Obama Will Cruze to Victory

“And the winner is…”

(Drum roll—sound of envelope being ripped open.)

“…Barack Obama.”

I’m going to be honest about this: when it comes to predicting the outcome of the 2012 presidential contest I’ve been downright Romneyan.  It’s not something I’m proud of, but unlike the GOP nominee who can’t remember what he believed an hour ago, I haven’t developed a case of Romnesia or tried to Etch-a-Sketch my shifting prognostications out of existence. What hasn’t changed is my belief that the outcome of the presidential contest in Ohio would determine who would occupy the White House for the next four years.

A little over a year ago—and months before he had sewn up the GOP nomination–I believed Romney was on a clear path to victory in the Buckeye state.  He was the least buffoonish character in the cast of clowns that was seeking the Republican nod, he was and would continue to be awash in campaign cash, and his record as a Senate candidate and governor of Massachusetts would enable him to move from the far right-wing toward the center after he secured the nomination.

Other factors also pointed to a Romney win. Though recovering, the economy was weak, unemployment was uncomfortably high, and President Obama was being blamed—his job approval rating was hovering at 42%.   The Democratic Party’s dispirited and disillusioned base had not turned out in 2010, enabling the GOP to capture every statewide office.  White working-class males who had never been enthralled with Mr. Obama remained skeptical if not downright hostile, and the state’s conservatives were eagerly awaiting the opportunity to toss him out of office. Ohio was, in my opinion, ripe for the taking.

Obviously, my opinion has changed. Since mid-summer I’ve been calling the race for the President and, despite some trepidation caused by his lackluster performance in the first debate and the public’s and the media’s willingness to give Romney a pass for being the most disingenuous and dissembling candidate to ever seek the presidency, I am confident Mr. Obama will win Ohio tomorrow on his way to racking up a comfortable margin of victory in the Electoral College.

Why do I now believe that Mr. Obama will prevail in a contest he could easily have lost?

Regardless of the billion dollars spent by the candidates, political parties, and Super PACs to air more than 1,000,000 TV ads, President Obama will win Ohio and the White House because he thought it was a good idea to save the domestic auto industry and Mitt Romney did not.

The President will win because his commitment to an industry that employs one in eight Ohioans has strengthened both the state’s economy and his standing among working-class voters. This issue has provided voters with an unobstructed view of the difference between the two candidates, their credibility, and the effect each man’s philosophy of government could have on the future of our nation.

The auto rescue demonstrates that government can exert a positive impact on the economy.  Unlike TARP and the President’s overall stimulus plan, which primarily benefited Wall Street, the auto rescue paid off for Main Street, especially Main Streets across Ohio.  It preserved good-paying, blue collar manufacturing jobs, enabled GM and Chrysler to invest nearly one billion dollars in new plants and equipment, and positioned the companies to compete effectively in the global marketplace.

Yes, there was pain involved.  The thousands of union members who lost their jobs, the car dealers who were forced to close, and the Delphi retirees whose pensions shrunk will tell you just how much.  But it’s also important to note that the auto rescue forced fat cat members of the 1% to join the working families who make up the 99% in paying the price for mistakes made by corporate America.  Along with being fundamentally fair, the substantial “haircut” that bond-holders and other investors were forced to take was an essential element of the financial restructuring that put the two auto companies on the road to recovery and literally saved millions of jobs.

In the end, the auto rescue bolstered Mr. Obama’s electoral prospects because it produced tangible results for American workers—the type of tangible results that have yet to be generated by the larger stimulus plan or health care reform.  The type of results Romney and the Republicans can’t lie about or distort.  The results are as real as the paychecks that millions of workers receive each week, as real as the thousands of Chevy Cruzes that roll off the Lordstown assembly line each week, as real the pride workers feel when they read that the car they make is the best-selling model in America.

Unfortunately for Mr. Romney, everything that’s wrong with his politics, his campaign, and his philosophy was encapsulated in his stance on the auto rescue as expressed in these 84 words from an op-ed he wrote for the New York Times:

Let Detroit Go Bankrupt

If General Motors, Ford and Chrysler get the bailout that their chief executives asked for yesterday, you can kiss the American automotive industry goodbye. It won’t go overnight, but its demise will be virtually guaranteed.

