Could Regional Reparations Help the Democrats Retake the Rust Belt?

States such as Ohio and Michigan have been hit with blight and economic downturn. Offering reparations to those hardest hit could be the key to winning in 2020.

Leon Fink

High crime and urban blight mar what was once one of the busiest steel mill towns along the famous American Rust Belt. (Benjamin Lowy/Getty Images)

Among the chal­lenges fac­ing Democ­rats in the 2020 pres­i­den­tial elec­tion, per­haps none is more daunt­ing than how to simul­ta­ne­ous­ly mobi­lize their base of urban, African-Amer­i­can vot­ers and appeal to way­ward, white work­ing-class vot­ers who defect­ed to Trump in 2016. As counter-intu­itive as it may sound, how­ev­er, repa­ra­tions — a mea­sure increas­ing­ly pop­u­lar in address­ing the first con­stituen­cy — may also unlock the door to the second.

As economic growth nationally soared to unparalleled heights amidst the turbo-charged global boom of the 1990s, whole regions were left in the dust.

Con­ven­tion­al wis­dom has it that pro­pos­als for racial repa­ra­tions — i.e., some form of direct aid to the vic­tims of a lega­cy of slav­ery fol­lowed by Jim Crow dis­crim­i­na­tion — will only add to the party’s elec­toral dilem­ma. It fur­ther feeds a nar­ra­tive that one can­not address the wish­es of white and black work­ers at the same time. Long smol­der­ing in polit­i­cal lim­bo before it was revived in a 2014 essay by Ta-Nehisi Coates, repa­ra­tions con­tin­ues to draw trac­tion from sev­er­al can­di­dates on the pro­gres­sive wing of the par­ty. Julian Cas­tro, Kamala Har­ris, and Eliz­a­beth War­ren all expressed ear­ly sup­port for the basic con­cept, even if they left the details to lat­er elab­o­ra­tion. Such argu­ments, left to them­selves, will like­ly only fuel the revolt of those whom one for­mer Ohio Repub­li­can Par­ty leader del­i­cate­ly called the white work­ing-class tra­di­tion­al Demo­c­ra­t­ic vot­er.” To get white res­i­dents of rust belt com­mu­ni­ties on board with racial jus­tice, one bold response would be for Democ­rats to acknowl­edge that their own neolib­er­al poli­cies have been harm­ful to these com­mu­ni­ties. The most dra­mat­ic way to do so would be for Democ­rats to bor­row the con­cept of repa­ra­tions, pledg­ing at once to address racial dis­crim­i­na­tion and to rein­vest in these areas to help all res­i­dents strug­gling from the eco­nom­ic col­lapse of the region.

The hem­or­rhag­ing of white vot­ers start­ed in the 1960s as both a racial and eco­nom­ic response to the new social move­ments and tar­get­ed wel­fare spend­ing for the poor and minori­ties. By the 1970s, as stagfla­tion (or slow growth accom­pa­nied by ris­ing prices) was exac­er­bat­ed by the 1973 oil shock and accom­pa­ny­ing reces­sion, the great mid­dle-class esca­la­tor to which the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty had long staked itself notice­ably stalled. In the cir­cum­stances, the high­er tax­es gen­er­at­ed both by the Viet­nam War and Great Soci­ety fur­ther inflamed white reac­tionary vot­ing trends. White blue-col­lar defec­tions from an affir­ma­tive-action-iden­ti­fied par­ty con­tin­ued into the mid-1970s, when then-Sen. Joe Biden fend­ed off talk of repa­ra­tions. I don’t feel respon­si­ble for the sins of my father and grand­fa­ther,” he explained, and I’ll be damned if I feel respon­si­ble to pay for what hap­pened 300 years ago.”

In 2016 Trump effec­tive­ly added immi­gra­tion and trade issues to the per­ceived race-based threats affect­ing work­ing-class com­mu­ni­ties. Between his Build the Wall!” and I’m fight­ing Chi­na to get you bet­ter jobs” rhetoric, the pres­i­dent has con­struct­ed a pow­er­ful if dan­ger­ous mag­net to take advan­tage of Mid­dle Amer­i­can eco­nom­ic resent­ments. In May, the New York Times quot­ed a Youngstown alu­minum plant fore­man, Peo­ple pour­ing over the bor­der is unac­cept­able. We’re fund­ing every­body on the plan­et. I’m tired of it.”

It is easy to fend off such com­plaints as mere racist scape­goat­ing. Rather than dis­miss white work­ers’ claims as irre­deemably hos­tile, how­ev­er, Demo­c­ra­t­ic strate­gists would do bet­ter to rec­og­nize in such expressed resent­ment an unre­quit­ed plea from declin­ing pop­u­la­tion cen­ters for nation­al atten­tion. Make no mis­take about it. The Unit­ed States has its dev­as­tat­ed areas, and they include many for­mer Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty strong­holds. For exam­ple, the Youngstown, Ohio, area has suf­fered a vir­tu­al free fall of pop­u­la­tion since the 1970s, and accord­ing to the Brook­ings Insti­tu­tion is today among the cities with the high­est per­cent­age of cit­i­zens liv­ing in con­cen­trat­ed pover­ty. And of course it is not alone: Detroit, effec­tive­ly ground zero of dein­dus­tri­al­iza­tion, went from 1.8 mil­lion peo­ple in 1950 to 700,000 by 2010, before fil­ing for bank­rupt­cy in 2013. Mean­while, Cleve­land, where the GOP con­ven­tion nom­i­nat­ed can­di­date Trump in 2016, com­pet­ed with Detroit for des­ig­na­tion as the biggest cities with the high­est pover­ty rates. The decline of white work­ing-class sup­port for the Democ­rats in Ohio and Michi­gan is cred­it­ed with help­ing to turn the states red in 2016.

