Will Economic Populism Win Back the Midwest for Democrats?


Midwestern Maladies: The Democrats’ Hold on the Rust Belt Grows Shaky

The decline of industrial unions and significant demographic changes portend challenging times for the region’s Democrats. 

July 26, 2014

It was just one more embarrassment for Healthcare.gov. When the White House unveiled a map of the country last November that detailed Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act, something was missing: half the state of Michigan.

The Upper Peninsula—the richly forested swath of land north of the “mitten”—was shorn clean off. Dan Benishek, the region’s Republican congressman, posted the faulty map on his Facebook page and wrote: “It makes you wonder if the president’s omission of the entire U.P. from his maps is reflective of his views of us Yoopers?”

That’s the nickname for U.P. residents: Yoopers. An idiosyncratic name for an idiosyncratic place. While it contains nearly 30 percent of the state’s land, the U.P. has only 3 percent of the state’s population. Most residents are white descendants of Scandinavian, German, and Italian immigrants who came here to mine. In the mid-19th century, the U.P. produced more mineral wealth than California did in the Gold Rush. The Keweenaw Peninsula, the rocky land that juts like a finger into Lake Superior, once boasted the purest copper ever found in the world, which locals celebrate by naming everything from their schools (Copper Country Intermediate School District) to private driving services (Copper Country Limo) after the metal.

But between slowing industry and the out-migration of young people, the U.P. is growing older: In most of the counties here, deaths outnumber births. With its aging population, its extraction industries, its culture of hunting and fishing, its white homogeneity, and its strong religious ties, the Upper Penninsula has a distinct conservative streak.

Yet, for generations, this was one of the most reliably Democratic congressional districts in the country. People here were won over by New Deal–era public-works projects that transformed a region that, with relatively few voters, had been easy for Washington to neglect. In 1935, with the mines shut down and the peninsula not yet connected to Michigan’s mainland by bridge, nearly one-third of the population was on relief, and in Keweenaw County, capital of copper country, 70 percent were. But the Civilian Conservation Corps employed more than 100,000 people to reforest land in northern Michigan ravaged by logging. They also built trails and bridges. The New Deal funded scenic mountain highways, a federal courthouse, and Post Office murals. In 1933, shopkeepers pasted up National Recovery Administration posters on their store windows, featuring its blue-eagle icon and the words “We Do Our Part.” They left them there for years.


AP Photo/Alex Brandon, File

In this March 21, 2010, file photo Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Mich., announces he will vote to pass the health care reform bill after President Obama agreed to sign an executive order reaffirming the ban on the use of federal funds to provide abortions, just as as the House of Representatives prepares to vote on health care reform in the U.S. Capitol in Washington. 


Democratic loyalty was strong in the U.P. each time it voted for Congress—until the resignation of U.S. Representative Bart Stupak, who officially vacated the office in 2011 after serving nine terms. He was the last in a long string of Democrats that Michigan’s First District sent to Washington. (The enormous First District includes more than 30 counties in the U.P. and Northern Lower Peninsula.) Stupak is from Menominee, an especially conservative part of the peninsula, but his brand of brass-tacks populism won the support of Republican voters in both state and national elections. In his final race in 2008, Stupak won nearly twice as many votes as his opponent. Barack Obama barely squeaked through the same district, carrying 50 percent to John McCain’s 48 percent.

Even in the U.P. it didn’t hurt Stupak that he’d voted with the Democrats 95 percent of the time. An Eagle Scout and former state trooper, the congressman had a bring-home-the-bacon philosophy that resulted in tangible benefits for the community. He agitated for disaster-relief funds for a region forced to spend $10 million just on snow removal one winter. He helped bring an Olympic Education Center to Marquette, where athletes in lower-profile sports, like Greco-Roman wrestling, train for the games while earning a college degree. (“People take great pride in that,” Stupak says. “They’re very patriotic up there.”) He also supported policies that protected the Great Lakes, creating a federal ban on oil and gas drilling (and pressing Canada on a similar ban).

But then came President Barack Obama and his Affordable Care Act, which pushed the low-key Stupak into an unwelcome spotlight. In the midst of a firestorm that Stupak has described as a “living hell,” the pro-life congressman’s “yes” vote on health-care reform came only after the president issued an executive order affirming the ban on federal funding for abortions. Stupak—who first ran for Congress in 1992 with a pamphlet that read “Health care is a right”—affirmed his ACA support in a speech on the House floor, only to be interrupted by Congressman Randy Neugebauer of Texas shouting “baby killer” at him. Outside the Capitol, death threats led to the involvement of the FBI and police. A man who vowed to paint the Mackinac Bridge with the blood of Stupak and his family was sentenced in 2012 to house arrest and fined $47,000.

