Racial Justice, Class Justice

I’ve been feeling kind of white lately.  Maybe it’s some of that white fragility Robin DiAngelo warns us about, but more and more often when I hear somebody say “disproportionately people of color,” it sounds like they’re also saying poor and working-class white people don’t matter.  That makes me queasy — kind of fragile, I guess.  Often it seems the speaker or writer assumes that because Blacks and Latinx are disproportionately affected by unemployment, poverty, police brutality, net negative wealth, COVID-19, and most other negative phenomenon, almost all white people are fine and dandy.  That’s not the case – not even close.  And because I know that not only from statistics, but from my own extended family, it makes me feel my whiteness in a defensive way.

I suspect most speakers who emphasize racial disparities simply want to keep a strong focus on our deplorable history of racism and its continuing effects as we develop solutions to the many economic problems that, in fact, afflict a majority of the U.S. population today.  But by not mentioning that those problems affect huge numbers of whites or that progressive economic policies would benefit whites as well as people of color, they leave the impression either that not many whites would benefit or, worse, that policymakers don’t care what impact a given policy would have on whites. 

For example, here’s how the Peterson Institute’s excellent study, “How to Fix Economic Inequality,” explains the horrific disproportionality of COVID-19’s effect on black and brown unemployment: “In April 2020, 61 percent of Hispanic Americans and 44 percent of Black Americans reported that someone in their household had lost a job due to the coronavirus outbreak, compared with just 38 percent of white adults” [emphasis added].  These percentages, like many others, clearly highlight the enormity of racial inequality in our country, but why add “just” to the comparative figure for whites?  What impact does that “just” have?  I know for a fact that my working-class relatives do not read Peterson Institute reports, but if they did, that “just” would hurt, and probably piss them off.  How is more than one-third of any group being thrown out of work “just”? 

On the other hand, how would Peterson’s sentence read if we estimated the actual number of households who have experienced COVID job loss?  You’d have to turn it around and say something like: “32 million white households and 11 million Hispanic households experienced job loss, compared with just 7.5 million Black households.” Using numbers rather than percentages makes pandemic-related unemployment look like primarily a white problem, thereby discounting the larger magnitude of minority unemployment simply because as minorities their numbers are smaller.  Using only percentages, on the other hand, emphasizes racial inequality at the expense of larger class inequality.  But we don’t have to choose – and we need to recognize the cost of choosing.

Image from Jobs with Justice

Part of that is an opportunity cost – a lost opportunity to unify larger groups of people across common divisions.  Because people of color suffer economic hardship and injustice at higher rates than whites, a higher percentage of Black and Latinx people will disproportionately benefit from anything we do to address these injustices. But the largest group of beneficiaries will be white.  A $15-an-hour national minimum wage, for example, will benefit more than half of both Black and Latinx workers compared with a little more than a third of white workers. Nonetheless, the majority of workers affected will be white.  By ignoring this basic reality, which applies across a wide range of progressive economic policies, we miss an opportunity for class to unite.

And it’s not that hard to at least mention the impact on white folks at the same time as you highlight disproportionate effects on people of color.  I can remember how Martin Luther King Jr. never failed to mention “poor whites” when talking about political and economic conditions they shared with African-Americans.  That was part of King’s universalist if very Christian morality, but it was also smart political arithmetic.   

This may seem like a fairly minor point, actually just a matter of political rhetoric about acknowledging white workers when they share problems and injustices with people of color.  And I probably wouldn’t notice it or feel aggrieved about it if I were not white and part of a white working-class family many of whom are struggling.  But nothing undermines working-class solidarity in the U.S., in the past and now, like white racism.  Simply denouncing it and calling people nasty names has never and will never work.  Keeping our eyes on common interests across what we call races is probably our one best hope for winning a more just and more fully democratic future.

In that regard, politically and economically, though not morally, class inequality is more important than racial inequality, today and usually.

First, unity in greater numbers has been the principal strength of working classes since the dawn of capitalism.  50 million households of all colors experiencing COVID job loss, for example, is not just a bigger problem requiring a bigger remedy than 18.5 million households of color, it is also a much larger population with a shared political and economic stake in pursuing remedies.  To unify that larger population, we probably need to at least mention all the colors of the people affected.

Second, reducing economic inequality will routinely reduce racial inequalities unless specific actions are taken to interrupt that connection, as they were in some New Deal labor and social legislation in the 1930s.  Such interruptions – based on plantation-class power back then as well as a much more explicit brand of racism – are unlikely today because minorities make up a much larger portion of the population (in some places they are not minorities at all), and they are much better politically organized. In addition,  large minorities of whites today, with and without bachelor’s degrees, are hungry for more racial as well as economic equality. 

Finally, our lopsided levels of economic inequality are now so huge, with so much income and wealth concentrated in the hands of the super-wealthy, that even a relatively modest redistribution of economic resources – say, $2 trillion a year – could improve almost everybody’s lives.  Progressive taxation of our infamous top 1% can provide more than enough to finance dramatic economic transformations for the working class of all colors.  And within those economic transformations, non-economic racial injustices will be more easily addressed when the bottom half of our population is no longer sinking and even most of the top half, no longer so economically anxious.

We do not have to choose between racial justice and class justice.  Racial justice can be achieved within a determined push for economic justice.   And truth be told, racial justice can probably only be achieved within a political economic context that mobilizes the huge numbers of white folks who will benefit from economic redistributions that will disproportionately benefit people of color. 

Jack Metzgar

Jack Metzgar is a professor emeritus of Humanities at Roosevelt University in Chicago.  A former president of the Working-Class Studies Association, he is the author of a forthcoming book from Cornell University Press, No One Right Way: Working-Class Culture in a Middle-Class Society.

Posted in Class at the Intersections, Contributors, Issues, Jack Metzgar, The Working Class and the Economy, Working-Class Politics | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

Time to Deliver: How Biden Should Respond to the Insurrection

“The faith that anyone could move from rags to riches – with enough guts and gumption, hard work and nose to the grindstone – was once at the core of the American Dream.” –Robert Reich, economist and former U.S. Secretary of Labor

“Abandon hope, all ye who enter here.” –Dante Alighieri, inscription on the gates of Hell, The Divine Comedy, circa 1321

For those trying to make sense of the horrifying pictures of our neighbors and friends from all over the United States engaged in an armed attack on the U.S. Capitol one should look no further than a topic familiar to this blog. We have witnessed a decades-long, insidious, and relentless erosion of hope among tens of millions of people who no longer have faith in the American Dream. And as Trump’s rise to power demonstrated, hopelessness undermines trust in government, fosters nationalism, fuels division, and may result in further insurrection.      

Arresting those responsible for the attack on the Capitol and the masterminds of the well-orchestrated insurrection inside and outside of government would be a first step toward restoring that hope. But it is naive to think that declaring a war on domestic terrorists is enough.   President-Elect Biden needs to set aside the conciliatory and centrist instincts that kept both the Man from Hope and the President who promised “hope and change” from living up to their rhetoric. To recapture the imagination of people who have lost faith in government and the Democratic Party, Biden and his party must deliver on big, bold initiatives that address the problems that inspired the insurrection.

