Brianna Manzor/Daily. Buy this photo.

Back when blue and red were just Crayola colors to me, I remember sitting around the reading carpet at my elementary school in Macomb County, Michigan, as everyone went around and talked about what their parents did for a living. Almost everyone seemed to have at least one parent who worked for a car company. With my dad working at Chrysler for nearly three decades, I was proud to be a part of something.

Although I moved away from Macomb County years ago, I lived at the Oakland-Macomb border and had strong ties with friends and family in my former area that gave me reasons to be there frequently. Up until high school, Macomb was not much more than a place I called home — full of memories in places that I knew almost innately, like recognizing my own reflection in the mirror. But as I grew past elementary and middle school, I started to follow political trends. Around the same time, I started talking to my dad more about his time working at Chrysler.

I stayed up late last year following the 2020 elections, hearing national news networks talk about Macomb as a representation of the country’s blue-collar workers in the 2016 election — typical blue voters who turned red for the last election. I heard phrases like “growing disgruntled” and “feeling neglected” by both parties. 

Having grown up in Macomb, I was surprised to hear this. I felt that I had grown up in a relatively diverse area, at least from all perspectives that I was aware of as a second-grader. Although I knew my dad had his stresses about work, it didn’t seem to be any more than any other work stresses I had seen in TV shows and movies. Nor did my neighbors seem as if they were disgruntled; but then again, 8-year-old me wasn’t talking about politics with my playmates’ parents. I was curious how far the generalized disillusionment spread.

But this sentiment dates back to before 2020, even before 2016. Stanley Greenberg’s 1995 book “Middle Class Dreams” called Macomb “the site of real drama in our political life” because of its battleground status. Between what the media was telling me and what I knew from my family’s personal experiences, I wanted to dig deeper and see what was really happening in Macomb.

Has the media exaggerated the claims of political shifts in Macomb County, or has the dominant ideology really shifted significantly over the years? Has the area become a political microcosm of working-class America?

***

My mom recently sent me an article: “White angst keeps Trumpism alive in Macomb County”. This echoed the sentiments of the national media headlines I had seen before, but I wondered how recently this “angst” started. The way I had perceived Macomb County from general media, I was expecting a large shift for the Republicans in 2016 and 2020 compared to a  history of Democratic voting before that.

When I looked at election results, I was surprised to find smaller margins than I expected.

Trump had won with 53.6% of the Macomb vote in 2016, whereas Clinton had 42.1% of the vote. However, there were still more Democratic straight-party voters — voters who chose all candidates of one party on their ballot — than Republican that year. The gap slightly closed in 2020, with 53.4% of the vote going to Trump and 45.3% going to Biden, but more Republicans than Democrats voted straight party this time.

I also looked back at voting data and was surprised to see Republican nominee Bush holding the majority as recent as 2004, with his father holding it in 1992. From media portrayal, I had expected Macomb to elect the Democrat candidate every time except Reagan and Trump. With this in the back of my mind, and knowing the importance of the auto industry to Macomb’s economy, I set out to talk to Macomb auto workers about what politics look like on the plant floor. 

***

Kevin McWilliams is a team leader at the Chrysler plant in Macomb, where he has worked since 2010. Prior to that, he had worked at Chrysler plants outside of Michigan since 1995.

As a member of the United Auto Workers (UAW) — one of the largest unions in North America, representing workers in a variety of economic sectors — McWilliams felt his and his coworkers’ voting was occasionally influenced by who the UAW endorses.

“The union helps members to inform them what candidates basically are for the union and for the company,” McWilliams said.

UAW Region 1 represents over 150,000 auto workers, 50,000 of whom are active, in counties including Oakland, Macomb, and part of Wayne. Although the UAW endorsed Hillary Clinton in 2016 and Joe Biden in 2020, following its history of endorsing Democratic candidates, only Macomb County of the three voted for Donald Trump. In addition, the 2020 election was the first time the Macomb Board of Commissioners was Republican-controlled.

However, according to UAW research, Trump got about the same 30% percent of UAW votes as Republican candidates Mitt Romney and John McCain did in the 2012 and 2008 elections.