Two days after Stupak’s vote, Obama signed the ACA into law. Seventeen days after that, the earnest congressman from the north country announced he wouldn’t seek re-election. It was just in time for the Tea Party–inspired backlash that upended Midwestern politics.

Dan Benishek won Stupak’s seat the following November, ending more than eight decades of Democratic representation from the First District. Benishek is a surgeon who never before held office. His victory came on a statewide wave of conservative fervor: Republicans won the races for governor, both chambers of the legislature, secretary of state, supreme court, and attorney general. Another conservative Republican took over a Democrat’s House seat in Michigan’s Seventh District. In the state legislature, Democrats dropped from 63 to 47 seats, out of 110 total, and 21 of those seats were in Wayne County, home to Detroit. With meager remaining representation in other corners of the state, the party verges on being overwhelmingly of and from Detroit. The Republicans’ 2010 legislative victories allowed them to amplify their margin even further, redistricting the political maps to benefit their party.

This isn’t just a Michigan story. Two years after a resident of the Midwest’s largest city swept into the White House, Republicans Scott Walker, John Kasich, Rick Snyder, and Terry Branstad won the governorships of Wisconsin, Ohio, Michigan, and Iowa, respectively, each of them replacing Democrats and two of them unseating Democratic incumbents. State legislatures controlled by Democrats in at least one chamber flipped to two-house GOP control in Wisconsin, Michigan, Indiana, Ohio, and even Minnesota. Although Minnesota elected liberal Mark Dayton as governor (barely; he beat Tea Party candidate Tom Emmer by only 0.4 percent), voters simultaneously turned over both legislative chambers to Republicans for the first time since the state instituted party designation in 1975. In that other Democratic stronghold of the Midwest, Illinois, embattled Governor Pat Quinn came within a hair’s breadth of losing his seat. In the U.S. House, Democrats lost five seats in Ohio, two in Indiana, and three in Illinois. Republicans also gained in the U.S. Senate when Democrats lost in Wisconsin, Indiana, and Illinois. Democrats also failed to take an open Senate seat in Ohio.

The rightward swing in state-level politics continued two years later, even though Obama carried all the Rust Belt states except historically Republican Indiana. (The federal loans to the auto industry were not forgotten here.) While a Democratic gerrymander helped the party pick up seats in Illinois, Republican gerrymanders in other states protected the party against the higher presidential-year turnout. Republicans gained a seat in the Wisconsin Assembly, as well as two in the state’s senate. In Ohio, the GOP won a state house seat while holding its senate supermajority. Tea Party–favored Steve King kept his house seat in Iowa. Minnesota was the major exception to the rightward trend: Democrats recaptured both houses of the legislature, though Michele Bachmann retained her congressional seat.

In Michigan, Dan Benishek won a second term in Washington, while Mitt Romney carried 13 of the U.P.’s 15 counties. (McCain carried only seven of them in 2008.) In the first election following the GOP’s redistricting, Democrats won only 5 of Michigan’s 14 U.S. congressional seats, and, in a barely noticeable uptick, just 51 of 110 state House seats—even as Obama carried the state with 54 percent of the vote.

In Washington, Benishek’s right-wing bona fides make even the staunchest liberals feel nostalgic for the moderate Stupak. Benishek has voted to gut the food-stamp program, though 17.7 percent of households in his district depend on it. While Stupak backed numerous bills addressing climate change, Benishek denies that climate change even exists. “Baloney,” he calls it.

“Rural voters are now much more monolithic,” says Gene Ulm, a partner with the right-leaning Public Opinion Strategies. “You had a couple of these outposts of old farming Democrats in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, in western Wisconsin, in large portions of Minnesota, where they were part of the FDR coalition … but it seems like they’re becoming just like all rural voters, which is Tea Party–ish Republican.”

The Republicanization of the rural areas is just one of the problems that Midwestern Democrats face. The decline of industrial unions, the aging of the population, the relative lack of immigrants, and the out--migration of African Americans and young people all portend challenging times for the region’s Democrats. If Republicans claim more of the region’s 117 electoral votes, the national consequences could be bracing: A lasting conservative shift in the industrial Midwest would nullify Democratic gains in the Sun Belt. Swinging states like Michigan and Wisconsin (which together have 26 electoral votes) into the Republican column would offset Democratic gains in Arizona and Georgia (which together have 27 electoral votes). With a total of 44 electoral votes, a red triptych of Ohio, Michigan, and Wisconsin would best a blue Texas (38 electoral votes). Absent some leftist intervention, the Party of Lincoln might well come home to the region where it was born 160 years ago.


