If a political party aspires to survive, it must consistently align itself with the positions and values of a voting population large enough to secure electoral victory. When the positions and values of a significant voting population changes, a political party must amend its positions and values to match the electorate. This kind of political action is referred to as realignment.
A political party that refuses to realign during times of societal shifts is a party headed for inevitable defeat.
Since the beginning of the 20th century, both major political parties in the United States have dramatically realigned several times. For example, at the beginning of the 20th century the Republican Party was hit by a wave of progressive populism ushered in by Theodore (Teddy) Roosevelt. At the time, the country was ripe for change, as large companies formed monopolies and controlled enormous portions of the economy. These monopolies possessed tremendous power over workers and consumer goods, giving them an unfair advantage over the rest of the country. President Roosevelt became the “Trust Buster” as he broke up large monopolies and restored dignity back to the average worker through various legislative labor protections.
Through the 1930’s and 1940’s, the Democratic Party realigned during the New Deal era reign of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. President Roosevelt saw that the country was ready for change when it came to business regulation, social services, and workers’ rights. In response, the president passed what became known as the “New Deal” and ushered in landmark programs like Social Security, the Civilian Works Administration, and the Civilian Conservation Corps.
Both the realignment of the Republican Party at the beginning of the 20th century, and the realignment of the Democratic Party during the 1930’s-40’s was inspired by changes within the general population. The issues affecting voters were unique to each era, and voter values and positions changed because of the contemporary issues. In response, both parties adjusted their messaging and platform positions to appeal to a larger portion of the voting population.
Currently, all the ingredients necessary for political realignment are evident in today’s society.
A brief inspection of the American electorate reveals the political landscape is changing before our very eyes. New issues, inspired by changes in demographics, values, and needs, are reshaping the political atmosphere. Formerly important issues such as abortion, gay marriage, crime, and school choice are no longer the top concerns of the average voter. Instead, two issues are dominating the hearts and minds of voters everywhere: trade and healthcare.
Indeed, the 2016 presidential election made it clear that the issue of trade has captured a large segment of the voting population. The same can be said about healthcare.
In a Gallup study that tracked voters top concerns before November 8th, 2016, out of all the issues examined, economic issues – including trade and jobs – and healthcare related issues received almost 50% of the responses. In a Fortune report, all exit poll data collected showed that economic issues like trade and living wage jobs were the top issues for voters headed to the polls.
These reports certainly translated at the voting booth. For it was the candidate who talked tough on trade, and who consistently claimed that he was going to get America a “great deal”, who secured victory in the presidential election.
In many ways, the astonishing victory of Donald Trump is abundant proof that the time for political realignment is now.
But if the victory of Donald Trump was not an obvious sign that a dramatic shift has developed in the political landscape, then consider the American Rust Belt’s newfound political power. The ability of Rust Belt states to now decisively determine the outcome of a presidential election is arguably the most significant change to take place in American politics over the past 20 years. Much of this rests upon tremendous changes that occurred in the Rust Belt, particularly changes in the region’s demographics and economic structure.
The underlying factor behind of these changes is trade.
While the slogan “Make America Great Again” had many concerned about a rising nationalism, Donald Trump’s rallying cry resonated with the voters that mattered most in the 2016 election – Rust Belt voters. Clearly, the implication of the slogan is that America is currently not great. For those living in the rust belt, and who have witnessed the great exodus of American manufacturing to China and Mexico, America is not great.
The American Rust Belt has been ravaged by free trade agreements like the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which has cost the United States 5 million manufacturing jobs, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Large percentages of manufacturing jobs have been eliminated from Rust Belt states. In places like Kanawha, West Virginia, over 55% of manufacturing jobs have been eliminated since NAFTA, as shown in a recent University of Wisconsin report. In places like Detroit, current census data shows that the decline of manufacturing opportunities has manifested itself in a tremendous decline in population. In 2000, the population of Detroit was 950,000. In 2016, the population was 670,000 – a 30% decline.
Indeed, at one time, states like West Virginia, Michigan, Indiana, and Pennsylvania were the centers of industry and manufacturing in the entire world. Now, many of the cities that once stood tall, are but a pale reflection of their former glory.
The best example of this reality is the city of Detroit. At one time, Detroit was considered one of the greatest manufacturing cities in the world. In 1960, the richest per capita city in America, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, was Detroit. Today, reports indicate that sixty percent of all of Detroit’s children are living in poverty and thirty-three percent of Detroit’s 140 square miles are vacant or derelict. The unemployment rate has dropped to a 16 year low of almost eight percent, but in 2013, the unemployment rate was twenty-two percent.
But while the above statistics are certainly dismal enough for Detroit, perhaps the most significant statistic of all is the 2010 Census data report showing that Michigan lost 48% of all its manufacturing jobs between 2000-2010.
Presently, both parties are struggling to understand these trends. But one thing is certain, to be politically successful in the modern era, Rust Belt issues like free-trade and deindustrialization must receive top level consideration for either party going into an election. At present, it does not seem that the Democratic party is grasping the significance of this political movement.
It was clear during the 2016 Democratic primary that the Rust Belt would play a major role in determining the next president of the United States. Senator Bernie Sanders emerged as an unexpected challenger to the establishment figure of Hillary Clinton because he proclaimed a message of anti-free trade that resonated with Rust Belt voters.
The results speak for themselves. Senator Bernie Sanders won the states of Michigan, Wisconsin, West Virginia, and Indiana. The Senator tied Hillary Clinton in Iowa and Illinois, emerging with an almost equal number of delegates from both states. Certainly, the socialist Senator from Vermont was connecting with a demographic that Hillary Clinton was not. The Democratic establishment ignored this to its own peril.
On November 8th 2016, Donald Trump won almost every Rust Belt state up for grabs. Trump won Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia, Indiana, and Iowa.
If one wanted to look back and truly identify the root of the Democrats failure, one must not look any further than the Democratic National Convention.
On the third night of the Democratic National Convention, the President, Barack Obama, took the stage. His message was quite different from the message of Donald Trump. The President spoke about the legacy of America, and unashamedly declared that “America is already strong, America is already great.”
At face value, the President’s message was reassuring, but for Americans living in the Rust Belt his words of optimism were empty and void of any real meaning. Telling these American’s that “America is already great” was not only unamusing, it was disrespectful.
President Obama’s urging request for America to not give into fear, but to embrace optimism, is a vivid symbolism of the Democratic Party’s disconnect from the mainstream of America. For instead of recognizing the plight of the American worker, the leader of the Democratic party told the country that everything is just fine. At the same time, as if to confirm the Democratic Party’s disconnect, President Obama was pushing Congress to pass the Trans Pacific Partnership – another free trade agreement.
Consequently, the voters of the forgotten Rust Belt were not inspired by President Obama’s words of hope. Instead, they answered the President by casting their vote for man who said he was going to rip up the Trans Pacific Partnership and bring manufacturing back to America. The Democrats missed all the warning signs, and refused to understand the frustrations of a people living in the ruins of factory wasteland.
In time of defeat, opportunity for reflection and change knocks loudly at the door. If the Democratic party truly desires to regain relevance in American politics, it must amend its approach to the Midwest and change its perspective on trade. The time for realignment is now. It is time to pay attention to Rust Belt voters.
Photo Credit: The Daily Beast