Democratic pollster Stanley Greenberg returned to Macomb County, Michigan, last month to observe the latest twists in the tortured relationship between the Democratic Party and white working-class voters.
Greenberg has been analyzing the white working class for a long time. He made his name with a 1985 report on Reagan Democrats, an earlier wave of white working-class voters who abandoned the Democrats, in Macomb. His focus on such voters, many of whom gave ready voice to racial resentments, alienated some powerful liberal Democrats.
Macomb, just north of Detroit, is Michigan’s third-largest county and overwhelmingly white. Median household income is around $54,000, which nearly matches the national median. Macomb gave Barack Obama a majority of its votes in 2008 and again in 2012. But in 2016, the county flipped, hard. Donald Trump won Macomb by 48,000 votes. He won the entire state of Michigan by only 12,000.
Greenberg conducted four focus groups in February with a total of 35 white voters without college degrees — Trump’s base. As he wrote in his report, “racist sentiment, Islamophobia and disdain for multiculturalism” probably put many of these voters beyond the reach of Democratic appeals. But those for whom race is not decisive won’t necessarily be easy to lure back to the Democratic camp either, according to Greenberg’s report.
“These voters have not regretted their vote for Trump. There was no ’buyer’s remorse.’ . . . . They are clear about why they voted for him and pray he keeps his promises and succeeds,” Greenberg wrote. “They accept Trump’s version of the news and facts, and their reactions to videos of his press conferences and interviews reinforced that point.”
Whether Trump, or anyone, can redeem these voters’ faith in the long run is a different, and difficult, question. In an email exchange before Trump’s inauguration, economist David Autor of Massachusetts Institute of Technology wrote:
“It’s been a great quarter century for the non-rich world. For the rich world, it’s been a period of decelerating growth and a diminished view of future possibilities relative to the three decades immediately following World War II. Those three decades, however, were surely the best in history for the growth of the Western middle class. Somehow, that singular period has become conflated in people’s minds with “normal” — so that all of our significant successes since that time are still viewed as a shortfall. When our president-elect says ’Make America great again,’ I assume that he longs for exactly that era. Ironically, an era of similarly rapidly increasing prosperity is underway, but it’s happening in the developing world, not in the West.”
According to data compiled by the Detroit News, manufacturing jobs in Macomb dropped by half from 2000 to 2010, from 106,000 to 52,000. In 2015, the number stood at 62,000. Abundant, high-paying blue-collar jobs (or strong industrial unions) seem highly unlikely to return despite Trump’s promises. But that doesn’t mean Trump will necessarily get the blame.
In an interview, Greenberg said Macomb voters seem prepared to give Trump a pass on results, possibly for a long time. Instead, they’ll likely blame the Republican Congress for any disappointments. “In the short term, you can see them pulling off Republicans very easily,” Greenberg said, citing the midterm election in 2018. Greenberg believes Trump may, however, prove vulnerable on GOP changes to Obamacare. If Republican legislation passes Congress, and Trump signs it, it will almost certainly reduce insurance coverage for millions while raising consumer costs.
“The health care stuff is potentially damaging,” Greenberg said. “They think his promise is better insurance for less money.”
Democrats are weighing whether voters like Greenberg’s Macomb groups are worth pursuing, and at what cost. A February report from the liberal Center for American Progress pointed out that from 1980 to 2014, the percentage of the voting-age population with a college degree roughly doubled, from 15 percent to 30 percent. College-educated whites accounted for two-thirds of the increase. As the electorate grows more educated, the white working class vote diminishes.
Meanwhile, three states — California, New Mexico and Texas — had a nonwhite majority in 2016. If demographic patterns hold, the CAP report stated, 18 more states will become “majority-minority” over the next 44 years.
“The right populist movement is riding on demographic borrowed time,” CAP senior fellow Ruy Teixeira wrote earlier this month. Teixeira, the author of “The Optimistic Leftist: Why the 21st Century Will be Better Than You Think,” added that “the white non-college-educated share of voters declined by 19 percentage points just between the 1988 and 2012 presidential elections. Projections indicate that this group’s share of voters should continue to decline by 2-3 points every presidential election for decades.”
Greenberg doesn’t believe that Democrats can rely on a diverse, more affluent, metro-centered coalition to produce reliable returns. Too many states are too rural and too white, and will remain so for too long. “It leaves you in a weak position,” he said. “You’re always going to struggle to control the Senate. My view is we need to do better with all groups.”
Democrats, he maintains, under-perform with working-class voters of all races. “We’ve been losing working people,” he said. Working-class white men, cut loose from the mediating influence and organizing power of a union, will be especially hard to reel in.
In an email quoted by Thomas Edsall in the New York Times, David Leege, an emeritus professor of political science at Notre Dame, addressed the challenges faced by working-class American men who feel they are losing ground in a high-technology information age that devalues them.
Leege wrote: “The institutions they knew to process authoritatively the economic and social changes they faced in earlier times are gone or undermined — the union, the Catholic Church, the industrial bar with co-workers, the compliant wife — and what has replaced it, if anything, is an unvetted information technology that yields little truth or comfort, and nurtures anomie and anger.”
Anomie and anger are Trump’s canvas. His validation of sexism, racial animus and xenophobia may never produce high-paying jobs, but the Democrats’ multiculturalism hasn’t either. According to Greenberg, the people in his Macomb groups feel as if they are “under siege,” sometimes even in their own households, where their support for Trump has been attacked by members of their family or community.
“They think there’s a civil war in the country,” Greenberg said. Having chosen Trump’s side in the fight, they overlook his serial dishonesty, emotional imbalance, self-enrichment and broad-based incompetence. At least for now.
“When we play his press conference, which the media was very derisive about, they listen,” Greenberg said. “And they trust him.”
Wilkinson writes editorials on politics and U.S. domestic policy for Bloomberg View.