Without that bailout, Detroit will need to drastically restructure itself. With it, the automakers will stay the course — the suicidal course of declining market shares, insurmountable labor and retiree burdens, technology atrophy, product inferiority and never-ending job losses. Detroit needs a turnaround, not a check.

Clearly, Mr. Romney was dead and demonstrably wrong.  That inconvenient truth and the fact that the op-ed can be read by anyone who visits the Times’s website hasn’t prevented Mr. Romney from attempting to flip-flop on this issue as he has on so many others, including abortion, health care, the environment, and gay rights.

But no matter how he twisted and turned, no matter how much he lied, he couldn’t get out from under the op-ed.  He could never gain traction in Ohio where voters–white working class voters in particular–were living the success of the President’s plan.

How did Mr. Romeny deal with his inability to pull ahead in the state he had to win?

He simply told bigger lies in TV and radio spots that claimed Chrysler was moving production of its Jeep models to China and GM was shipping jobs and capital overseas.  The ads were so misleading and offensive that Chrysler and GM officials vehemently denounced them, the media finally held him accountable for dissembling, and the public reacted with anger and revulsion.

Predictably, his poll numbers started to slip.  Romney had finally been hoisted on the petard of his own mistruths.

Tomorrow, the man who rescued the domestic auto industry will defeat the man who wanted to let it die and then lied about it.  That says a lot about Ohio voters.  Confronted, at last, with the undistorted, incontrovertible truth, they are poised to reward a President who did the right thing with four more years in the White House.

Now that we know who will win, the big question—the one that will obviously be discussed once the dust of the election clears—is what Mr. Obama will do with the opportunity Ohioans are about to give him.  Will he, as he did with the auto rescue, focus on investing in Main Street by making sure that working-class families have a real chance to grab their piece of the American Dream or will he revert to Wall Street-centered policies that undermined his credibility, dampened the enthusiasm of the Democratic base, and placed his prospects for reelection in jeopardy?

I have a prediction, but I’m not ready to make it public just yet…

Leo Jennings

Right-To-Work Laws and Working-Class Voters: Another Teachable Moment

As a professor, I am always interested in teachable moments. When it became apparent in late 2010 that Ohio Governor John Kasich planned to introduce legislation depriving public sector workers of basic bargaining rights, I told reporters that it was a teachable moment about the role of public sector workers. After all, they were the ones who made all other work possible.

Both organized labor and community groups quickly embraced the idea that Ohio Senate Bill 5 could be a teachable moment.  They launched a hugely successful campaign to put a referendum on the bill, Issue 2, on the November ballot, and then led the fight to persuade voters to oppose the issue and overturn the bill.  Kasich’s attack and the forceful response to it may make it possible for Obama to win Ohio in 2012,  despite economic conditions and 2010 election results that would seem to prime the state to swing to the right this time.

Another teachable moment has arrived now that Republicans have introduced Right-to-Work legislation in New Hampshire and passed it in Indiana.  Similar legislation may be on the way in Michigan, Minnesota, and Ohio. Such moves may well undermine the historic white working-class support of Republicans, and that could bode well for Obama’s re-election.

RTW legislation differs from past Republican attacks on unions. As labor historian Joseph McCartin has recently chronicled, while courting union endorsements and union voters, Republicans have pursued strategies that, over the last 30 years, have quietly undermined administrative agencies and government policies that facilitated the formation of unions.  The result has been the erosion and marginalization of organized labor and its ability to raise wages, improve workplace safety and health, and advance representative democracy not only in the workplace but in the body politic.

The current RTW legislation is a direct attack on organized labor and its ability to represent the economic and political interests of both the rank and file and those non-union workers whose wages and benefits are enhanced by employers to avoid unionization. No doubt, the role of unions in building and rebuilding economic security and the middle class, advancing workplace rights, and promoting political democracy will be a central part of the curriculum for this teachable moment.

All the current Republican candidates have refused opportunities to speak to union leaders.  Instead, they have signed on to the anti-labor agenda, including RTW legislation, proposed by conservative corporations, business groups, and donors.  Together with their other economic proposals, they have established a Republican brand that embraces and even celebrates a distorted sense of morality and inequality of income, wealth, and power.

