workers, black and white.

The law was filibustered to death. Beginning in the late 1970s, when the Democratic Party embraced neoliberalism, it lost the capacity to convince workers that it could fix the economy.

Yes, some working-class whites in the South turned to the Republican Party, especially when it was the party of power in their city and county. But many more just stopped voting.

Did the white working class shrink as a percentage of the general population?

No! They stopped voting.

In some ways, I guess that’s not surprising. Carter was basically telling the working class to do more with less.

Absolutely. Today it’s hard to recreate that, because Jimmy Carter devotes himself to ending conflicts throughout the world. But there was huge criticism of him.

Senator Edward Kennedy challenged him in the primaries, and the polls showed in 1980 that people voted for Reagan not because they were more conservative, but because they thought that Jimmy Carter was unable to manage the economy.

The Reagan people liked to argue that this was a conservative ideological victory, but the polling shows that they lost faith in Carter’s ability to fix the economy. It was like the 1932 election, when people voted for Roosevelt because Hoover had had three years to improve the economy, but failed.

Polling in 1984 shows that 60 percent of the electorate preferred Mondale’s ideas about helping the needy; 25 percent preferred Reagan’s. But they believed that the Democrats couldn’t manage the economy, and Reagan could. Up until that point, Democrats successfully claimed, “We are the party of prosperity. Republicans are the party of the Great Depression.” After 1984, that was not the case anymore.

How much of the rightward turn in Southern politics is due to the fact that labor unions never had as much of a presence there?

Sure, because after all, workers will imbibe the culture around them. That’s why in the South, there is a distinction between the voting patterns of white unionized and white non-unionized workers.

Typically, an oil-industry lobbyist opposed labor reform in 1978 because he feared that the law would unionize the South and “the South would go the way of Ohio . . . due to the political strength of labor.”

Ohio had once been a reliably Republican state but had become reliably Democratic because of unionization. The lobbyist feared the same thing would happen to the South.

How did deindustrialization affect the South compared to the North?

The South begins the period of deindustrialization with a weaker union base. Insofar as unions slowed job loss, Southern workers were more vulnerable.

But the composition of Southern industry — furniture, textile, garment, and other labor-intensive industries — exposed the region to cheap imports in the eighties, and then NAFTA in the 1990s, and China in the first decade of this century.

How much of the Right’s rise in the South do you think has to do with the South becoming wealthier after World War II?

The first Republicans in the postwar South came from the affluent areas; President Eisenhower carried Texas, Virginia, Florida, and other outer Southern states. Southern Republicans were mainly upper-middle-class people. This was a class, not race phenomenon.

Southern industrialization was dual. On the one hand, you have traditional manufacturing firms, textile, garment, furniture, metals. But then you get the new high-tech, often defense-related industry, in the suburbs around universities, which demanded a highly educated population. Many were Yankees who come to the South.

More recently, the new foreign auto transplants that populate the Southhave not changed the political situation much. First, they are nonunion, and workers understand the tenuous nature of their employment. Mercedes opened up a plant in Alabama in 1997, and a guy I know in Alabama said to me, “It’s harder to get a job in that Mercedes plant than to get into Harvard. And, if you ever were in a union, you will never get a job there.”


They don’t want union people. If you show in your employment history that you worked in a plant that was unionized, you probably will not get the job. Many of the auto plants locate in white areas because they think blacks are more pro-union than whites.

So let’s reconnect the situation of black Americans and the economy: how were black workers specifically hurt by deindustrialization and, later, NAFTA?

Some people say, “Well blacks were never in manufacturing — it is only government and service jobs that had meaning for blacks. Thus, deindustrialization is a white phenomenon.”

That is false. There are plenty of blacks that worked in manufacturing in the South forever and in the North since World War I.

Indeed, A. Philip Randolph, in the midst of the Montgomery Bus Boycottwhen the question was how to transport boycotting blacks to their jobs, said, “Well the black steelworkers of Birmingham are so rich that they have two cars — they can help.”

After the adoption of the mechanical cotton picker and the rapid decline of agricultural jobs in the 1950s and 1960s, manufacturing jobs were the perfect outlet for black people off the farms.

And many did begin to work in textiles in the South, thanks to black workers’ struggle to take advantage of the new antidiscrimination laws.

But just as blacks were getting these jobs, the number of textile jobs began to decline because of Japanese and East Asian imports. The same thing was true in industries like steel.

So deindustrialization and the rightward economic turn from the Democratic Party weren’t inevitable?

We make less stuff than we used to, but that is not simply the result of globalization. Other countries make just as much stuff as they did in the past.

You’re not going to bring t-shirts back. You’re not going to bring shoes back. But we have trade deficits in high-tech manufacturing.

Since NAFTA went into effect, five million manufacturing jobs have been lost. Most of the trade treaties of the last thirty years were not about tariffs but about protecting US investment abroad.

This creates an incentive to offshore work. The US government has completely ignored currency manipulation, a big factor in the American trade deficit.

It is never a question of trade, but the rules of trade. What is permissible, and what is not, is a matter of government policy. And for all the talk about jobs by both parties, when it comes to trade deals, it is the corporations that have the most influence.

Political elites were willing to sacrifice jobs (although they would not put it that way) to national security during the era of the Cold War.

They also enabled economic elites to solve their industrial problems through foreign cheap labor in the 1990s and afterward.

In the 1980s, corporations struggled, but in the 1990s with NAFTA and then the entry of China into the World Trade Organization, corporations through offshoring were rejuvenated.

Together these policies produced deindustrialization, a primary source of worker alienation from politics.

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