Joe Biden has staked his presidential campaign on his ability to “win back” white working-class voters in midwest swing states like Michigan and Wisconsin. But he has the wrong target.
In Manitowoc, Wisconsin, a city that’s 90% white, Biden recently donned his populist hat, telling an audience: “I’ve dealt with guys like Trump my whole life … Guys who inherit everything they’ve ever gotten in their life and squander it.
Guys who stretch and squeeze and stiff electricians and plumbers and contractors working on their hotels and casinos and golf courses to put more bucks in their pocket.”
Prior to this campaign stop, Biden amplified an endorsement from the former Michigan governor Rick Snyder, the Republican official who – let’s not forget – oversaw and attempted to cover up the Flint water crisis, which exposed an estimated 140,000 people in the majority Black city to lead and other contaminants.
In an appearance in Michigan, Biden sat down with steelworkers, flanked mostly by white men, to discuss his jobs plan. And prior to that, after white vigilante Kyle Rittenhouse shot and killed two Black Lives Matter protesters in Kenosha, Wisconsin, Biden aired a Richard Nixon-style law and order ad attacking “lawlessness” and accusing Trump of sowing discord.
Biden and his advisers clearly believe that Hillary Clinton lost in 2016 because white voters in key swing states shifted from Obama to Trump. Biden’s entire campaign strategy is built on that assumption. There are two problems with that. For one, it almost entirely ignores the Black working class. For another, it may not even be true.
If you look closely at the data on Wisconsin and Michigan – two of the three swing states that secured Trump’s victory – it’s apparent that a significant decline in voter turnout for the Democratic candidate cost Democrats the 2016 election, not a shift to Trump.
White voter turnout in Wisconsin declined by 1%, amounting to 100,000 people who chose not to vote for either candidate. Trump only garnered 721 more votes than Mitt Romney, which could partly be explained by population increase.
Across Wisconsin, the decline in votes cast for Clinton substantially exceeded the turnout for Donald Trump – from rural towns to medium-sized urban centers.
Black voter turnout declined by an even higher rate, to a level unprecedented in Wisconsin’s recorded history. While 79% of Black voters participated in the 2012 general election, only 47% voted in 2016 – less than half the eligible voters.
This amounted to about 88,000 less votes than in 2012. The limited academic research on turnout in Wisconsin reveals that 42% of nonvoters in the state’s two most populous counties stayed home primarily because they disliked the candidates or weren’t interested in them.
Issues related to voter suppression amounted to about 5% of the respondents’ answers.
But instead of trying to win over the nearly 200,000 people who stayed home in Wisconsin in 2016 (or whose votes were suppressed), Biden has opted to center his Wisconsin campaign on about 700 people, some of whom may have never voted for a Democrat for president. Instead of focusing on the approximately 50,000 voters who stayed home in Democratic-leaning Michigan counties, Biden is touting the endorsement of Snyder, whose neglect threatened the wellbeing of thousands of Flint residents.
The Democratic party has embraced this message to a bizarre and troubling degree, often platforming Republicans who are barely popular with their own constituents.
The Democratic national convention, for example, featured a cameo from former Ohio governor John Kasich. Yet Kasich averaged 18% support from Republican voters in the 2016 race, the lowest of the frontrunners, while Trump garnered 46.5%.
There has been a clear shift in the Republican party from conservativism to an embrace of the far right, but Biden is banking on an unknown number of disaffected Republicans to help him into the White House, instead of hundreds of thousands of disaffected Democrats.
This centrist Democratic obsession with “winning back” white conservatives in rural towns and suburbs is more symbolic than strategic. It’s rooted in a longstanding, mistaken archetype that conflates the working class with white workers, a tradition that reaches as far back as the 1800s Reconstruction Era.
In his seminal text Black Reconstruction in America, the sociologist WEB Du Bois noted that the mostly white, Northern labor union movement comprehended “chiefly Northern skilled laborers,” but “almost none of them mentioned the Negro, or considered or welcomed him … said nothing of the greatest revolution in labor that had happened in America for a hundred years – the emancipation of slaves”.
Black workers, even those emerging from centuries of brutal unpaid labor, barely registered in the mainstream consciousness at all. Instead, we became the face of the undeserving underclass, asking for “free stuff from the government”, as if a federal government that has handed out trillions to corporations and financial institutions cannot afford basic services such as healthcare, affordable housing and higher education for all of its people.
It seems like we haven’t moved much past that narrative. Biden’s obsession with the white working class, for example, ignores that over half of Black men worked in Milwaukee’s manufacturing sector, more than double white workers, at the height of the city’s heavy industry.
It ignores that deindustrialization hurt them more than anyone else. It ignores that Black and Asian households throughout the country were heaviest hit by the Great Recession.
It ignores that a shift to lower-wage temporary warehouse work, and unemployment under Covid-19, disproportionately affects Black and Latinos. And it ignores that these material realities affect how they vote, too. But instead of swinging to Republicans, millions stay home.
It’s in Biden’s political DNA to make these superficial white working-class appeals, despite undermining the working class across race. But if he wants to unjustifiably fashion himself as this generation’s Franklin Delano Roosevelt, it’s best he not repeat the same mistakes of failing the party’s Black working-class base.
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