Revenge of the Reagan Democrats

A Trump rally in Macomb County. Detroit Free Press

“Good riddance, my Macomb barometer,” wrote Democratic pollster Stanley Greenberg in a New York Times op-ed in the wake of the 2008 election of Barack Obama. “I’m finished with the Reagan Democrats of Macomb County in suburban Detroit after making a career of spotlighting their middle-class anger and frustrations about race and Democratic politicians.”

Two decades earlier, Greenberg had coined the term “Reagan Democrat” to describe the white, largely non-college-educated voters who turned against the party of Roosevelt in the wake of the 1960s – a shift he attributed largely to their racial resentments. In focus groups Greenberg conducted in Macomb, he found that his white, working-class respondents “expressed a profound distaste for black America…Blacks constituted the explanation for their vulnerability and for almost everything that had gone wrong in their lives.”

In 2008, Greenberg returned to Macomb County and found that its people were far more preoccupied with the nation’s economic crisis than they were with racial resentments. The majority were ready to elect a black president who promised to help restore middle-class prosperity – and on election day, they did. Obama won Macomb by eight points.

In his post-election op-ed, Greenberg concluded that Macomb County had become “normal and uninteresting.” The more politically interesting place was now neighboring Oakland County. Long Macomb’s  wealthier suburban twin, Oakland was now considerably more diverse as well, and while Macomb’s sprawling factories represented the declining landscape of American manufacturing, the “teachers, lawyers and high-tech professionals” of Oakland embodied the new service-oriented economy.

Oakland had once been as reliably Republican as Macomb had been reliably Democratic. Yet in 2008, Oakland went for Obama by 15 points, which Greenberg described as a symbol of emerging Democratic dominance in “the country’s growing, more diverse and well-educated suburbs.” In future elections, Greenberg predicted, it would be to Oakland, not Macomb, that presidential candidates from both parties traveled, “to see the new America.”

As the disaster of November 8, 2016 unfolded, however, it became clear that the so-called “old America” was still very much alive. Continue reading “Revenge of the Reagan Democrats”