A critical first step will sound familiar to readers of our previous WCP posts: the Biden Justice Department must not allow CEOs and corporate officers to walk away scot-free when they break the law. Clinton, Bush, Obama, and Trump all refused to slap cuffs and orange jumpsuits on corporate miscreants. The Sacklers, who touched off the opioid epidemic that has killed and injured hundreds of thousands of people, the Wall Street CEOs and speculators who devastated Main Streets in working and middle-class communities across the United States, and the Boeing executives responsible for the deaths of 346 passengers flying in planes the company knew were unsafe — all walked away from deeds that would earn street dealers and con men life without parole or even death. Failure to hold them and other white-collar criminals accountable for their actions has undermined public trust in the judicial system and government itself.

To restore that trust, Attorney General nominee Merrick Garland must pursue and prosecute corporate criminals who commit such acts with the same zeal and vigor he used to apprehend, convict, and punish Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh. The new AG will use his considerable experience and resources to punish domestic terrorists and white supremacists, but he should devote equal attention to the white-collar criminals who have blithely terrorized everyday Americans for far too long. Millions of people who lost their homes since 2008 or their loved ones in the opioid crisis are just waiting for our government to punish the perpetrators of those crimes.

To his credit, President Elect Biden has laid out an ambitious economic stimulus plan that will provide a foundation for the fight to win back the hearts, minds and hopes of working-class America. Income inequality has expanded rapidly during the COVID-19 pandemic. As unemployment remains distressingly high, 40 million Americans edge closer to eviction, and another six million are about to lose their homes to foreclosure, but Elon Musk’s wealth jumped $150 billion, making him the world’s richest man. Biden can’t make everyone a billionaire, but he can prevent tens of millions of Americans from being kicked to the curb.

By proposing to extend eviction and foreclsoure protections, he signaled a willingness to address the issue closest to the heart of those who have lost hope. He needs to follow through on his promise to provide financial assistance for renters but also landlords, many of whom have also been devastated by the pandemic nightmare. Unlike Obama Treasury Secretary Tim Geitner, who “foamed the runway” on the back end of the last economic crisis for the banks, Biden should focus on easing the landing for homeowners by allowing them to refinance or modify both government-backed and private mortgages. Averting the kind of massive foreclosures and evictions  that we saw during the 2007—2009 housing crisis will not only help struggling Americans but also send a loud and clear message to working families that his administration, unlike Obama’s, is on their side.

Biden also offered a strong first step to make work pay by announcing that he would fight to raise the federal minimum wage, which has been stuck at an embarrassingly low $7.25 for a decade, to $15 an hour. But he also needs to fulfill a promise that both Clinton and Obama broke, to make it easier for all workers to organize and join unions by instituting card check recognition, banning the use of scabs during labor disputes, and forcing some unions to end discriminatory practices that exclude women and minorities from membership and access to good-paying jobs.

Biden should also support swift enactment of the Warren/Nadler bankruptcy reform legislation. The last time Congress revised the statute, they turned what should be a financial lifeline for consumers, working families, and small businesses into a noose.  Biden in fact supported the 2005 Bankruptcy Reform that Limited access to filing, left student loans non-dischargeable and made it tougher on those who wanted to repay part of their debts. Why? Because that’s what the big banks and Wall Street wanted. At minimum Biden should push to allow first mortgage loan modifications during bankruptcy and to make student loan debt dischargeable. These changes would provide hope for students and working and middle-class families buried under the $1.7 trillion in student loan debt that is strangling the economy. 

He should also quickly follow through on his promise to create millions of jobs by investing a trillion dollars or more in the nation’s crumbling infrastructure.  Somewhere along the line we forgot that not everyone wants to wear a white collar or sit behind a computer. Millions of men and women want to run back hoes, dig ditches, and sling concrete block. They’re not embarrassed because they get their hands dirty doing backbreaking work. They love it, they want to be respected and honored for it, and they would gladly break their backs for another ten or twenty or thirty years if it meant they could grab their share of the American Dream. Working again will make more disillusioned Americans feel connected again to the rest of us. The bonus is that it would be good politics. After all, if Trump had made good on his infrastructure promises, he might still be president. Biden can’t afford to make the same mistake.

As the 2016 and 2020 elections clearly illustrate, members of America’s working and middle-classes, white, black, and Latinx, are fed up and tapped out. After decades of dashed hopes, they are clearly not in the mood for soaring yet empty rhetoric or bilious bluster. That means Joe Biden can’t just talk about his hardscrabble youth in Scranton, PA, he must deliver on his promises and do it quickly if he wants to improve the lives of those with crushed dreams quickly enough to save the republic.

Marc Dann, DannLaw

Marc Dann served as Attorney General of the State of Ohio and now leads DannLaw, which specializes in protecting consumers from various forms of predatory financing.

Posted in Contributors, Issues, Marc Dann, The Working Class and the Economy, Working-Class Politics | Tagged , , , | 5 Comments

Will 2021 Bring Positive Change for Working-Class People?

During 2020, Working-Class Perspectives touched on many COVID-related topics and showed how working-class people around the world were being disproportionately affected for a variety of reasons. Contributors showed how the pandemic brought to light the impacts of our reliance on insecure workers to provide the daily needs of societies. In my April 2020 piece, I pondered whether the growing recognition also in the mainstream media of the importance of working-class occupations would lead to any action on job security, wages, and conditions. I also wondered whether the new understanding of what makes an ‘essential’ worker would change attitudes and end the previous disparagement of so-called ‘low-skilled’ work.

Did anything change? Have working-class lives improved as a result of this new understanding? The short answer is mostly not. While journalists have continued to report on the problems faced by gig-workers and those without sick pay or health insurance, and there has been commentary on the ways that insecure work has contributed to the spread of COVID, most governments have not acknowledged that something needs to change.

True, some governments have provided temporary relief to workers furloughed or sacked due to their workplace closing during lockdowns, but none have even attempted to address the unsustainable systems that prop up economies in many countries around the world. And while unemployment and job insecurity have increased dramatically, few have even noted the massive growth in wealth for a small number of billionaires who have profited from the pandemic.

Many bosses have tried to take advantage of the pandemic in order to cut their operating costs, while governments have tried to weaken existing rights. In Australia for example, the government are proposing new laws that would further entrench insecure work, undermine many of the hard fought-for conditions, and reduce rights to unionise workplaces. Billionaire company owners such as Jeff Bezos of Amazon, have increased their wealth by obscene amounts during COVID, with Bezos raking in an extra $74 billion in 2020 to bring his fortune to a staggering $189 billion. Has this meant that their workers have shared in the profits and been treated well? Of course not. Amazon workers in the US reported COVID-related health and safety breaches in the warehouses even while millions of customers around the world were relying on their labour. These lives of these workers have not been valued by their employer.

