Why has the white working class embraced Trump?

(Photo by Jeff Swensen/Getty Images)

By Kelly Candaele,, Capital & Main

This story is produced by the award-winning journalism nonprofit Capital & Main and co-published here with permission.

What do unions do? Theda Skocpol and Lainey Newman argue in their new book Rust Belt Union Blues — Why Working-Class Voters Are Turning Away From the Democratic Party that an overlooked aspect of being in a union is the identity and personal meaning that unions provide. Unions, as Skocpol and Newman view it, are institutions that are potentially liberating rather than repressive. As jobs and unions disappeared in the industrial heartland — their book focuses on western Pennsylvania — the social and political vacuum was filled by alternative institutions — gun clubs and megachurches — that pushed former Democratic voters to the political right. 

Political choices, Skocpol and Newman point out, are driven not just by policy issues or macroeconomic trends, but by “dense networks of interpersonal and community-level ties” that influence how workers and voters see themselves. For complex reasons, they found that the mostly male working-class whites in western Pennsylvania came to regard the Democratic Party as focused primarily on urban issues. At the same time, workers there felt that Democrats had lost or surrendered the ability to speak a language that appealed to their values and economic plight.

Skocpol and Newman combined research in union archives with on-the-ground interviews to examine how union communications affected their members’ social and political views. “Our history was wiped away,” one retired steelworker they interviewed said, decimating a strong “union man” narrative based on occupational pride and economic confidence. 

Theda Skocpol is professor of government and sociology at Harvard University. Lainey Newman is a graduate of Harvard College and a J.D. candidate at Harvard Law School. They both spoke to Capital & Main from their homes in Cambridge, Massachusetts. 

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Capital & Main: Lainey, your background is not that of a left-oriented activist or union person. Why did you become interested in the impact of the decline of unions? 

Lainey Newman: I didn’t grow up in a left-wing activist family, but I had family members who were proud members of the United Auto Workers in Minnesota, where there is a pretty fierce tradition of union activism and commitment. When I came to Harvard, I wanted to understand why there was this political shift towards Trump, particularly in the rural areas outside of Pittsburgh where I had worked as a volunteer for Hillary Clinton’s campaign. I started studying the intersection between industry, union membership and political affiliation in western Pennsylvania. 

Professor Skocpol, what interested you in the work Lainey was doing? 

Theda Skocpol: I grew up in an area of Michigan where unions were strong when I was young. In my career as a political scientist, I’ve been interested in social movements and in associations and organizations of various kinds and how they play a role in politics. But I had never had the chance to study unions or unionized workers. I had done some field work in western Pennsylvania on the changing politics of the Trump era.

Your research focuses on western Pennsylvania and the disappearance of unionized manufacturing jobs. But you write about other things that disappeared along with the jobs that were very important. Talk about that. 

Newman: The famous steel collapse happened in the 1970s and ’80s in western Pennsylvania. And for various reasons during the Carter administration there was plant closure after plant closure, so there was this ongoing barrage of job loss and community dissipation. What was lost was more than jobs; it was the identity and social fabric of these communities. These towns were singularly identified with the steel industry, not necessarily the steel corporations. They identified with being working people and union members. In these towns, all of that came crashing down.

The core of this book looks at how and why this area and others like it have been transformed from a unionized, Democratic Party stronghold to a center of support for Donald Trump. Talk about how you looked at this transformation in new ways. 

Skocpol: We challenge the conclusion that because white, blue-collar workers in areas of industrial decline moved towards Republicans and Trump, that they have done so because of racism. Looking at previous scholarship over decades there is no case to be made that people are more racially prejudiced now than they used to be. Racism can’t explain the huge change that’s occurred among people who actually have become more accustomed to working hand in hand across racial and gender lines as blacks and women have become a more important part of the workforce. We looked at how people’s embedded lives have changed not just in their workplaces but in their communities. 

White union members moving rightward in their politics is partly due to a loss of union dues and membership. Unions can’t play a significant role in politics if unions are dwindling. But Lainey was able to talk to workers who are still in unions and still working in the remaining steel plants, and we see them move rightward too. 

What do you mean by “embedded lives” specifically? 

Skocpol: Workers have never been inclined to just take the word of union leadership when it comes to politics or endorsements. We found that the sources of support for Democrats had much more to do with peer relationships, and what sense they had about who was on their side in their communities as well as in the workplace. Social relationships and community ties matter for political identity and political choice.

You explore how gun clubs took over that place in workers’ lives that the unions and other organizations used to fill. How did that happen? 

Newman: When I was talking to interviewees, I noticed that people kept mentioning seeing other retirees at the local shooting range or gun club. I was interested in the role these organizations played and as one of the remaining civic institutions in these former industrial regions. I wanted to understand the role that they played in the community infrastructure.

We found they actually take on much more of a social role than either of us expected to find. They sponsor social events and fishing derbies for the kids and bingo nights and summer picnics. These are very deliberate and distinct social elements for their membership. Most of these gun clubs are NRA affiliated. The social interactions that people are having are very different than what they had at a union hall or at an old ethnic lodge or fraternal group.

