He wasn’t a Southerner. But my paternal grandfather was a yellow dog Democrat. Born and raised on a farm in Hardin County — a small, tidy corner of northwest Ohio — Grandpa Nelson spent his life in overalls, out in the fields. He served in the army during World War II (nothing too exciting — he was a cook), came home, got married, had four kids and went to the Methodist church in town every Sunday. And, as long as he was physically able to vote, he threw his lot in with the Democratic candidates. 

In that respect, my grandfather was an oddity. Ohio has been called the ultimate swing state; it also has a gift for being a national bellwether — other than Joe Biden, no presidential candidate has taken the country without taking Ohio since 1960. As has gone Ohio in 11 out of the past 12 elections, so has gone the country. The state went blue when Clinton won in 1992 and 1996, but then went red for Bush in the two elections that followed. And then it went blue again for both of Obama’s terms. 

But Ohio broke ranks in 2020 — when the nation handed Biden the win, the state went the other way. Hardin County exemplified the change. It went red in 2016 and then even redder in 2020; Donald Trump got 75 percent of the vote there in the last presidential election, trouncing Biden by a 52-point margin. 

There’s an easy explanation — Hardin is about as working class as you get. While 90 percent of the county has graduated from high school, only 16 percent have a bachelor’s degree. Manufacturing is the area’s single largest employer. 

Hardin County is also very white: 95.8 percent of Hardin’s population, according to census data. 

And this is exactly the group that the Democrats are increasingly out of step with — the white working-class voters who were once a reliable part of the party’s base. Why did they migrate to the GOP? And what does the white working class’ political realignment mean for the future of both parties? 

GOP migration

Though this shift might be most apparent in the last couple of election cycles — manifesting, in the rise of Trump and populists like J.D. Vance — the white working class’ transition away from the Democratic Party began decades ago, says Michael Pierce, a historian at the University of Arkansas and the author of the book “Striking with the Ballot: Ohio Labor and the Populist Party.” 

It started with economic policies: The 1970s and ’80s saw a group of centrists break from mainstream Democratic thought by embracing supply side economics, aka Reaganomics, says Pierce. 

The white working class’ transition away from the Democratic party began in the 1970s and ’80s when centrists broke from mainstream Democratic thought by embracing Reaganomics.

This group of Democrats found success “in the ’70s and ’80s embracing what had traditionally been Republican ideals,” says Pierce, such as “the way you get the country prosperous is by helping businesses, you cut taxes, you deregulate, you promote free trade.” Bill Clinton, who Ohioans voted for, “is the perfect example,” says Pierce. “Him and his closest allies would say, ‘We’re social liberals but we’re economic conservatives.’” 

Though there were differences between how much centrist Democrats embraced Reaganomics and neoliberalism, by and large, they moved the needle of the party’s economic policies to the right. “Once they did that, economically, there is no difference between the Democratic Party and the Republican Party,” Pierce says. “Clinton was closer to Reagan than he was to the Democratic Party of Roosevelt.” 

There is still much working-class resentment around the North American Free Trade Agreement, which Clinton signed despite wide opposition from labor unions. “Protectionist views” — not racial resentment — accelerated the white working class migration to the GOP in the wake of NAFTA, according to a working paper by Jiwon Choi, a doctoral student at Princeton. 

But Trump’s role in this migration is unclear. 

While the GOP has positioned itself under Trump as the party of the working class — a narrative parroted by the mainstream media, Pierce says, particularly since 2016 — an analysis of survey data from 1980 to the present, conducted by Duke University’s Nicholas Carnes and Noam Lupu of Vanderbilt University, shows that white working class voters have been leaving the Democratic Party for decades. 