The lives of front-line health care workers also have not been valued. They’ve been applauded and praised, but many are not getting the new vaccine because of poor planning and organisation. In the UK, health care workers have pleaded with the government to do more to prevent the increasing spread of the virus, but their calls have been largely ignored. Despite the announcement of a new six-week national lockdown there, many lives have already been lost and the rate of infection is soaring.

Working-class people have been let down by their governments, so they have had to help each other. Some unions have advocated for workers to win paid pandemic leave and to shut down unsafe workplaces. In 2020, hospitality workers in Las Vegas won COVID protections including paid leave for quarantining purposes and extended health benefits. Health care and brewery workers ran successful campaigns to form new unions in their workplaces. Transport union representatives in London were able to negotiate with the UK government to ensure that workers furloughed during the pandemic were still paid their full wages. Spanish unions won improved health and safety provisions for supermarket workers. In South Africa, textile unions were able to secure pay for workers during the country’s pandemic lockdown, and the union representing home-based women workers in Pakistan came to an agreement with their local government to register the workers in ensure them access to social security benefits. Union membership is up worldwide since the start of the pandemic as workers realise that they benefit from collective action and solidarity. These heartening stories point to the importance of unions globally.

What does 2021 have in store for working-class people around the world? Will we see more workers acting collectively to demand better wages and conditions? Can the health care, retail, and other service industry workers so relied on during the pandemic use their newly recognised essential worker status to improve their work lives? Is it possible that bosses will understand that securely employed workers means that society will be better equipped to deal with any future pandemics? Or does this now rest on the policies of new governments to come? Will the Biden administration work to improve wages and conditions for American workers? Can the UK Labour Party offer any hope to working-class Britons who are dealing with the pandemic and the consequences of Brexit? Can union members in Australia mobilise  to defeat the proposed changes to industrial relations legislation or will they also need to wait for a change of government? Hopefully some of the inspiring stories from union wins around the world in 2020 can help to motivate workers struggling to organise their workplaces or their communities in 2021.

 2020 was a truly terrible year and 2021 hasn’t shown much promise yet! But while it’s easy to fall back into pessimism, there is much hope to be gained from looking at the strength and resilience of working-class people worldwide. Against the odds, workers have fought back and have joined together to force change. Let’s remind ourselves of these wins and celebrate working-class collective strength. After all, as is plainly clear to everyone now, there is no functioning society without working-class people!

Sarah Attfield, University of Technology Sydney

Posted in Contributors, Issues, Labor and Community Activism, Sarah Attfield, The Working Class and the Economy | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

Beyond Economic Populism

Predictably, politicos and commentators spent much of 2020 debating why working-class voters supported Trump and how the Democrats could win them back. Although we’ve occasionally contributed to these conversations, we’re also getting tired of them. They tend to envision “the working class” as if it were one group with a well-defined set of interests, and worse, they treat working-class people as a marketing problem. These habits reflect not only the commentators’ distance from the working class but also, for many, a sense of meritocratic superiority to people they view as deluded, foolish, stupid, or even amoral. If we want to improve the lives of the working class, and especially if we want to heal the divisions of American political and public life, we need to reframe the problem.

That should start by resisting any effort to define the working class in any singular way. Simplistic definitions fuel both stereotyping and resentments. Defining based on occupation or income highlights important differences in economic interests, but it doesn’t address the resentments that even many fully-employed, unionized, economically-comfortable working-class people feel in the U.S. today. To define the working class based on the college degree, as many pollsters do, ignores the complex array of forms, amounts, qualities, and outcomes of education. Focusing on one variable, like education, might be necessary in polling, but it erases the relationships among education and occupation, social status, and cultural patterns. Electricians and plumbers may lack college degrees, but their specialized training yields them secure and well-paid work as well as pride in their blue-collar status. Meanwhile, K-12 teachers often have graduate degrees but earn less than plumbers or electricians. If we link class with unions, a common (if outdated) assumption, then we might also note that teachers may be more likely belong to active unions than many industrial workers these days.

One illustration of the problem of simplistic definitions is the either/or debate about how to appeal to “the working class” as a voting bloc: either promote economic populism or talk about racial justice, either embrace the dignity of work or value the dignity of marginalized people. These options suggest that the working class is either white, blue-collar, and struggling economically or Black and Latinx and focused on racial rather than economic justice. If we reject this false choice and envision a working class that includes all of these people, one that might not respond as a bloc to any one political strategy or message, it can seem like we’re ignoring class altogether. Addressing working-class concerns – economic, practical, but also social and cultural – requires more complex thinking about class, culture, and policy.

It doesn’t help that discussions about working-class voters so often focus on how politicians should talk rather than on what they should do. That’s part of why we appreciated the invitation to contribute to a forum in  Social Policy, due out next week,to suggest what the Biden administration could do to help the working class. Simply framing the question in terms of policy rather than politics is a step in the right direction.

We recommended a few fairly obvious actions, starting with getting the coronavirus under control, a concern for everyone but especially for the working class. Even before the pandemic, many working-class people had limited access to good health care, and they were more likely to have underlying medical problems that made them vulnerable to COVID. Contrary to the old blue-collar stereotype, most working-class jobs today are in the service industry, including many of the jobs we now deem “essential” – grocery clerks, nursing assistants, janitors, delivery drivers, postal workers. This has put many workers at risk. Others face economic risks because of lost jobs. To address the needs of the working class, we need to stop the spread of the virus and provide substantial economic relief to ensure that millions of Americans with little or no savings will not lose their homes or go hungry.

To strengthen the economy going forward, the Biden administration should also develop a broader industrial policy that includes infrastructure projects, a buy American program, improved labor laws, improved training opportunities, and a higher minimum wage. All of this will create jobs and improve economic conditions for working people. It can also help address some social problems. Expanded access to health care, improved early childhood and K-12 education, and support for elder and child care could decrease some of the despair that has played out in high rates of drug addition, family violence, and mental health issues for many in the working class.

These are not new ideas, nor are we alone in suggesting them (see, for example, the list from the Economic Policy Institute). But to make a real difference for the working class, Biden and Congress must move beyond talking about these ideas in campaign speeches, as they have done in the past. They need to take significant action.

This will all help, but we need to do more to heal the divisions that leave many in the working class feeling disrespected and aggrieved. That will require a change in attitude from those who so often look down on the working class, smugly certain that they have earned their privileges and are intellectually, culturally, even morally superior to those who are struggling. As philosopher Michael Sandel argues in The Tyranny of Merit: What’s Become of the Common Good?, the pandemic makes clear both our mutual dependence and the hollowness of the refrain that “we are all in this together.” We failed to come together, he suggests, because of a combination of unprecedented inequality that separates those who succeeded economically have become ever more disconnected from those who are struggling and a deeply-embedded belief that those on top deserve their success because they have the education needed to compete in the global economy. The winners see themselves as better than the losers, and the losers are all too aware that the winners not only don’t care but actually hold them responsible for their own problems. As a result, neither those on the top nor those on the bottom actually believe that we are all in this together.

