America's Factory Towns Aren't All Republican

America's Factory Towns Aren't All Republican

A recent Wall Street Journal feature article regarding “America’s Factory Towns” announced in its lede that “the Republican Party has become the party of blue-collar America.”

Not only is the article’s thesis highly misleading, it uses cherry-picked examples to buttress its assertions.

The article first defines “manufacturing intensive counties” to be the 862 U.S. counties which in 1992 had at least 25 percent manufacturing employment. It goes on to note that 20 of these counties’ previously Democratic congressional seats are now held by Republicans, a shift of 15 seats over the last quarter of a century. This shift “helps explain Donald Trump’s political success … and will help shape this year’s midterm elections.”

However, with its pervasive hyperbole, the article failed to consider the fact that by 2016, only 323 of the 862 counties still had 25 percent or more of their workers engaged in manufacturing — a massive hollowing-out of more than 500 counties. Instead, the fact that Donald Trump won 95 percent of these counties led to seven paragraphs dissecting how Republicans managed to flip these “onetime Democratic manufacturing strongholds.”

The article identifies the primary culprits as the decline in labor union membership since 1992 and the enactment in 1993 of gun-owner background checks and the Brady Bill. But in drawing this conclusion, the article ignores the employment reality and three critical macro-economic trends.

First, most of the remaining “manufacturing counties” are now in right-to-work states. The movement of manufacturing employment from the Rust Belt to the Sun Belt, which started in the 1970s and accelerated through the 1990s, has been an indisputable race to the bottom as companies have sought lower wages, lower taxes, and state subsidies.

Second, there has also been a nation-wide dispersal of light manufacturing jobs from urban counties to exurban ones affording much lower pay and far fewer benefits. Existing urban unionized workforces have seldom been able to follow these jobs, especially when confronted by sustained anti-union campaigns in the new locations.

And third, all the while these flights to the Sun Belt and to exurbia have been occurring side-by-side with China’s siren calls to offshore American manufacturing jobs. 

Who pushed hardest for these right-to-work laws, for an unbalanced NAFTA and similarly unbalanced trade agreements, and for China’s entry into the World Trade Organization? Republicans did (with support from some centrist Democrats, admittedly).

The Journal article also ignores the GOP’s decades-long efforts to fulfill its Southern Strategy while filling its coffers with contributions from those corporations that benefit the most from cheap labor here and abroad. By doing so, the reporters were then able to assert that the Democrats, especially Bill Clinton and much later Hillary Clinton, are the ones who really “lost” the nation’s manufacturing counties to the GOP.

Furthermore, by pinning this particular tail on the Democrats’ donkey, they could then assert, again without support, that Democrats are less likely to relate to the working class and defend the country’s blue-collar workers. Trump’s victory in these counties is far better explained by Republican policies which have eviscerated manufacturing in the U.S. than by any amalgam of Democratic policies and actions.

Bizarrely, in closing the article uses the actions and voting records of former GOP House Speaker John Boehner and his successor in OH-8, Warren Davidson, as support for its contention that the GOP is now the party for blue-collar workers. Yet the Eighth District hasn’t voted Democratic since the 1940s, electing instead an unbroken string of right-to-work, free-trade Republicans. 

Of course, Democrats running in 2018 and 2020 shouldn’t write off the working class simply by saying they’re all Trump supporters (and I haven’t met a single candidate who thinks this way). But it would be equally foolish for Democratic candidates to believe that these 832 counties — and counties like them across the country — are now somehow “GOP havens” unworthy of being contested. 

Democrats may have failed to capture some historically aligned manufacturing counties in 2016, but the fact that they went for Trump then does not mean they are now “Republican.” Democrats can, and must, take them back.

Leo Hindery Jr. is the co-chair of the Task Force on Jobs Creation and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. He is the former CEO of AT&T Broadband and its predecessors Tele-Communications, Inc. (TCI) and Liberty Media.

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