But as Governors Kasich and Walker have found out, “as you sow so shall you reap.”  The fight against RTW proposals and their supporters will be particularly fierce in the battleground states, especially the Rust Belt swing states of Wisconsin, Ohio, Michigan, and Minnesota.  Political analysts Ruy Teixeira and John Halpin consider those states crucial to Democratic chances in 2012. In addition, RTW initiatives have now put projected GOP states with relatively small labor movements, such as New Hampshire and Indiana, into play for 2012.

If RTW legislation inspires union members to support Obama in November, their family members are likely to follow suit. In New Hampshire & Indiana, about 10% of voters belong to unions, but union households make up about 20% of voters. This is smaller than in the Rust Belt battlegrounds, where 26% to 34% of voters belong to union households, but that 20% may still make a difference. Further, the effect of the anti-union push could also cross state borders by galvanizing labor and community activists from safe Democratic States into neighboring states in the 2012 election.  Supporters in Illinois, Michigan, Ohio, and even Washington State organized phone banks to support the fight against the Indiana RTW bill.

Republicans also forget that their attacks on unions can turn off long-time Republican voters.  In Ohio, the demonization of teachers as part of Issue 2 moved many Republican educators toward the Democrats.  Educators are now the single most unionized group of workers in the U.S., and many continue to react strongly to conservative attacks, both in states where they are being targeted and across the country.

Further, while conservatives may hope to undermine union political influence with RTW initiatives, they don’t understand the continuing power of unions to mobilize workers.  Kasich’s attack on public sector workers was overturned last year not because so many dollars flowed from unions into the Issue 2 campaign, though enough money was raised that We Are Ohio, the union-based organization that led the fight, is still spending the millions it has left.  What really mattered was the person-to-person, door-to-door effort.  Organizing, it turns out, still works.

All of this has not gone unnoticed by moderate Republicans, and many now believe that the party should not have taken this route.  Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam have argued that the Republicans missed multiple opportunities to garner greater working-class and union support by crafting policies that, while socially conservative, would embrace “limited government pragmatism” that met the needs and aspirations of working people. They see many Republicans as having confused being “pro-market with being pro-business,” and failing to make a distinction between policies that “foster dependency and those that foster independence and upward mobility.”  Rather than directly attacking the very existence of union, they encourage the development of new forms of unionism that are better suited for the new economy and enhance employment opportunities and economic advancement.

Importantly, the Republicans seem to have confused anti-labor policy with real economic policy. Rather than pursue the kinds of moderate revisions suggested by Douthat and Salam, Republican leaders, cheered on by conservative corporate donors and lobbyists, have launched an attack on labor unions that may well lead to the reelection of President Obama and further weaken an already divided Republican Party.  Consequently Republicans, especially Michigan Governor Rick Synder and Governor Kasich, are not publically supporting initiatives by conservative groups, such as the effort by Ohioans for Workplace Freedom to put a RTW referendum on ballots this November. In the current conservative political environment, their silence is deafening.

John Russo, Center for Working-Class Studies

How Obama Can Win Ohio

Note: This week’s blog is a repost of John Russo’s column from Friday’s Opinionator blog at the New York Times.

The decisive referendum vote to repeal the bill that would limit collective bargaining by public sector unions has changed the political landscape in Ohio. Tuesday’s vote on Senate Bill 5 could and should be a harbinger for the 2012 presidential election. By mounting a direct assault on public sector workers and the unions who represent them, Gov. John R. Kasich of Ohio may have done more to help Barack Obama win re-election than anything Obama’s political team is likely to do over the next 12 months.

With Ohio’s continuing high unemployment rate (9.1%!, just like the rest of the U.S), it had seemed unlikely that President Obama could win Ohio, and without Ohio, he’d have difficulty getting re-elected. The same factors make re-election a challenge for Senator Sherrod Brown, an Ohio Democratic and one of the most pro-labor members of the Senate. But Kasich, the Republicans in the Ohio legislature and outside conservative financers and think tanks like the Buckeye Institute, may have done Obama and Brown a big favor.

Karl Rove described Senate Bill 5 as a much “more extensive reform” to public sector unions than was enacted in Wisconsin, in part because the Ohio version included firefighters and police officers. While the protests in Columbus were smaller and received less national attention than those in Madison, unions and community groups in Ohio organized a ballot initiative with 10,000 volunteers circulating petitions in all 88 counties. Over 1.3 million Ohioans — more than five times the number required to put the initiative on the ballot — signed the petitions.