AP Photo/Ludington Daily News, Jeff Kiessel

In this July 24, 2014 photo, Rick Alway operates a John Deere tractor as Ray Edel keeps an eye on the cut rye in Ludington, Mich. Members of the Western Michigan Old Engine Club are getting ready for their annual Old Engine Show beginning on Thursday. 


There is the vibrant bustle of Chicago, there is postindustrial Flint, and then there are thousands of tiny, depopulating prairie towns. An expansive region of 12 states—Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, South Dakota, and Wisconsin—the Midwest contains distinct textures. The American West begins on one edge, while Southern culture bleeds over another. Still, there are threads that stitch the region together.

Midwesterners are more likely to be married, and they are growing old, ahead of national trends on both counts. Among U.S. regions, the Midwest has the highest percentage of counties where the share of seniors exceeds the national average. The Minnesota State Demographic Center predicts that the number of people aged 65 and older will more than double by 2040, while the population younger than 65 will grow by just 6.34 percent.

The boom in the elderly population is paired with an out-migration of young people. In the last census, Michigan was the only state in the nation that saw a population loss. Chicago and Detroit were two of the five cities that saw the biggest population losses in the country. In Illinois, a recent Gallup poll revealed that half of the state’s residents would move if they could. The region’s loss of population has already diminished its clout in Washington: Michigan has lost five congressional representatives in the past 34 years.

Young people aren’t the only ones exiting the Midwest. For most of the 20th century, African Americans traveled north in search of manufacturing jobs. With fewer jobs nowadays, there is a reverse migration. According to a Brookings Institution analysis, African Americans are packing up and moving to the Sun Belt. Illinois and Michigan showed, for the first time, absolute losses in their black population in the 2010 census.

Today, the Midwest is alongside New England as one of the whitest regions in the country. “This is not because whites are moving (to the Midwest) in large numbers, but because minorities are not,” according to the Urban Land Institute. Immigration has not disrupted the trend. While foreign-born populations have risen, they’re still a small presence: less than 5 percent in eight states. While 10.8 percent of the U.S. population is foreign born, only 5.6 percent of the Midwest’s residents are.

All the Midwest’s demographics—age, marriage status, ethnicity, race—correlate with more conservative politics, making a Republican future feel all but certain.

Lon Johnson grew up in a Republican family in working-class Rockwood, Michigan, but his affinity for Democrats was ignited on a day in 1987 when his ride back from a factory reopening he was photographing mysteriously disappeared. Stranded in the plant’s parking lot with nothing but his camera, he saw an unfamiliar car pull up beside him. The window rolled down, and a man leaned out. “Young man, do you need a ride?” he asked.

It was John Dingell—Michigan’s longest-serving and most powerful congressman.

“And we were in the car, and he just talked to me,” Johnson says. “I was really moved by that. Here I am, Lon Johnson—nobody, basically, and he’s, you know, Congressman Dingell, and he’s talking to me. It just left an impression on me that maybe politics was a little more open than I thought.”

The impression endured. Johnson is in his early forties now, but with his close-cut brown hair and wide eyes, he looks ten years younger. After failing (barely) in an attempt to unseat a Republican incumbent in Michigan’s legislature, he’s working on his first election as chair of the Michigan Democratic Party. He exudes a fierce enthusiasm about creating a blue Michigan, and he believes better use of technology and data is the key to making it happen.

Johnson is convinced that Michigan Democrats still have the advantage when they turn out voters. “About 995,000 identified Democrats did not vote in 2010,” Johnson says. “Let that sink in for a moment.” While he has labor’s backing, unions have lost members and don’t have the same get-out-the-vote capacity they once did. In lieu of that, Johnson is turning to digital tools. While Johnson won’t reveal his plans on the record, he is clearly trying to turn the Democratic Party into the political machine that labor used to be—a powerful system for drumming up support for liberal candidates and policies in the Midwest.


Official White House Photo by Samantha Appleton

Clothes hang during a shift change for workers from Fluor Corporation at the Detroit Heavy Oil Upgrader Project in Detroit, Mich., Feb. 7, 2011. 