Sandel argues that we must reject the toxic mix of professional-class hubris and working-class resentment that has shaped so much of our public life in recent years. That will require more than economic populism. We’ve spent a lot of time this year applauding doctors and nurses but we too often ignore the janitors, medical assistants, teachers’ aides, and food service workers who are less visible and widely underpaid, treated with disdain, seen as less valuable, less smart, less human. Raising their wages is a step in the right direction. Sharing their stories is a good start. Real healing will require a step beyond: to genuine respect.

To serve the interests of the working class, we should learn from the model of Bargaining for the Common Good, an organizing strategy that emphasizes connections between the needs of workers and the needs of communities and in the process builds relationships and collective power.  It is time to embrace policies as well as attitudes and relationships that move us all toward a greater sense that we really are in this together.

Sherry Linkon and John Russo, Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor

Posted in Contributors, Issues, John Russo, Labor and Community Activism, Sherry Linkon, The Working Class and the Economy, Working-Class Politics | Tagged , , | 6 Comments

Christmas (and Class) Behind the Scenes

I love Christmas movies because they are always about work. Want to see executive fat cats who are forced to work on Christmas Eve? Check out Scrooged, Elf, and The Family Man. Want to see elves being mistreated, overworked, and criminalized? Check out the classic stop-motion animation produced in the 1960s and 1970s by Rankin/Bass, including Rudolph, Santa Claus is Coming to Town, The Year Without a Santa Claus, and just about every other Christmas movie that has elves in it. There’s even a movie with an elf strike in it—Elf Bowling the Movie: The Great North Pole Elf Strike (2007).

Want to see Santa Claus worn out from the job? That’s the theme of all of the films in The Santa Clause trilogy that stars Tim Allen. Want to see moms losing their minds from how much work it takes to make Christmas magical? Try Bad Moms Christmas, Deck the Halls (focusing on dads, though), and Christmas with the Kranks. Want to see 19th century boot blacks, butchers, clerks, and chimney sweeps? Check out pretty much any adaptation of Dicken’s The Christmas Carol. I could go on and on, but I think you get the idea. If you like movies that are about work, and explicitly so, Christmas movies have your back.

So, imagine my delight when a new holiday series caught my eye this December: The Holiday Movies that Made Us. This series is a spin-off of The Movies that Made Us, which itself is a spin-off of The Toys that Made Us, a genius series from Netflix. It’s the perfect series for people who love Christmas movies and movies about work, because it looks at the work of making Christmas movies.

Season 1 includes a behind the scenes look at the making of Elf (2003) and The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993). What I love about this series is that it makes some of the arguments about movie making that I’ve been trying to make for years:

  1. Movies require a great deal of work, most of it unsung and behind the scenes, often done by people who are considered to be working class
  2. Movies are collective enterprises, not the singular vision of a genius auteur
  3. Many of the most commercially successful movies feature working-class characters and/or working-class themes

Let’s take Elf as an example. The Netflix series reveals that Elf was a surprisingly contingent movie, made by a bunch of nobodies whose only claim to fame was a weak personal link to Will Ferrell, who, at the time, was not yet a movie star. We also learn that one of the things that made Elf such a magical, modern day timeless holiday classic is that the crew built a set for the North Pole on an ice rink in Vancouver, Canada. On this set they were able to take the time—and a considerable amount of money—to explore a filming technique called forced perspective. This made Will Farrell, already a very tall 6’3”, look even more gigantic relative to the other characters.

Making Elf required more than 850 workers. This included more than 119 in the art department alone, many of them working in such non-glamourous positions as carpenter’s helper, plasterer, sign fabricator, props maker, and greensman—Hollywood lingo for the person who manages the plants and landscaping in every shot. IMDB also provides a long list of drivers, caterers, loaders, and other bottom-of-the-totem pole positions.

All of these are union jobs to boot. Hollywood is not a working-class utopia, of course. As The LA Times recently reported, entertainment unions have a whiteness problem. In addition, runaway productions—movies made outside of LA—have eroded union power. But Hollywood is still a union town, and the film unions in LA have political clout as well.

The Holiday Movies that Made Us series emphasizes the collective—rather than auteur—nature of film making. In the episode about Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas, we learn that the story and figures were based on a few drawings Burton made while working as an animator for Disney. But Burton himself did not direct the film that eventually bore his name; indeed, his name was added as a marketing gimmick for an adult audience after the film tested poorly with children. We also learn that the Nightmare’s original screenwriter spent more time snorting coke than he did on the script, and that the Edward Scissorhands’s screenwriter, Carolyn Thompson, was brought in to save the day, in part because she was then the girlfriend of the film’s songwriter Danny Elfman. Thompson is credited with giving Sally—the girlfriend of Jack, the Pumpkin King—more depth and complexity.

The Holiday Movies that Made Us reminds us how many of these films feature working-class characters and working-class themes. Playing a human who thinks he’s an elf in Elf, Will Ferrell’s character Buddy is coded as working-class. After he leaves the North Pole, where he is humiliated for being a sub-par toy maker, Buddy works as an elf at a department store Santaland. While there, his paranoid boss is threatened by Buddy’s ability to create holiday magic, and he meets his girlfriend, Jovie, who also works as a Santaland elf. (From the series we are horrified to learn that some Hollywood suit wanted to make Jovie’s character into a prostitute.) Buddy also does a short stint in the mail room of his father’s publishing company.

Sadly, the Made Us series enriches one of the pandemic’s more despicable profiteers, Netflix Co-CEO Reed Hastings. He has a new book out, in which he brags about how often he fires employees if they are not competing at a high level, citing such company mottos as “adequate performance gets a generous severance package.” Variety called the work environment at Netflix a “culture of fear.” Now that I think about it, Hastings would make the perfect evil boss in a holiday Christmas movie!

Until that movie is made, if you’re a Christmas movie/work freak like me, enjoy The Holiday Movies that Made Us and think about the thousands of unsung underlings who work behind the scenes. And don’t forget all the other invisible workers during the Christmas season. Donate to organizations that are fighting to increase the power of working people. Remember to shop for Christmas gifts that are union made. And spread Christmas cheer by singing loudly – and safely — for all to hear!

Kathy M. Newman, Carnegie Mellon University

Posted in Class and the Media, Contributors, Issues, Kathy M. Newman | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

Rethinking Working-Class Belonging

December always invites us to look back over the past year — the media fills the relatively quiet year-end news cycle with various “best of” lists, and New Year’s seems to demand that we reflect on our own lives. This year, I stumbled on something that took me back much further, to one of the first pieces that John Russo and I wrote together: a talk for a conference debating “Can Class Still Unite?” Most of the speakers discussed European trade unions, but almost none said anything about issues of race, gender, or immigration status. In contrast, John and I focused on the growing diversity of the U.S. labor movement. We argued that theories that “depict class as a universalist structure or in static terms of social stratification” are “clearly insufficient.” Class isn’t the only factor shaping working-class people’s views and actions, so our work on class must be intersectional. We also argued that to understand solidarity we have to think about economic relations but also about culture, which can help us understand what motivates and complicates people’s willingness to join in collective actions or even to think of themselves as part of the working class.