Despite a large influx of money from conservative organizations like Citizens United, Freedom Works, and Restoring America, Ohio voters repealed Senate Bill 5 by an overwhelming 22 point margin — 39% yes, 61% no (a no vote was pro-union). Democrats and independents voted overwhelmingly against the measure, and, if pre-election polls are correct, 30% of Ohio Republicans also voted to reject Senate Bill 5.

This should be good news for Obama. While Ohio is notorious for swinging back and forth between supporting Republicans and Democrats, its 18 electoral votes are especially important for Republican candidates. It’s almost impossible for a Republican to win the presidential election without Ohio, and that means winning significant support among union household voters.

According to CNN exit polls from the last few elections, union household voters remain a strong presence in Ohio, even after more than three decades of de-industrialization. Twenty-eight percent of Ohio voters come from union households, compared with 23 percent nationally. In 2008, they underperformed for Obama, who won 56 percent of their votes in Ohio versus 59 percent from union households across the country. No similar data exists for the 2010 midterm election, but many labor leaders admit that Kasich beat the Democratic governor, Ted Strickland, in part because voters from community groups and union households either voted Republican or stayed home (essentially giving half a vote to Kasich).

If union households in Ohio lost their enthusiasm for Democratic candidates in recent years, Kasich’s actions, together with the national Republicans’ just-say-no politics and kill-Medicare initiatives (like the Paul Ryan budget), have made the Democrats look a lot better than they did in 2010.

It all comes down to math. In 2008, 2,933,388 Ohioans voted (or 51.5%) for Obama, 258,897 more than McCain won. If union households maintain their proportion of the electorate, and if just 1 percent more of them vote for Democrats, they can add 15,700 votes to the Democratic vote and subtract the same number from the Republicans – a swing of more than 31,000 votes. If Ohio’s union household voters increase their support for Democrats by 3 percent – that is, if they match the national average for union household voters – they would generate 47,100 additional votes for Obama, a swing of 94,200 votes. That alone could give the president Ohio’s electoral votes.

But because of Senate Bill 5, we might reasonably expect an even larger shift. A recent Quinnipiac poll suggests that the anger generated by the anti-union bill and the organizing fostered by the effort to overturn it has 70 percent of union household voters planning to support Obama and the Democrats in 2012. That translates into an increase of 219,829 votes for Obama, a swing of almost 440,000 votes. Put differently, a mobilized Ohio labor movement with 742,000 members, including many teachers, police officers, and firefighters who have often voted Republican, will be more likely to vote for Democrats in 2012.

This gives Obama the opportunity to score a big victory in Ohio, but that won’t happen solely on the basis of Senate Bill 5. The president must offer a positive economic vision and a program for economic change. The American Jobs Act – even if it must be pushed through piecemeal — is a good start, as are the president’s recent actions on mortgages and student loans.

Such positions will also help Senator Brown’s chances of re-election, but in 2012, in Ohio at least, the usual pattern of members of Congress benefiting from presidential coattails could be reversed. Brown’s solid support for organized labor, community groups and those who have been most hurt by the continuing economic crisis — positions that resonate with the millions of Ohio voters who overturned Senate Bill 5 — may help Obama more than anything Obama has done will help Brown.

None of this is guaranteed, of course. In order for the battle over Senate Bill 5 to influence the 2012 election, those who have organized so effectively to defend unions must continue to work together. Unions will have to keep educating members and reach out to those outside of the labor movement. They will also have to work closely with community and neighborhood groups like the Ohio Organizing Collaborative, which played a pivotal role in community organizing around Senate Bill 5.

None of that will be easy. Competing interests within and between organized labor and community organizations make the coalition very fragile. The A.F.L.-C.I.O. is relatively weak in Ohio, and some tensions exist between public and private sector unions. Meanwhile, Ohio Republicans are threatening to put parts of Senate Bill 5 through in a series of smaller bills next year. Without solidarity across labor organizations, the coalition that fought so well against one big bill could fracture. It may be that other issues won’t have the unifying effect of Senate Bill 5. After all, the same voters who overturned that bill approved a constitutional amendment barring the implementation of the individual insurance mandate of the Patient Protection and Affordable Health Care Act.

