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.

Blue Collar, Red State?

Donald Trump had campaigned hard in Macomb County before his upset victory there, drawing large crowds to Freedom Hill Amphitheater and Macomb Community College. From his campaign slogan, “Make America Great Again,” to his invocations of the “Silent Majority,” Trump drew heavily from decades of Republican appeals to the white working class. Introducing Trump two days before Election Day, Ted Nugent even exhumed the late Detroit Mayor Coleman Young – a favored scapegoat for white resentment in Macomb – to berate Trump’s Democratic opponents.

Trump’s racial populism has a long history in Michigan. In 1972, arch-segregationist George Wallace of Alabama won the Michigan Democratic presidential primary by campaigning against desegregation busing. Trump’s narrow victory shows that that tradition still has legs.

It would be a mistake, however, to attribute Trump’s triumph in Macomb to racism alone. Trump’s message in Michigan was largely about trade, and the disastrous effects of NAFTA on U.S. manufacturing. Indeed, Trump pulled off his upset in much the same way that Bernie Sanders did eight months earlier: by hammering on Hillary Clinton’s close association with trade deals like NAFTA and the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

Furthermore, Trump did not win Macomb by a landslide. In the 1984 disaster that first brought Greenberg to Macomb, Reagan trounced Dukakis, taking 66 percent of the vote. Trump got only 54 percent – the same proportion that voted for Obama eight years earlier.

It’s telling, too, to look at where Trump drew that majority. Macomb has its own internal class divisions, visible on a rough north-south gradient. A majority of voters in the county’s older, poorer southern tier went for Clinton, while those in the McMansion-lined subdivisions of the north voted overwhelmingly for Trump. Trump took 62% of the vote in exurban Shelby Township; 53% in adjacent Sterling Heights to the south; and only 43% in Sterling’s southern neighbor of Warren, childhood home of rapper Eminem.

Greenberg was wrong when he consigned Macomb to the dustbin of electoral history. If Macomb’s whiteness is no longer representative of the nation, then neither is Oakland’s relative affluence. In order to win, Democrats need the white working class, not just communities of color and assorted enclaves of cultural liberalism.

And as Greenberg’s research suggests, and Barack Obama demonstrated, Democrats need not cater to prejudice to win support in places like Macomb. Instead, they need to stand up for progressive economic policies, instead of serving the interests of billionaire donors.

The revenge of the Reagan Democrats has prompted a surge of interest in America’s white working class among cultural elites, and gained Macomb County some level of renewed fame. “Humans of New York” photographer Brandon Stanton has even embarked on a trip to Macomb County to profile its residents.

What will be more important, in the long run, is whether the Democratic Party learns the right lessons from the 2016 catastrophe, and finds the courage to ditch its corporate sponsors and embrace a genuinely populist economic agenda.

That had better happen soon, because the alternative – years of total control by Trump and his billionaire enablers – is too scary to contemplate.

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