Twenty years later, we’re still making sense of class cultures and the multiplicity of the working class. Recent books and reports on political populism and resentment, the rise in drug addiction and suicide, and other phenomena have emphasized the cultural as well as economic aspects of class. Scholarly studies of class also make the link. Historians and sociologists tracing class formation identify cultural views like feeling a sense of shared identity and embracing the needs and the good of the collective as elements of the solidarity that lies at the heart of class action.

One of the most visible versions of the cultural approach within working-class studies comes from the work of Barbara Jensen and Jack Metzgar, who have identified key qualities of working-class and middle-class culture. In their separate publications, both have focused on the idea that working-class culture prioritizes belonging while middle-class culture focuses on individual striving. This idea strikes a chord with many people from working-class backgrounds as well as those who study how class works. It highlights a central strength of working-class culture, a source of comfort, pride, and pleasure.  As Metzgar argues in a book due out next year, the middle class would benefit from understanding and embracing a culture of belonging.

Yet this formulation yields three difficulties. First, any effort to describe the qualities of “working-class culture” will tend to emphasize what people hold in common, not their differences – a problem that seems to me to be built into the task of describing any broadly-shared culture. Generalization must erase variation in order to be useful. And we must recognize both the value and the limits of the generalization.

Second, belonging is most readily felt and understood on a small scale. It may be possible to feel that one belongs to a huge group defined by shared conditions like wage labor (or skin color, gender, sexuality, nationality), but in practice, in our daily lives, belonging is fostered by familiarity and interpersonal relations. Organizers know that while it is possible to create a sense of commonality with people from far away, it’s easier to foster belonging in a neighborhood, where people can see and talk with each other. If nothing else, this suggests the value of interrogating more fully the relationship between small-scale belonging and larger-scale solidarity.  

Third, belonging generates boundaries. Some people are “like us,” but others are set apart as “them.” Articulating the difference between “us” and “them” can enable both pleasure and agency. It can help people see that their injuries are not individual, that injustice and struggle are shared, and that standing together can be a source of power. Yet too often in working-class history, the boundaries of belonging have defined “us” in narrow terms focused on race, gender, or nationality. “We” have been native-born workers keeping immigrants out of the union or the U.S. “We” have been people with one set of political views denouncing “them” for “taking away our country.” To the extent that belonging relies on some people being with us or like us, it can contribute to divisions within the working class even as it connects people within any given family or community.

As these difficulties suggest, belonging may be a valuable asset of working-class culture, but it can also be limiting and divisive. Working-class studies can address these challenges by examining and critiquing the idea of belonging – not to reject it but to enrich and complicate it. As Joseph Entin phrases it in his contribution to the new Routledge International Handbook of Working-Class Studies, we should rethink class as something “that must be continually interrogated and recast in the context of particular struggles.” He goes so far as to call class a “problem” – not in the sense of something that needs to be eliminated or fixed but rather as a concept that requires ongoing examination, not least because class is so deeply intersectional.

What would intersectional belonging mean? Among people who lead diversity training, belonging is often characterized as the most complete embrace of difference. As one often-quoted (and inadequately credited) line puts it, “Diversity is like being invited to a party, inclusion is being asked to dance, and belonging is dancing like no one’s watching.” I like how this line encourages us to do more than recognize the diversity of the working class or create a more inclusive field. To create a larger-scale sense of working-class belonging, we have to fully engage with and embrace differences. Entin argues that “social differences, tensions, and contradictions” are not merely part of working-class life but actually “constitutive of working-class collectivity.” If we want class to unite – a goal that feels at once more important and more challenging than ever – we need to build bonds that are strengthened by difference rather than boundaries that divide.

Sherry Linkon, Georgetown University

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Toxic Class Encounters

It’s thirty years this autumn since I began my undergraduate degree at Durham University in the North East of England. To tell you the truth I didn’t know much about the city before I applied there.  My visit for the three required interviews was very enjoyable, and more positive than some of the less elite institutions I had applied to. I enjoyed looking about the Norman castle and cathedral set high on a hill surrounded by the moat-like River Wear.  I should have guessed something was up however when the tutor in the sociology department asked me “What’s a good working-class boy like you want to come to a place like this?”. It was meant positively, and I took it in that way, but the penny really dropped when I arrived in the late September of 1990. I think about 60% of students then came from public schools (meaning they were privately educated), but in those first days and weeks of the autumn term it felt like 95% or more.  Someone explained to me that Durham was where the public-school kids who couldn’t get into Oxbridge went. The result was often a toxic mixture of slumbering resentment among people who felt they had somehow missed out on their pre-ordained entitlement.

Class privilege was etched into the University, and the public-school kids took to it like ducks to water. Durham for them was simply an extension of the public-school system with colleges instead of houses, black tie formal dinners, and intense social networks built between their schools through sporting activities. The ‘Rahs’, the pejorative name for the worst-behaved of the tribe, walked around as if they owned the place.  They had their own dress code, they sounded different, and they were often much taller than the students from ‘ordinary’ backgrounds or the local population of Durham City – in short they literally embodied class privilege.

This made Durham an excellent place to study sociology, especially class. It also makes clear how easily those with privilege deny their advantages. Students took offence in seminars where a tutor might gently try to lift the lid on the benefits some of my more upper-class peers might have enjoyed. I remember one woman took my tutor to task for even suggesting privilege by pointing out that her father had “Worked jolly hard to put her and her three siblings through public school at over £10,000 each per year”. I think I remarked that my dad had never earnt more than £10,000 a year in his entire working life, but the irony was lost on the rest of my class mates. The lid was firmly shut.

And there was a darker side to this experience of class. There was the working-class local kid who shared a bedroom in my student accommodation with a ‘Rah’. It was he rather than the ‘rah’ who left quietly after Christmas, never to return, so alienated was he by the whole experience.  Or there was my teacher Ian, a local lad who had gained a first-class degree in sociology and an excellent PhD from Durham University but was laughed at as soon as he opened his mouth to give a large first-year lecture. His was a local North-East accent, something a largely public-school audience could only mock as it wasn’t the educated, received English that they and everyone who had ever taught them, or exercised authority over them, had shared.

Over the last three decades I’ve returned to Durham a number of times.  I somehow assumed that things must have changed over the intervening years, but in the last couple of months Durham University has become the poster child for a form of toxic classism directed at working-class, often local students at the University. One of those students, Lauren White, eventually complied a report detailing instances from petty slights through to more serious incidents. As White noted of her treatment, “At first when they mocked and mimicked my accent, I sort of went along with it, even laughed, but then when I persistently became the butt of jokes about coalmining and started to get called feral because I was local it started to feel malicious.”