But if the organizers of the campaign against Senate Bill 5 can hold together and if the Obama campaign can tap into the anger and solidarity of that fight, Tuesday’s vote could turn out to be the turning point in the 2012 election.


John Russo, Center for Working-Class Studies

Now’s the Time: Organizing in the Face of the Class War

Despite inspiring and massive rallies and protest campaigns, the two most visible attacks on America’s working class – the anti-union bills in Wisconsin and Ohio – have both been signed into law.  While the attack on public sector unions is, in itself, just the latest salvo in an ongoing class war, its effects will go far beyond the workers directly involved.  These bills will lead to restructuring of a variety of public services, from education and home health care to government offices and police stations.

Over the last 30 years, many of the economic battles have been fought on a local or regional level, and in many cases, only the most-directly affected workers got involved. In Ohio, for example, struggles over deindustrialization and organized labor occurred primarily in steel and auto factories in the northern part of the state, making statewide organizing against economic restructuring difficult because many workers  were not directly impacted.

But things might be different this time.  In most states, new limits on public sector bargaining will affect people in every city and town, as well as people in very different situations – workers, students, the elderly, families with young children, and others.   That creates opportunities for organizing cross geographical boundaries.  Similarly, these bills create potential new constituencies as students, younger workers, women, and people of color recognize that they will be disproportionately impacted. While blacks comprise 15% of all adult workers, they are 18.5% of the public sector workers, and Ohio Policy Matters found that of the 700,000 Ohio public sector workers more than 400,000 are women. Women comprise an even higher percentage of teachers in K-12 education, especially in traditionally Republican suburban areas. As Natasha Vargas-Cooper noted in yesterday’s New York Times, this attack helps create the potential for coalitions that will link the traditionally weaker unions representing female service workers with the more respected safety workers unions, dominated by men.

The latest battle in the class war may even draw some unexpected allies.  In Youngstown, one the nation’s fastest growing technology firms, Turning Technologies, has withdrawn from the Regional Chamber of Commerce in protest of its support  of SB5, as have two other local companies.  All of which is to suggest that mobilizing around public sector ballot initiatives and recall campaigns could be both wide and deep.

Getting thousands to show up for rallies or write letters in the fever of the initial public sector skirmishes hasn’t been that hard.  Over the last two months, people have been angry, and they wanted to take action.  And while making the drive across the state to be part of a crowd of tens of thousands is a significant commitment of time and energy, it’s also exciting.  As the videos showing witty signs and costumes remind us, protesting can be fun and even aerobic.

But now is the time for on the ground organizing, and the work ahead will be less dramatic and in many ways much harder than showing up for a protest or writing a letter.  Going door-to-door to get signatures can be thought of as hand-to-hand combat where individuals have to be informed and ready to perform in a sometimes hostile environment. But it’s also essential to the political process, especially given the amount of money corporations and conservative business interests will be spending on political advertising to defeat repeal/recall initiatives.

To make matters worse, organizers will have to overcome the effects of the dashed hopes of the  Obama presidency.  As Chris Hedges writes in The Death of the Liberal Class, progressives understand that the party they once counted on to advance their interests has sold out to the big money that controls so much of the political process.  Jacob S. Hacker and Paul Pierson review the political and policy decisions of the last few decades in Winner-Take-All Politics: How Washington Made the Rich Richer – And Turned Its Back on the Middle Class, tracing how corporate influence has pervaded Democrat Party politics and caused growing inequality in America.

At the end of their book, Hacker and Pierson suggest several key elements for changing the trend toward inequality, including “facilitat[ing] broader participation among those whose voices are currently drowned out” and “encourag[ing] the development of groups that can provide a continuing, organized capacity to mobilize middle-class voters and monitor government and politics on their behalf” (303).  For decades, working people – including those who did not belong to unions – counted on the labor movement to fulfill both of these functions.

With shrinking numbers and new legislation limiting its capacity, the labor movement can’t do this on its own. Nor should it. While the laws being passed now focus on public sector unions, the war won’t end there.  In Ohio, bills are being proposed to ban overtime and institute “right to work” rules.  State budgets across the country and the House’s proposed federal budget all undermine support for working families and the poor, while refusing the challenge subsidies to business or to hold banks accountable for the financial crisis.  As we wrote last month, the working class is under attack on multiple fronts, and we need to stand together to fight back.