We have all heard that phrase “toxic masculinity.” It strikes me that you don’t believe that using this type of language is a productive way to begin a political conversation with people from working-class backgrounds. 

Skocpol: Certainly not. But I’m not sure we have any systematic evidence to say something about whether the kinds of things that some people write about as toxic masculinity are going on here. What we’re saying is that the people’s social involvements have shifted, and for many of them without necessarily understanding that it was happening. I believe many of the organizations that they’re going to for recreation and social engagement are linked to very deliberate efforts to push right-wing political ideas. That happens in a lot of these gun clubs. We haven’t done the kind of research that could document that systematically, but we have observed indications of it.

What evidence did you see of pushing right-wing ideas? 

Newman: Many of these clubs have spread a lot of information on politics, and many of the clubs require that in order to join the club you have to be a member of the National Rifle Association. That entails getting emails and newsletters from the NRA. A lot of this information serves to indoctrinate people with the argument that the Democrats are going to get rid of the Second Amendment. And candidates for office go to these gun clubs to get to know the community. One Democratic chairwoman that I talked to said that it was almost impossible for a Democratic candidate to gain access in this way.

One of the unions you focus on in addition to the United Steelworkers is the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW). You suggest that for reasons related to trades work, the IBEW has been more effective communicating with its members than the steelworkers union in that area. Why is that?

Skocpol: We’re not really challenging the kinds of claims people made about industrial versus trade unions in the past. We’re saying that in a period of change, the kind of local roots that steel workers could take for granted and build on have withered. There were huge economic changes that they fought against but were unable to control. In that situation, a union like the IBEW was more effective in communicating with dispersed groups of workers who worked on specific job sites and then moved on to other projects. Their members were not interacting in the same local community all the time. These are changed circumstances that require a different approach to building identity and pride and credibility for political messages.

You describe how unions as institutions were able to diminish racial resentment to a degree that was different from workers who were not part of unions. 

Skocpol: There’s good research that unions, for all their limitations, did a better job from the 1960s and ’70s in creating an alternative sense of brotherhood and ultimately sisterhood among working people of different racial backgrounds. It was true in an earlier era about relations between Polish workers and Slovaks or Italians and Hungarians. Those used to be big divides as well. They didn’t so much get rid of stereotypes and hierarchies in workplaces, but they created an alternative way to think about things that had great political relevance. Union membership helps people to be less prejudiced.

It’s clear that people from different backgrounds actually working together on joint projects is critical. 

Skocpol: One of the big findings in the social sciences over the last 75 years has been that if you want to overcome prejudices, sitting around talking about them is not necessarily the way to do it. In the universities we’re all confused about that. We think the more you talk about it the better it’s going to get when actually tackling a common and challenging task, particularly against an opponent, is a way to at least limit divisive prejudices. To some extent it involves having an enemy, and unions help to define an enemy. 

You write about how workers in unions, at least the ones who attend meetings, learn the procedures of democracy. Democratic processes in healthy unions are embedded in the rules for making decisions. Can you talk about the importance of that? 

 Unions model their institutional parameters and arrangements off of democracy and the federal Constitution. Members are exposed to democratic processes in meetings but also in the participation structure of the union. And union communications also talked a lot about the role that the government plays in Americans’ lives, like how to file for Social Security or how to help your parents file for Medicare. Unions were often liaisons between members and the government, so the exposure to democratic principles was multifaceted. 

There are many who have concluded that the white working class, especially men, are lost to Trump and good riddance. It’s clearly difficult, but are there ways for unions to rebuild the dense relationships with community and civic organizations that have been diminished? 

Skocpol: A fair amount is going on in the union world already. We found that all those kinds of social clubs and bowling leagues, baseball teams and hunting clubs that unions sponsored were not a waste of money or a luxury. The insight that we had about electrical workers and the way in which they maintained communication and a personal touch with dispersed workforces is the kind of thing that could inspire similar thinking in the new circumstances. 

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1 Comment on "Why has the white working class embraced Trump?"

  1. Surprising the authors did not mention Carter showing Reagan how to do the deregulating–in Carter’s case, airlines and trucking. This threw the unions in those industries under the bus. Teamsters endorsed Reagan in the next election (as did Ralph Abernathy and Gene McCarthy!).

    As for why people voted for Trump…? No mention of Clinton conspiring with Newt Gingrich to deregulate Wall St, making the “Global Financial Crisis” (the “GFC” …i.e. subprime/derivatives meltdown) possible. In the US, that meant 8-10 million foreclosures.

    The previous biggest-ever bank scandal was the Savings & Loans, worsened by Reagan deregulating those S&Ls. But the Reagan/Bush 41 administrations’ regulators actually did something. They filed 30,000+ referrals for criminal prosecution, and the Justice Dept. prosecuted 1200+ cases with a 90% conviction rate. They got big fish, too, Mike Milken and Charles Keating among them.

    Fast forward to the GFC–an event 70 times larger than the S&Ls. How many referrals for criminal prosecution from the Obama administration? Answer: ZERO! Rather than prosecute, Justice settle for dimes on the dollar of the malefactor’s loot.

    Trump is voters giving the middle finger to such transparent corruption.

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