Georgetown University faculty Sherry Lee Linkon, English and American Studies professor, and John Russo, visiting scholar at the Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and Working Poor. Linkon and Russo focused on patterns of voting among the working class with an eye on the 2018 midterm elections.
The lecture, “Don’t Blame the Working-Class: Understanding Working-Class Politics and Culture in the Trump Era," stemmed from the book Linkon and Russo recently co-authored, "Social Costs of Deindustrialization," about the city of Youngstown, Ohio. Youngstown suffered immensely from the downfall of the steel industry that had been central to their economy.
Linkon began the lecture by affirming those who voted for Donald Trump largely came from higher-class demographics, in contrast to popular belief. While the white working-class did contribute to Trump’s election, she found that Hillary Clinton won by a significant margin among voters of low-income brackets. Trump’s largest margin of victory was from people who made $200,000 or more. Linkon emphasized other factors, such as race and education level, as indicators to votes.
“The one factor you could most clearly predict for who voted for Trump versus who voted for Clinton was race,” she said.
Linkon also explored common misconceptions about why the white working class voted for Trump, such as lack of education, discontent with being left behind by global economy and racism. According to Linkon, disenfranchisement and lack of trust in politics played a larger part. She referenced a New York Times poll that asked working class voters which elected officials they felt were fighting for them. The most common response was not Democrats or Republicans, but rather, "no one."
“As we see it, Trump really did appeal to many disaffected voters, but we have to understand that they’re disaffected for a variety of reasons, including people having seen politician after politician come to places like Youngstown and make promises, and then went to Washington and did nothing to help any of those workers,” she said.
Linkon also emphasized the importance of cultural effects from the economic devastation of deindustrialization, and how a feeling of hopelessness has extended to multiple generations. She referenced the common perception of Detroit as a fallen power to illustrate the point.
“You may not see the losses, but they’re there. And it’s continuing to create disease and difficulty and destroy the lives of communities,” she said. “If you live in a deindustrialized community, you hear again and again to get over it, and there are many reasons why they can’t get over it.”
Russo shifted the focus away from solely the industry workers and taking into account the widespread effects of economic recessions.
“It’s not just about the workers, It’s about what happened in 2008, the Great Recession. It’s the people who lost their health care, lost their pensions,” he said. “No doubt steel workers are part of the argument, but this is happening continuously.”
He also claimed Democrats have failed to mobilize the working class because separation between Washington, D.C., and the Midwest has isolated unique problems faced in previously industry-driven cities.
“In our studies, we found that a lot of people from the East Coast never really fully understood that was happening to the country. Washington is a bubble,” he said. “I live there nine months of the year, but the issues that are happening in the Midwest are not fully addressed politically. Youngstown’s story is America’s story.”
He also emphasized the issue of grouping the working class together. He compared Trump’s rhetoric to former presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, explaining how Sanders’s platform mobilized this group’s anger but directly targeted corporations and Wall Street, creating an institutional barrier.
“Firstly, there’s no one working class: The Black is different from the white, which differs by state,” he said. “Why Trump won is he redirected all that worker anger of their economic security, and moved it into a fight against African Americans, immigrants, rather than against corporations or Wall Street.”
LSA junior Jeremiah Dunne said the event gave him new perspective into the history of the working class.
“It’s a really interesting issue in this country, now especially. In my class we talk about the perspective of the working class people a lot, and how they’ve become disenfranchised through this careful effort of the wealthy. You can look back when unions first started in the thirties, and the working class was very involved in politics, and they were willing to work together and fight for their worth,” he said. “But nowadays the average auto worker doesn’t feel like they’re worth much. In fact, their employer tells them how much they’re worth depending on their paycheck. So a lot of people work minimum wage and they don’t feel like they’re worth health insurance, so they don’t fight for it.”
He provided the example of nationalized health care as a way that workers are mistreated.
“That’s also one of the reasons why corporations are against nationalized health care, because it makes the average person feel like they’re worth more, and they deserve things from the government and corporations,” Dunne said. “Despite nationalized healthcare being cheaper for corporations, because they don’t have to pay for people’s health care, they won’t in the long-run because it gives the worker power. That’s just an example of how bad things are for workers.”