Members of the Durham University Working-Class Students Association marching in the city

Other working-class students reported being refused entry to student college bars because their accents marked them as ‘other’. Another highlighted the practice of ‘rolling in the muck’, where a privileged student would attempt to sleep with working-class students, a kind of sexualised slumming. Reading these and other accounts was appalling but it also highlighted for me the persistence of the ‘hidden injuries of class’.  The response to this ‘injury’ takes many forms, including silencing students in class for fear that their accent would mark them out, or moving back to their parents’ home rather than live in proximity to their tormentors. As is often the case working-class people have to check their behaviour, identity, and culture in order to fit in.

But some good has come out of all this. The national press coverage of this story has deeply embarrassed the University and begun a debate in Durham and beyond. Meanwhile, some of the more militant ‘Rahs’ have created a backlash against attempts to tackle the deep-seated structural inequality and under representation at Durham.

But it is young working-class people themselves who are pushing to change things.  They founded their own Working-Class Students Association, and in 2019 they organised a Working-Class History Month and marched at the annual Durham Miners Gala under their own banner. Their activism speaks to the importance of learning from the past and reforging networks among working-class people. I wish I could have taken part in that kind of activism when I was a student. This is a powerful example of mutual help between students from a similar background. It will help change their institution and the wider society.  

Tim Strangleman, University of Kent

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Cultural and Political Diversity in the White Working-Class

Influential political analyst Ron Brownstein thinks American politics is all about answering this question: “How long can Paducah tell Seattle what to do?”

Hilary Swift, New York Times photo

The question resonates because metro areas vote so differently from small town and rural areas and because our electoral-college leftover from slavery (like the Senate) gives these non-metro places outsized influence in our politics.  Regionally, large majorities on the coasts vote Democratic while the South and Midwest are majority Republican.  But to Brownstein’s readers in The Atlantic, Paducah (population 23,000 and in Kentucky) likely also connotes “hick” or “hillbilly,” terms that are stand-ins for “poorly educated” whites without bachelor’s degrees — or the so-called white working class.  

Brownstein presents the core conflict in American politics as between a backward-looking, aggrieved “coalition of restoration” (Paducah) and a forward-looking, virtuous “coalition of transformation” (Seattle). The unstated assumption is that highly educated folks, the transformers, are the norm as well as the ideal, whereas poorly educated whites are ignorant and backward at best, or deplorable at worst.  Those whites seemed to prove that again last Tuesday by voting 64 to 35 for Donald J. Trump.  (All 2020 election results here are from preliminary and not entirely reliable Edison exit polls as reported in The New York Times.)

At this moment it’s pretty tempting for us highly educated folks to think that all Trump voters are deplorable people resisting the important transformations we are all busy working toward.  But there are different transformations afoot and they’re not all positive.  And there’s also some restoration we could use a lot more of.

Brownstein mistakenly meshes cultural transformations – “growing diversity in race, religion, and sexual orientation [and] evolving roles for women” – with economic ones – “the move from an industrial economy to one grounded in the Information Age.”  In this formulation if you want to restore some important aspects of the Industrial Age – like 2% annual increases in real wages for three decades, strong unions, and steeply progressive taxes – then you also resist growing diversity and evolving roles for women. 

It’s true that many white men, with and without bachelor’s degrees, rage against all three transformations.  But there is no logical connection between cultural reactionaries and economic ones.  A person can be culturally deplorable and economically progressive at the same time, as much survey research has shown.  Or they can resist diversity but be open to – and in fact, looking for – the government to dramatically improve their economic circumstances.  And that means that Democrats should make a renewed effort to convince workers of all skin tones to look more closely at their economic program.  The one Biden ran on is good enough.

It didn’t get much attention in the media, nor did Biden emphasize it enough. Yet the economic program Biden ran on is potentially transformative at the scale he proposed  – especially trade and industrial policies focused on making more things in-country, a massive infrastructure investment that creates millions of jobs, and a comprehensive enhancement of the care economy for children, elders, and the workers who care for them, all paid for with increased taxes on corporations and the wealthy. If enacted, this program will disproportionately benefit people of color, but the largest group of beneficiaries will be whites without bachelor’s degrees.  

Such a program will be impossible to enact with a Senate still controlled by Paducah, but the overall program could be enormously popular, and it should be the center of Democratic legislative politics for the next two years.  The program – and the focus on economic revival – might be able to pull a handful of Republican senators across the aisle, but that’s not as important as making strong inroads into the Trumpian base of the party – namely, the white working class.  I believe that can be done and is, in fact, highly feasible, but you have to understand the Trump coalition better than our punditry generally does.

A recent New York Times article, for example, described the Trump and Biden coalitions in a way that is quite common shorthand among many analysts and pundits: “A Trump coalition of white voters without college degrees and a Biden coalition of college-educated white voters . . . and minority voters.”

White people without bachelor’s degrees are the largest part of the Trump coalition – 47% — but they are not alone.  Despite what Brownstein and others assume, the white part of the educated middle class are not uniformly right-thinking transformers. Last week they split their vote 49 to 49, making them about a third of the Trump coalition.                 

Trump Coalition
White Working Class47%
White Middle Class33%
“Non-White”20%

While only a fifth of the Trump coalition are not white, “non-white” people make up nearly half of Biden’s coalition. The total “non-white” Dem advantage may be down some from the Obama elections, but it is still huge.   As growing and mobilizing parts of the electorate, racial minorities are clearly the foundation of any viable Democratic coalition.

Biden Coalition
“Non-White”47%
     Black 20%      Latino 17%      Asian & Other 10% 
White Middle Class30%
White Working Class23%

But that 35% minority of working-class whites who voted for Biden are not an insubstantial part of the Biden coalition, making up nearly a quarter of it. That’s the smallest part of the coalition, but it amounts to about 20 million voters, which is more people than reside in all but four of our most populous states.  The educated white middle class represents a somewhat larger group, but they are not the only white part of the Democratic coalition.

Simple democratic arithmetic dictates that you cannot neglect any part of your coalition, but you also need to add to your coalition by subtracting from the opposition’s groups.  The white working class may have gotten over-sized attention from progressive Democrats coming into this election, but that’s because they are the single biggest target.   It didn’t help that a part of the Democratic party has sometimes argued that they should be abandoned and allowed to stew in their own juices – often with more than a little class prejudice.  Democrats’ effort to attract more working-class whites, however, resulted in about a 4-point gain among them nationally, but the gains in battleground Rust Belt states were enough to determine outcomes – 8 points in Michigan, 9 points in Minnesota, 7 points in Wisconsin, though only 2 points in Pennsylvania.

As Michael Sandel has pointed out, “Disdain for the Less Educated Is the Last Acceptable Prejudice.”   To gain more support from working-class whites, Democrats have to acknowledge that class prejudice — and overcome it.  We can start by simply understanding that the white working class is a very large and diverse group of people. It cannot reasonably be characterized as having one uniform social and political psychology. Indeed, it is so large and diverse that it makes up both the largest piece of the Trump base and an indispensable part of the Biden base. 