McWilliams felt that at his workplace, there wasn’t any particular majority opinion when it came to politics, just conflicting opinions and heightened tensions about these differences in recent years.

“Since I’ve been there [during] Obama, and now Trump and Biden, a lot of things have been talked about, some negative, some positive,” McWilliams said. “And sometimes there becomes a lot of animosity, because I think this last election, a lot of people were really at odds and you couldn’t really discuss it without more of a negative outcome.”

To avoid further financial decline during the late-2000s financial crisis, “The Big Three” — Fiat Chrysler, Ford and GM — agreed on a two-tier wage structure with the UAW in 2007. This structure had employees hired before 2007 getting paid around $28/hour, while workers hired after were paid about half of that.

One of the foundational principles of the UAW and most unions is equal pay for equal work. So, workers were unhappy with the compromise on wages.

However, with the threat of bankruptcy over the auto industry’s head, workers reluctantly agreed to the new pay structure implemented in the UAW’s 2007 wage agreement.

This was just as former President Obama was running for office for the first time. I remember my dad, who generally voted Republican, saying he voted for Obama almost solely because of his plan to bail out the auto industry. However, my dad still retired in 2009 because he was afraid of losing his job.

The two-tier pay structure stayed in place until 2015, when the UAW and The Big Three reached an agreement for an eight-year plan towards equal wages for both tiers of workers.

Union members were upset that this plan took eight years to materialize when, historically, workers would earn full pay within three months of being hired.

I talked to Wendy and Paul Faber, a couple who have both worked at Ford Motor Company in Macomb County. While Wendy Faber was involved in the UAW in her time there, Paul Faber chose to not be involved, saying he feels the union leaders were corrupted.

“I think they rip us off,” Paul Faber said. “They just don’t represent us like they should.”

Auto worker sentiment, along with over a decade of corruption among UAW officials, corroded the image of Macomb County being the home of the unionized Democrat. These tensions within the auto industry became apparent when people talked about politics as well.

***

It was when I talked to History Professor Matthew Lassiter that I realized I wasn’t going far back enough in Macomb’s history to understand the stem of potential disillusionment. I had thought the “Reagan Democrat” era — when Democratic voters in the North elected Reagan — was when Macomb became a battleground, when in fact it went all the way back to cross-district busing efforts in the 1970s.

In 1971, a district judge ordered kids to be bussed all across the metro Detroit area in an effort to integrate Detroit schools with the suburbs. This was met with resistance from white parents all across the suburbs, and the district judge’s ruling was overturned by the Supreme Court in 1974 in Milliken v. Bradley.

The Milliken decision and similar decisions on desegregation are believed to have catalyzed “white flight,” a term that captures the phenomenon of white people moving to the suburbs in response to the integration of schools and other public facilities.

Around the same time, George Romney — the then-Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Secretary who had also served as Michigan governor in the 1960s — tried to force Macomb County to create subsidized housing with the threat of taking away HUD funding if officials refused to comply, an effort which was protested by officials and even undercut by then-President Nixon.

“One of the things that people there said was ‘Why don’t you put these low-income housing projects in Oakland County?’” Lassiter said. “‘Why are you coming in and putting them in our neighborhoods instead of the wealthier white neighborhoods?’”

This racial upheaval in the ‘70s showed up in Macomb’s voting behavior. Whereas every state representative, state senator and congressman representing the county was a Democrat in 1968, segregationist George Wallace won the 1972 Michigan Democratic presidential primary.

“The white backlash in Macomb County was probably way more intense in the ‘70s and ‘80s, when you had huge numbers of longtime Democrats voting for George Wallace,” Lassiter said. “There was a huge racial backlash revolt over the busing integration order and the threat to cut off their subsidies if they didn’t allow low-income housing.”

66% of Macomb County voted for Wallace, an Alabama governor known for his segregationist beliefs

As Greenberg writes it in his book, “underlying all the political talk was a lot of simple fear.” The white middle-class workers of Macomb felt their jobs were in jeopardy due to technological and economic changes, and, for many, this fear turned into racism, xenophobia and distrust in the Democratic party, which many felt no longer cared about them.