We need to build a movement that crosses boundaries – between public- and private-sector unions, the traditional working class of industrial, blue-collar workers and the new working class of retail and service workers, between the working class and the middle class, cities and suburbs, and among diverse types of organizations.  We need community organizers, churches, students, and others to work together.  In Youngstown, the Mahoning Valley Organizing Collaborative has organized its 44 neighborhood groups together with labor unionists, community faith-based groups, local non-profits and social service agencies to form a revenue coalition to fight state budget cuts.

And much of that collaborative effort must focus on the political process.  In Ohio, opponents of SB5 have to collect more than 230,000 signatures to get a referendum on the ballot, and then we need to do everything possible to get people out to the polls.  We need to mobilize the kind of engagement in the political process that put Barack Obama into office.  As a popular T-shirt from 2008 stated, we need to “be the change.”  Neither Obama nor the Democrats have done it for us.  It’s our turn.

We also need to take a page from the Tea Party.  Their efforts have contributed significantly to blocking the progressive possibilities of the 2008 election.  They succeeded by channeling their anger and fear into significant pressure on politicians.  We need to do the same.  That means we have to find the energy and commitment to keep on protesting, to challenge our elected officials – even those we think are most on our side – to truly represent us, and to get our share of the media spotlight.  We also need to keep in mind that despite the infusion of thousands of dollars from wealthy contributors, the Tea Party engaged in plenty of grassroots organizing.  We have to do that, too.  We need to be out there knocking on doors, talking with friends and relatives, gathering signatures for ballot and recall initiatives, and doing whatever it takes to put pressure on our elected leaders to support workers and our communities.

Here’s one place to begin: the National People’s Action “Showdown in Ohio,” May 16-17, to demand that businesses like J.P. Morgan “clean up their own mess.”  Join us in Columbus to show the world that the American working class isn’t going to back down.  And then go back to your neighborhood, your church, your gym, wherever it is you talk with anyone who might not be convinced, and tell them the story of how the rich are getting richer and the rest of us are losing our grip on the American dream.  Better yet, tell them your own story of how the war on the working class is making a difference in your community.

Sherry Linkon and John Russo, Center for Working-Class Studies

Evangelicals and Working-Class Politics

According to the popular stereotype, evangelical Christians want little to do with working-class politics.  Instead, we tend to imagine evangelicals as people who are either uninterested in politics or focused entirely on fighting the culture wars, rather than as people who care about issues like unemployment, inequality, and poverty.  If the stereotype were accurate, that would be bad news for people hoping for policy changes that would benefit working-class Americans.  Such changes only come about when the public puts pressure on governmental leaders, and evangelicals make up about one-third of the American public.

There are, however, good reasons to believe that this stereotype oversimplifies what is in fact a complicated topic.  I’d like to review a few of those reasons here, including a survey of evangelical clergy that I conducted last year in Stark County, Ohio.  Stark County, which is located near Cleveland, Akron, and Youngstown in Northeastern Ohio, is home to about 380,000 people who are spread across a diverse collection of cities, suburbs, and rural hamlets.  For the better part of the 20th century, the three principal cities of Stark County—Canton, Massillon, and Alliance—were important manufacturing centers, particularly in steel and related heavy industries.  Over the course of the past several decades, however, Stark County has conformed to the postindustrial storyline of manufacturing job loss and deepening economic insecurity for the working class.  By 2008, 27.9 percent of families in Canton were living below the poverty line, a rate that is nearly three times the national average and also the highest among Ohio’s big cities.  In March of 2009, the Stark County job market drew national and even international attention when a whopping 835 people applied to fill a vacant custodial position at the Edison Junior High School in Perry Township.

Because Stark County voting patterns have resembled national ones for a long time, Stark has also earned a reputation as “a bellwether county in a bellwether state,” making it a magnet to campaigning politicians, as well as a better-than-average spot to check the pulse of American opinion with a survey.  Two hundred thirty-one clergy from the 553 congregations in Stark County filled out, at least in part, the questionnaire sent to them last year.  Along with conventional questions about theology, membership, and so on, the survey gave respondents an open-ended opportunity to identify what they considered to be “the most serious issue facing residents of Stark County today.”  The responses to that question don’t quite fit the stereotype.