Nor should we buy the kind of broad-brush geographical references that Brownstein offers. Working-class whites don’t all live in places like Paducah.  They live in cities, including Seattle, and are likely a majority in the suburbs, even though political reporters often seem to assume that “the suburbs” require a bachelor’s degree and a comfortable income for admission. 

Most important, we need to understand that while some part of the white working class is deplorable in every respect, the largest group among them is culturally conservative but also economically progressive.  The Public Religion Research Institute study that tracked substantial racial and cultural resentments and anxieties among large portions of the white working class also found:

White working-class Americans generally believe the economic system is stacked against them, are broadly supportive of populist economic policies such as raising the minimum wage and taxing the wealthy—including a larger role for government—and are skeptical of free trade. . . . . Most white working-class Americans believe the best way to promote economic growth is to increase spending on education and the nation’s infrastructure, while raising taxes on wealthy individuals and businesses to pay for it.”   

If a President Joe-from-Scranton can unify Democratic legislators around the progressive economic program he ran on, he can rally the diverse coalition that elected him this year while at the same time appealing to that considerable part of the white working class who voted for Trump but who are also open to a transformation toward economic justice that includes them.  

Jack Metzgar

Jack Metzgar is a professor emeritus of Humanities at Roosevelt University in Chicago.  A former president of the Working-Class Studies Association, he is the author of a forthcoming book from Cornell University Press, No One Right Way: Working-Class Culture in a Middle-Class Society.

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After the Election: Finding Our Dignity and a Way Out of This Mess

It’s almost 50 years old, but the 1972 book The Hidden Injuries of Class by Richard Sennett and Jonathan Cobb accurately identified the problems of class in the U.S. that have fed the divisiveness of Donald Trump. If only we paid attention. Their book also gives us an alternative path – a way out of our current mess.

The two sociologists interviewed white, working-class men in Boston back in 1969 and 1970, a narrow approach that ignores the people who now make up the majority of the working class. Nonetheless, their findings are useful. They identified a growing divide between the white, male working class and the upwardly mobile, well-educated class.

Ideally, human beings in society should be treated as equals. But the interviews revealed something quite different. The social order – fostered in the mostly unregulated American version of capitalism – had created a working class with a deficit of not only economic status, but social status as well. The men Sennett and Cobb interviewed thought that upper-middle-class people would judge them as not worthy of being “respected as equals.”

For Sennett and Cobb, this made clear that “class is a system for limiting freedom.” They asked “What happens to the dignity men see in themselves and in each other, when their freedom is checked by class?” The answer: working-class grievances.

“All of the dreams of individuality now, all the anger and accusations, revolve around the issue of common dignity. The working people of Boston have been denied the presumption, rather than the possibility, of social respect, denied in some way of moving through daily life without being defensive and on guard, some way of being open with other people without being hurt,” they wrote.

We can treat these injuries of class as either a problem to be solved or a problem to be exploited.

You know what Donald Trump decided to do. Hillary Clinton took his bait, in a statement that reflects exactly the kind of judgment Sennett and Cobb’s interviewees feared: “you could put half of Trump’s supporters into what I call the basket of deplorables. Right?” It didn’t matter that she was speaking against “racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic” discourse and behavior, not against working-class people in general.

Trump turned “deplorables” into a badge of honor. A Trump ad responded “You know what’s deplorable? Hillary Clinton viciously demonizing hard-working people like you.” In his Republican presidential nomination speech in 2016, mimicking the message of fellow Republican Richard Nixon in 1968, Trump fully appropriated the mantle of the working class by saying to “the forgotten men and women of our country” that “I am your voice.”

It soon became clear that Trump wanted to be the voice for only the white working class. And he wanted to be only a voice, not a true advocate. He wasn’t going to deliver an economic policy for working people (despite his claims of building the best economy ever). Instead, he strung them along – not solving their problems but exploiting their grievances.

Trump created a governing administration – a cult, actually – that exploited every grievance ever known to social relations in U.S. history: racism, sexism, anti-immigrant, anti-Semitism, anti-internationalism, anti-intellectualism, anti-science, anti-journalism, anti-labor, anti-environment, anti-government, and embraced authoritarianism, white supremacism, conspiracy theories. And then he lied about everything in such an audacious manner it was almost too difficult for anyone to keep pace.

Aided by a conservative mass media (including Fox News, talk radio, and a network of conservative web sites) and social media that served as his safe space and propaganda arm, Trump has tried to hold together a base of mostly white men without college degrees, to the exclusion of nearly everyone else – despite his recent efforts to bring suburban white women back into his fold.

Trump doesn’t have to court the wealthy, a usual suspect in the Republican Party. They have gone quietly along for the ride, collecting bonuses every time Trump passes Go: wonderful tax cuts, extraordinary opportunities for influence-peddling, and fewer pesky regulations to hold them accountable.

For the working class people who follow Trump, the benefits are mostly psychological. Trump offers them a snarky attitude of superiority: own the libs, suppress women and people of color, screw the international order, deride the legitimate news media, and destroy the truth. These benefits might salve the grievances of feeling disrespected by the elite, but perhaps because he has offered so few economic rewards, his base is now shrinking.

There is another path to reach out to working-class voters who have felt the injuries of class as well as of race, gender, immigration status, and a myriad of other injuries of social exclusion. Biden captured the idea in the last presidential debate in a single word: dignity.

“What is on the ballot here is the character of this country,” Biden said. “Decency, honor, respect. Treating people with dignity, making sure that everyone has an even chance. And I’m going to make sure you get that.”

Fifty years ago, in his afterword to The Hidden Injuries of Class, Cobb wrote that those in power in society set the standards of class, which subsequently create those feelings of indignity. The alternative is to reject the class-based order, and instead value “having different cultures, different values, different developments, different abilities” – different, but valued equally. In other words, class is structure that has meaning only when we enforce its perverse rules.

The right policies could tear down this house: health-care as a right for all; a living wage for all work; equal wages and opportunities for women and people of color; progressive taxation; equal per-pupil funding for all public schools; an inviolable right to vote; and the right to easily organize into labor unions and collectively bargain.

If Biden is elected and follows through on building a society based on human dignity, he could begin solving the problems of class injuries. But no matter who is president, the challenge for working-class people – in all of their wonderful diversity – is to stick together and not let another leader define us and divide us. We can be our own voice.

Christopher R. Martin

Christopher R. Martin is a professor of digital journalism at the University of Northern Iowa and the author of No Longer Newsworthy: How the Mainstream Media Abandoned the Working Class (ILR/Cornell University Press).

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Why Trump Will Lose Ohio

It is always dangerous to publicly predict the outcome of a presidential election, especially in a purple state like Ohio. But I’ve done it twice, in 2011 and 2016, months in advance, when both of my predicted winners, Barack Obama and Donald Trump, respectively, were behind.