“The share of Republicans who are white and working class has increased slightly in the past few election cycles, but not under Trump. The biggest single-year increase in the white working class’ share of GOP voters came in 2012, when Mitt Romney was the party’s nominee,” Carnes and Lupu wrote in The Washington Post in April 2021. The proportion of white working-class Americans voting Republican hasn’t changed substantially since then. “Lower-income White voters without college degrees aren’t a majority of Republican voters, and they aren’t increasing as a share of GOP voters.”

Pierce echoes this, saying that the wealthiest Americans still tend to vote Republican while the poorest continue to go Democrat. 

But Hardin County, in particular, and Ohio more generally, tell a different story, suggesting that Trump’s inroads with the white working class are real. 

Victimhood resentment

With similar economic stances, something else had to distinguish the two parties from one another. From the 1990s on, party politics have “become overwhelmingly defined by cultural issues,” says Pierce, who adds this “alienates people, especially people who feel powerless like working-class voters.”

The Democratic Party has taken up the mantle of speaking out about racism, but analysts say that this has come at the expense of addressing the issues that many Americans are most concerned about.

“When you see progressives say things like, ‘It’s all about race,’ they effectively deny that something economically significant has also happened. And that’s sort of like saying (to the white working class) ‘The economic pain that you’re feeling isn’t real,’” says Lisa Pruitt, a law professor at the University of California, Davis. 

By focusing on race and dismissing the concerns of the white working class, Pruitt adds, progressives “are calling people racist by definition.” 

The Democrats’ intense focus on race also “runs the risk of completely obliterating the role of human agency,” Pruitt adds. Pruitt, who grew up working class herself, says that while she benefited from being white, she also faced professional challenges due to her gender and her socioeconomic background. 

“If I had not worked, and worked and worked and worked, I would not be here,” Pruitt says. “I think there’s a fundamental desire — I think it’s just an aspect of the American dream that most people are raised with — to believe that we have some control over our destiny.”

Indeed, minorities sometimes balk about the victimhood that is part and parcel of the progressives’ structural racism narrative. I’ve experienced this at rallies like the Faith and Freedom Coalition’s Road to Majority where Black attendees told me that they had left the Democrats and gone Republican because the GOP offered a more hopeful message. Social programs entrap and breed dependency, one such Black Republican told me. “We need to return to a Black Wall Street mindset.” 

The GOP offers that. 

The shift of the working class toward populism is becoming a global phenomenon and will mean different things in different places.

Though Black and Latino voters remain overwhelmingly Democratic, that could change. “I’ve long argued in my writing that white working class voters should be viewed as the gateway drug for minority voters,” says Henry Olsen, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and Washington Post columnist, who adds that the Democrats’ messaging problem stems from their policy problem. 

Many immigrants, Olsen says, “see themselves as agents not victims. They’re here in the country because they see this country as a place where they can exercise their agency. They may have issues with the country but they don’t think that it’s systematically biased against them and they prioritize a number of things that Republicans talk about.” 

In other words, the Republicans continue to offer the hope of the American dream — whether or not it’s attainable. 

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The shift of the working class toward populism is becoming a global phenomenon and will mean different things in different places. In some European countries, they’re moving toward politicians that are Trump-like in their messaging but who also want to expand spending. This reflects white working class voters’ love of both “opportunity and protection,” says Olsen. 

But, in a two party system, we’ve yet to see a political party that has successfully straddled that fence. For the Democratic Party to do so — that is, for the Democratic Party to shift toward the center — they’d have to take on the more far left elements in their own party. And that’s a battle the Democrats aren’t willing to fight. In the meantime, the Republican Party is locked into a war for its soul, as well. Will the Mitt Romney-Liz Cheney Republicans win out? Or will it be MAGA? 

“People choose extremes when they feel they have no choice. What we saw in the Great Depression is people chose extremes. That’s when you saw fascism come to power,” says Olsen. “Because the governing institutions and people have refused to respond reasonably to the pressures of the last 20 years. I think the only question now is: Will the populists be reasonable when they come to power?”    

This story appears in the April issue of Deseret Magazine. Learn more about how to subscribe.

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