From the 1970s onward, what was once a Democratic stronghold was now a tug of war between the political parties.

“If you want me to put it into a model, I would say when the economy is bad, the Democrats have won there,” Lassiter said. “And when racial and cultural backlash issues are prominent, the Republicans have won.”

This isn’t to say this is a perfect or completely accurate model, but the generalization did help me better understand the major trends that Macomb voters tend to follow.

It also explained how the auto industry plays a role in politics. Because the industry is so dependent on the national economy, a county such as Macomb — which is heavily composed of auto and other blue-collar workers — is more likely to be susceptible to economic shocks than a county such as Oakland, its more affluent neighbor.

***

All this research made me even more wary of media claims that Macomb is shifting to become a consistently Republican county.

The idea that these were the same “Reagan Democrats” of the 1980s doesn’t make sense – many of those people are dead by now. The average voting age in the 1980 election was 40, meaning the average Reagan voter would have been 80 years old during the 2020 election; however, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, the life expectancy of a white American born in 1940 is approximately 64 years. Simply put, the math for a strong contingent of Reagan Democrats coming out in support of Trump just does not add up.

Lassiter also noted that the term targets a specific group of white Democrats.

“It lets liberal, college-educated, white Democrats off the hook,” Lassiter said. “They claim from their own segregated neighborhoods, ‘Oh, what can we do, these racist, working class white people vote Republican’ … and they don’t look in the mirror and ask, ‘Even if we vote for Democrats, are we supporting policies of racial justice?’”

McWilliams said that since he started working at Chrysler, his political habits changed in that he tried to learn more about candidates and how their policies affect the auto industry rather than voting based on party.

“As I’ve gotten older, I’ve grown to try and learn more about candidates,” McWilliams said. “Instead of just saying, ‘Oh, I’m voting Democrat’, (I’ve started) to really change my assumption on all candidates.”

Wendy Faber said  she started to pay more attention to politics recently, specifically during the COVID-19 pandemic. Meanwhile, Paul Faber felt that his political opinions had not changed over the years.

These workers are a small sample of the auto worker population — there’s no generalizing their experiences to a collective auto worker narrative. However, I did find it interesting that despite the media speculation about Macomb voters changing, all of these workers seem as if their politics had only slightly shifted, if at all.

“We’re really talking about five, six, seven percent of Macomb County switching in presidential elections, or just voter turnout changing,” Lassiter said. “We’re not really talking about a lot of people flipping back and forth. This is a really closely contested county.”

Lassiter’s point is consistent with the election results I had looked at from the beginning of my research. However, I still wondered what the future of voting might look like in Macomb, or at least what factors might change what it looks like.

One important factor for the future of Macomb County is the shift in racial and ethnic diversity. While it’s still a product of the segregated history of Metro Detroit, the increased representation of minorities throughout the county means there are and will continue to be more voices than just those of white middle-class workers in the political conversation.

The employment landscape is also changing. Union membership throughout Michigan industries has been on a steady decline since 1989, the first year of reported data. While 26% of all employed Michigan workers on wage or salary were represented by a union in 1989, that number was down to 15.2% in 2020.

Future voting will depend on what types of jobs the next Macomb County generation is working, as it seems to have fewer ties to the auto industry than generations before them.

As manufacturing jobs decline, manufacturing workers have turned to unconventional politicians, like Trump, to reject the globalization often blamed for this decline and bring back job security to the field. However, the job field is changing for manufacturing areas, and with that will come a different set of issues for future generations.

As the younger generation in Macomb becomes the voting majority, will segregationist history affect their voting, if at all? Or will current racial movements define future Macomb voting, same as the failed integration in the 70s has affected current voters?

While I still do not know how other areas with similar blue-collar voters and similar voting patterns compare to Macomb historically, calling the county a representation of national voting seems to deny the fact that the color each county has on the American map on election night is often the result of slim margins.

More important than the election map are the individual Macomb residents whose voting habits have been changing. By listening to them, we can perhaps better see how racial tensions and manufacturing jobs play a role in blue-collar political alignments.

Statement correspondent Iulia Dobrin can be reached at idobrin@umich.edu.