Photo by Alex Brandon, Trump speaking at a rally at the Toledo airport

This year, I am predicting that Trump will lose in Ohio. That might seem like a somewhat safe bet, since the most recent Real Clear Politics polls for Ohio show Democratic nominee Joe Biden with a very slight lead. Then again, at this point in 2016 the Real Clear Politics average showed Trump ahead by less than 2 percent, and Hillary Clinton ultimately lost Ohio by 8 points. So it’s worth considering how the Democrats will overcome the political ineptitude they displayed in 2016 and—as was not the case in the rest of the nation—2018, when the “Democratic Party left Ohio.”

The answer lies in changing demographics, Trump’s failures, the shifting views of some evangelicals, and problems in the Ohio Republican Party.

Even before the 2018 election, I sensed that the Trump fever was breaking, especially in the Youngstown area—what some have called Trump’s “ground zero.” Talking with Youngstown residents, especially working-class voters, I heard rumblings of disappointment and doubt. Trump fever was being doused by a wave of closings, which included a major hospital, the local newspaper, and GM’s Lordstown factory. Trump had told local residents that their economy would get stronger under his leadership, but he had failed to keep those promises or even to offer substantive help as the local economy reeled from these losses. Add the human and economic costs of the pandemic to the state’s already changing demographics and economic struggles, and it’s easy to see why Trump’s support is at risk.

Demographics might not be political destiny, but changes in Ohio’s population seem likely to help Democrats this year. Ohio has long been older, whiter, and more working-class than most other states. According to political analysts Ruy Teixeira and John Halpin, in 2016, white working-class voters made up 55 percent of Ohio voters, but their numbers have since declined to 53 percent. Trump won 63 percent of white working-class votes four years ago, but many are now turning away from him, particularly women and seniors.

As the white working-class share of voters has declined, Ohio has become younger, better educated, more racially and ethnically diverse, and more liberal. According to the Ohio Voter Contact Services, there are 912,000 new registered voters since 2016. Ohio political consultant Jerry Austin believes that more than 250,000 young voters will be voting for the first time and most are likely to vote Democratic. As Amy Walter notes in the Cook Political Report, demographic changes together with the president’s low job approval rating in Ohio should make Republicans “worried” about Trump’s growing weakness in the state.

Compounding these demographic changes have been the declining socioeconomic conditions in Ohio. The Trump tax cuts did not lead to substantial job growth and rising wages. Although the national economy had strengthened modestly in recent years—until the pandemic—growth in wages and jobs has been slower in Ohio. A study issued just this week from the Century Foundation, Policy Matters Ohio, and the Groundwork Collaborative documents that while the number of manufacturing jobs has increased (by less than 1 percent) nationally during Trump’s term, in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin, they’ve actually declined. Poverty rates are also up in both urban and, more recently, suburban parts of the state. Some rural areas have seen “unprecedented” unemployment, even as Republicans brag that the economy is booming in Ohio.

These economic trends have been exacerbated by the COVID-19 crisis. One in five workers in Ohio have applied for unemployment since April—a rate that likely does not include all of those who’ve lost their jobs, since many have reported filing difficulties or are self-employed or independent contractors. Many of those eligible for the extra benefits provided by last spring’s stimulus package experienced late payments.

No wonder Trump’s inflated references to the improving economy are falling on deaf ears. The contrast between his claims and people’s experiences may help explain why Trump’s approval rating among Ohio voters has dropped by 15 percent since his election and currently stands at 46 percent.

In 2016, despite questions about Trump’s own morality and his lack of serious engagement with religious life, religious conservatives embraced him. They believed that he would curb abortion, support religious liberty, appoint conservative judges, protect Israel, and pull back transgender rights. He has delivered on many of these issues, as his nomination of Amy Coney Barrett has again made apparent.

Yet, Trump has been losing support among evangelicals, and some in Ohio feel that they have been “too easily bought.” Phil Heimlich, a member of Cincinnati’s influential Crossroads Church, one of fastest-growing churches in the nation, believes that “Trump’s violations of biblical teachings on sexual immorality, immigration, and fiscal responsibility” outweigh his support for checking abortion. Christian beliefs go beyond any single issue, and some evangelicals are troubled by the insincerity of Trump’s Christian values and his lack of commitment to honesty and decency.

And Ohio’s religious landscape is changing. Church attendance in the state is considered average compared to other states—and it is dropping. Millennials and Generation Z are decidedly more secular in their beliefs than their parents. That might not serve Republicans well in Ohio. Less-religious voters may not support the party’s legislative efforts to expand religious expression in public schools and to accept answers on state proficiency exams that align with creationism rather than established science. Many are increasingly troubled by deeper religious incongruities in Trump’s policies.

Finally, schisms within the Ohio Republican Party have undercut support for Trump in his own party. After the 2016 election, Trump and his supporters ousted Ohio’s most successful Republican chairperson, Matt Borges. While Borges had not worked against Trump, he had supported former Ohio Gov. John Kasich in the bitter 2016 Republican presidential primary. He also provided cover for other Republicans who withdrew their endorsement of Trump in the final stages of the 2016 election.

That conflict has continued to fester as Trump supporters took over the Ohio Republican Party, led by a new chairperson, Jane Timken, and Rep. Jim Jordan. Ohio Republican officeholders, like Gov. Mike DeWine and Sen. Rob Portman, have tried to remain at arm’s length from the more radical Trump wing of the party.

But the conflict has resurfaced with John Kasich’s critiques of Trump and endorsement of Biden, with Borges now working to unseat Trump, and a newly emerging organization, Operation Grant, which was established in July 2020 by the Lincoln Project and other anti-Trump Republicans. The organization (named after Ohio native Ulysses Grant) has been holding events around the state that feature a cadre of Republican former elected officials, military and religious leaders, and small farmers. As “bona fide conservatives and Republicans,” their stated goal is “to assure the defeat of President Donald Trump and Trumpism.”

According to Operation Grant organizer David Little, Operation Grant has attracted moderate Republicans, who in recent weeks have contributed over $30,000 to the group. The project is also attracting media attention in Ohio and international papers.

Given past performances, many Democrats in Ohio have lacked confidence in the national and Ohio Democratic parties. Their skepticism only intensified when the Democratic Party chose not to include Ohio as a battleground state and limited its media buys to the Youngstown and Toledo counties bordering on Michigan and Pennsylvania, while largely ignoring the rest of the state.

But when polls in recent months showed that Ohio was competitive, the party increased its spending. Local ground games finally emerged, led by local Democratic parties. Cuyahoga County (which includes Cleveland) does not have an on-site Biden campaign coordinator, but local organizers have increased online, text, and telephone contacts there dramatically, with special emphasis on absentee voters and people who are registered but have not voted in recent elections.

All these changes—demographic shifts, the struggling state economy, the shrinking share of religious conservatives, and the deep schism within the Ohio Republican Party—have cost Trump a good part of his base in Ohio. It isn’t so much that Biden is winning Ohio. It’s that Trump is losing it.

Democratic Senator Sherrod Brown’s claim that Ohio is still contested political territory is proving to be true. The Democratic Party is once again viewing Ohio not as a red state but as a purple one. And without Ohio, it will be difficult for Trump to win the presidential election.

John Russo, Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor

This piece originally appeared in The American Prospect.

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