Evangelical ministers are far more concerned with economic issues than prevailing stereotypes suggest.  Ninety of the Protestant churches that answered this final question self-identified as ‘born-again’ congregations—a very good indicator of evangelical belief.  Eighty-two of these churches were predominantly white, while eight were predominantly African-American.  Forty-two of the 90 ‘born-again’ churches listed an economic problem of some sort as the most serious issue facing Stark County residents.  Thirty out of these 42 identified the need for jobs as Stark County’s number one issue.  The remaining 12 churches identified poverty, food security, and child care, among other things.

Only 22 of the 90 born-again churches, however, identified a religious problem such as “absence of faith” or “spiritual complacency” as the most serious issue facing the county.  Six more identified traditional “culture wars” issues such as family breakdown and declining morality.  Together, these 28 answers accounted for only 31 percent of the total, which is far less than what stereotypes about evangelicals would predict.  In contrast, nearly 50 percent of the born-again churches—42 out of 90—placed an economic issue at the top of their list of concerns.  Others identified crime-related issues, such as drugs and violence, or miscellaneous public issues such as racial prejudice and highway repair.  A few responses were too ambiguous to categorize.

Examining these returns even more closely suggests important differences within the broad evangelical community, especially between fundamentalist and non-fundamentalist clergy.  Though both embrace the core evangelical doctrines, fundamentalists tend to be more separatist, literalist, and less tolerant of doctrinal differences, even on secondary issues such as dress codes and alcohol consumption.  Of the 64 clergy that self-identified as ‘born-again’ but not ‘fundamentalist,’ 53 percent identified an economic issue as Stark County’s number one concern.  Meanwhile, only 31 percent of clergy that identified as both ‘born-again’ and ‘fundamentalist’ did so.  It is common for opinion surveys to uncover a divide of this sort between fundamentalist and non-fundamentalist evangelical believers.  This divide is rooted in the complex history of American Protestantism, rather than in the core religious doctrines that all evangelical traditions share.

The Stark County data are illuminating for what they tell us about evangelical clergy, but they may not reflect the views of the ordinary believer in the pew.  For several decades, however, scholars have been tracking the opinions of ordinary evangelicals through surveys and polls.  Although these studies have added a lot to our knowledge of evangelical opinion, they have not demonstrated a clear link between evangelical belief and economic attitudes.  In fact, these studies are often inconsistent with one another.  Many of them—perhaps even a small majority—do indicate that evangelicals tend to be slightly more conservative on economic issues than non-evangelicals.  Others, however, find no significant difference between evangelical and non-evangelical attitudes toward the economy.  Some very good studies even show that evangelicals tend to be more liberal on economic issues than non-evangelical Americans.  And to complicate the picture even more, some studies show that evangelicals in other countries are more liberal than their fellow believers in America.

In any event, data from Stark County and elsewhere indicate that many evangelicals are alive to the importance of economic issues in contemporary America.  This fact is not enough to demonstrate that evangelicals will support specific policy proposals.  What these results do suggest, however, is that support may exist among evangelicals for economic ideas that depart from the conservative to moderately conservative American mainstream.  Making the most of these openings and building support for economic strategies that benefit working-class communities will, however, take political work.  Both evangelical and non-evangelical conservatives undertook this kind of work for more than a generation, and it turned out to be pivotal in delivering electoral victories to Republicans from Ronald Reagan to George W. Bush and in driving the Democratic Party to the right.

Today, however, more and more evangelicals are working to convince their fellow believers that struggling on behalf of decent living standards for all people is part of what it means to be a faithful Christian.  They are reinvigorating currents of evangelical protest that were once prominent in American life, as in the early labor movement and during the agrarian populist upsurge.  These evangelicals—many of them young people—have been inspired by prominent believers such as John Perkins, Jim Wallis, Ron Sider, and Tony Campolo, as well as the Scriptures themselves.  Already it is becoming evident that young evangelicals are more liberal on economic issues and less preoccupied with the culture wars than their parents and grandparents.  Because evangelicals account for such a large segment of the public, we should be encouraged by these developments.  They have the potential to affect the course of future economic policy in ways that benefit all working-class Americans, regardless of their religious background.

Mike Boyle

Mike Boyle is a Ph.D. student in Cultural Anthropology at the City University of New York whose research interests include political economy, class, and religion.