My research suggests that Rust Belt populism is rooted in the region’s loss of locally owned industry — not simply because of economics but because of how that loss hollowed out the community structure that once connected people to politics, leaving residents alienated and resentful.
Here’s how Rust Belt politics used to function
Beginning in 2006, I spent several years studying two Rust Belt cities in Iowa, interviewing more than 100 voters during the 2008 and 2012 elections. Like many sociologists who study elections, I was especially interested in how voters’ environment shapes the pre-rational heuristics, intuitions and deep stories they use to reason about politics.
Before the 1980s, Rust Belt cities’ economies were anchored by large unionized industries. Two groups defined local politics: factory owners and labor union leaders. Business owners and labor leaders clashed over workplace relations, maintained competing charities and called on voters to support either “labor” or “chamber” politicians for city council. During federal elections, associations like the Chamber of Commerce and the Labor Council were key to, respectively, Republican and Democratic efforts to get out the vote.
The older Rust Belters I interviewed used this community cleavage to make sense of politics. They overwhelmingly identified as working-class Democrats or (less commonly) business-class Republicans. When talking politics, they saw partisanship in their occupations, ways of spending leisure time and even neighborhoods. Houses in floodplains were Democratic, whereas hilltop areas belonged to Republican “old families who tried to run this town.”
“I’m a lifelong Democrat. They look out for the working person first,” one elderly woman told me. “The rich got too much … all their own this and that [and] don’t need somebody looking out for them. When I grew up, the whole family would get together any time a holiday come up … go down to the lake, all eat together. The Democrats are more for that idea.”
Of course, older Rust Belters cared about many issues, but they viewed them though a cognitive filter that focused their attention on class, directing political frustrations at wealthy Republicans. In 2008 and 2012, this frame was reinforced by campaign rhetoric (recall John McCain’s inability to remember how many houses he owned, or Mitt Romney’s comments about the “47 percent“). I spoke with voters who initially expressed racism toward Obama but later backed him as a working-class champion.
Those local Rust Belt moderates disappeared, replaced by corporate interests and hardcore ideologues
But the Rust Belt of feuding Democratic unionists and Republican business owners is gone; those voters who remember it are dying.
In the 1980s, the Rust Belt was ravaged by the manufacturing crisis and the century’s largest merger movement, the latter a product of financial deregulation. These caused job losses and personal suffering, yes, but they also robbed cities of their locally owned industries and therefore their business and labor leaders.
This shift also left communities vulnerable to the whims of corporate subsidiaries and state and nonprofit grant-making agencies, often communities’ only way to find discretionary funding after Congress rolled back generous urban policies during the Reagan era.
By the 2000s, the Rust Belt’s community leaders were entirely focused on economic development partnerships. They saw statecraft as a technical affair and focused on building coalitions to secure grants, woo corporate subsidiaries (frequently with public subsidies) and create cultural amenities — art walks, music festivals and farmers markets — that would attract young professionals and therefore corporate interest in their cities’ workforces.
This grass-roots shift toward post-partisan place marketing was important. For starters, it paradoxically fueled political extremism in national politics. As community leaders shifted from fighting one another to collaborating on economic development, they left grass-roots parties in the hands of ideological activists. The local GOP, for example, that had once been a Chamber of Commerce surrogate — and therefore a moderately pro-business party — became instead a vehicle for those championing issues such as abortion, guns and anti-immigrant views.
What’s more, community leaders’ embrace of economic development alienated many voters, sowing the seeds of populism. Many voters resented what they saw as a lack of recognition by local elites, who — unlike traditional labor or business leaders — seemed aloof, focused outward.
Instead of seeing politics as a contest between working people and the business class, many voters seethed with undirected populist resentment at a technocratic, corporate-friendly elite. Anticipating Trump, many felt culturally and politically invisible and hoped for a shake-up. As one man told me in 2008:
I think it’s crap. We got a lot more retail [and cultural amenities, but] these things don’t appeal to your average person. . . . We used to have factory jobs, but people had to settle for Walmart. We got businesses coming in with their money and saying, “Your city wants it!” That’s not democracy — that’s communism. [But our leaders] don’t give a s— about what happens. We need to tear things down and take them back to where they used to be.
Democrats who hope to regain the Rust Belt might also consider policies that make a difference at the level of the local community: federal regulations that prevent corporations from playing cities against one another, or discretionary urban funding that allows small cities to chart their own courses to economic sustainability.