How to respond? Democ­rats might begin by accept­ing some respon­si­bil­i­ty for the region­al eco­nom­ic deba­cle. As eco­nom­ic growth nation­al­ly soared to unpar­al­leled heights amidst the tur­bo-charged glob­al boom of the 1990s, whole regions were left in the dust. No, it was not undoc­u­ment­ed immi­grants (or oth­er minori­ties or even steel­work­ers in Chi­na) who set Rust Belt” com­mu­ni­ties on a down­ward course, but it was Demo­c­ra­t­ic as well as Repub­li­can law­mak­ers who presided over the deba­cle and did pre­cious lit­tle about it. Glob­al­iza­tion and free trade, gen­er­al­ly cham­pi­oned through both the Clin­ton and Oba­ma admin­is­tra­tions (not to men­tion their GOP coun­ter­parts), let wages slip, unions col­lapse and indus­tri­al plan­ning go by the boards.

Beyond gen­er­al­ly pro­gres­sive eco­nom­ic pro­grams like Medicare for All and the Green New Deal, Democ­rats need a mes­sage for the com­mu­ni­ties that since the 1970s have tak­en such a vicious hit in pop­u­la­tion, jobs and morale. More­over, on pure­ly prag­mat­ic grounds, so long as we have a polit­i­cal sys­tem based on geo­graph­i­cal dis­tricts for the House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives, geo­graph­ic (i.e. state) par­i­ty in the U.S. Sen­ate and Elec­toral Col­lege suprema­cy at the end of the pres­i­den­tial bal­lot, pro­gres­sives will need to treat places (as well as the social groups in them) as sov­er­eigns deserv­ing protection.

As an extend­ed region, the Rust Belt deserves a form of region­al repa­ra­tions. Depend­ing on the lev­el of vic­tim­iza­tion — to be defined by a mea­sure of job and pop­u­la­tion loss, pover­ty rates and envi­ron­men­tal degra­da­tion — these com­mu­ni­ties stretch­ing from West Vir­ginia and Penn­syl­va­nia in the East to Ohio, Michi­gan, Indi­ana, Illi­nois and parts of Iowa in the Mid­west and again extend­ing to old tex­tile and fur­ni­ture-man­u­fac­tur­ing cen­ters like north­ern Geor­gia and west­ern North Car­oli­na deserve their own form of affir­ma­tive action. A 2017 study by Michael Lind and Joel Kotkin, The New Amer­i­can Heart­land: Renew­ing the Mid­dle Class by Revi­tal­iz­ing Mid­dle Amer­i­ca,” though designed for oth­er pur­pos­es, offers some poten­tial pol­i­cy cues. They point par­tic­u­lar­ly to a need for fed­er­al R&D dol­lars in sci­ence and tech­nol­o­gy and direct aid for infra­struc­ture (espe­cial­ly via revi­tal­ized sea­ports and inland water­ways) as well as indi­rect aid via the tax code for state and local pub­lic-pri­vate part­ner­ships. The small city of Colum­bus, Ind., with its atten­tion to an integri­ty of design in both schools and pri­vate busi­ness­es, a wel­com­ing atmos­phere for its for­eign-born res­i­dents and train­ing for skilled work­ers, serves as a mod­el that could be expand­ed upon for tar­get­ed mixed-use development.

Of course we must not set the needs of de-indus­tri­al­iza­tion vic­tims against those suf­fer­ing from racial oppres­sion. And, giv­en Youngstown’s 43%, Cleveland’s 50%, not to men­tion Detroit’s 79% cen­tral city black pop­u­la­tion, we are usu­al­ly talk­ing about over­lap­ping demo­graph­ic groupings.

The ques­tion real­ly is whether the Democ­rats are pre­pared to take a deter­mined and con­vinc­ing step in both direc­tions at once. To be sure there will be no cure overnight, but it is not too late to call out and then address America’s cri­sis of inter­nal under­de­vel­op­ment. A big-tent par­ty will not like­ly elim­i­nate ten­sion, let alone ban­ish white racism, with­in its dis­af­fect­ed flock. Only by call­ing itself to account, how­ev­er, can it also expect its par­ti­sans to rise to the occa­sion. If the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty, respond­ing to gen­uine social pain and need, brought a white work­ing class immis­er­at­ed by dein­dus­tri­al­iza­tion and the black vic­tims of struc­tur­al racism into real dia­logue, might we again see an elec­toral realign­ment wor­thy of the term?

Leon Fink is the author of The Long Gild­ed Age: Amer­i­can Cap­i­tal­ism and the Lessons of a New World Order (2015) and edi­tor of the jour­nal Labor: Stud­ies in Work­ing-Class His­to­ry.
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