In 1964, the same year Michigan sent Representative John Conyers to Congress, union membership in the state was among the highest in the nation: 44.8 percent of all workers. As manufacturing industries declined, and as unionizing service-sector workers proved difficult, the unionization rate plummeted to 16.4 percent in 2013. The decline of unions led to Democratic declines in donations, endorsements, precinct walkers, and phone bankers who knew how to make a pitch. Working-class white people—a large proportion of Midwest voters—are more likely to vote Democratic if they belong to a union, at a rate of 20 percent to 30 percent higher than their nonunion counterparts. Historically, Midwestern labor leaders provided crucial support for core Democratic legislation. Legendary United Auto Workers President Walter Reuther worked with President Lyndon Johnson in the 1960s not just on bills affecting labor but also on the Civil Rights Act, the Fair Housing Act, the Voting Rights Act, Medicare, Medicaid, and War on Poverty programs. The Detroit-based United Auto Workers backed New Deal policies, donated money and buses for the 1963 March on Washington, and provided start-up funds for the Students for a Democratic Society (which wrote its founding statement at the UAW’s camp in Port Huron, Michigan), the National Organization for Women, and the first Earth Day. Unions were the Democratic Party in states like Michigan, the engine that powered it for decades.

Now, they’re not. The nationwide fall in union membership has been particularly steep in Michigan, where unions had more members to lose than just about anyplace else. Membership dropped by nearly 30 percent over the past five decades in the state—even before the Republican legislature enacted a right-to-work law in 2013.

Much of that decline is due to the decimation of manufacturing. Between 2000 and 2010, Michigan lost 17 percent of overall employment, but the number of manufacturing jobs was halved. The sector has rebounded somewhat in the last four years, but it’s still well below 2000 levels, and growing jobs haven’t translated into growing union membership.

Deunionization isn’t limited to Michigan, of course. In Indiana, nearly 41 percent of workers were union members in 1965, but that fell to 11 percent in 2011. After Indiana’s right-to-work legislation was signed into law that year, union membership fell further, down to 9 percent after one year. Ohio saw the unionized share of its workforce fall from 38 percent to 14 percent between 1964 and 2011.

Republicans have deftly capitalized on this growing display of political impotency by gutting what remained of the Democrats’ labor machine. Wisconsin’s Scott Walker put severe restrictions on public employees’ collective bargaining. (In Ohio, Kasich also seriously restricted collective-bargaining rights, but voters overturned this.) The subsequent union-led campaign to recall Walker failed decisively: The governor defeated his Democratic challenger by 7 percentage points. Wisconsin’s union membership abruptly dropped after Walker’s curtailment of collective bargaining. Exit polls in 2012 revealed that the union-household vote made up the smallest share of Wisconsin votes in at least 20 years, according to a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel analysis. Walker himself acknowledged how this directly affected the Democrats’ support system: “Their power before was the power of numbers, both in terms of turning people out and more important how much money they could draw from that,” he told the paper.

In Michigan, the unions’ attempt to persuade voters to back an initiative enshrining collective bargaining in the state constitution failed by a humiliating 15 percentage points. The gambit led to a backlash, with the legislature passing and the governor signing a right-to-work law less than two months later. This year, Michigan unions rallied around a ballot initiative to raise the state’s minimum wage to $10.10 an hour for all (including tipped) workers—but Republican lawmakers cleverly undercut them. They opted to raise the minimum wage by a smaller amount, but instead of amending the existing law to do this, they repealed it and wrote a new law. That meant that the law the ballot initiative would have amended no longer existed, leaving organizers to chase a ghost. The campaign for $10.10 per hour was moot by May.


AP Photo/John Flesher

Snow covers the grounds of the Copper Range Co., in White Pine, Mich., Dec. 9, 1997


Across the street from the City Hall of Marquette, Michigan—a port city from which the U.P.’s copper mines once shipped their product to a waiting world—stands St. Peter Cathedral. A stately structure of elaborate marble, the church holds the earthly remains of Bishop Frederic Baraga. The bishop was a Catholic missionary to the region who worked with First Nations people; he was also a grammarian of Native American languages. Bill Vajda, a third-generation Marquette resident who serves as city manager, says that by the 1970s, the city was the most Catholic in the country.

The Midwest is still heavily Catholic—30 percent of Illinois residents belong to the Church, 32 percent of Wisconsin’s. For much of the 20th century, Catholics—many of them immigrants to the United States and overwhelmingly white—held working-class perspectives that gave the Democrats an edge in winning their vote. (The coolness of the largely Protestant Republican Party to Irish and Italian immigrants helped Democrats, too.) Al Smith, the first Catholic to run for president, was a progressive Democrat who, in 1928, made racial equality a key part of his platform. In the 1950s, only one in five Catholics identified as Republican. Catholics’ Democratic affinities peaked with the election of President John F. Kennedy, the first and only Catholic to sit in the Oval Office: 70 percent of Catholics voted for him, nearly all of whom identified as Democrats. Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, and (somewhat controversially) Illinois gave Kennedy 71 electoral votes.

But party loyalty slipped in the 1970s. Today, only 33 percent of Catholics nationally identify as Democrats. The biggest gain has been among independents: 39 percent of Catholics today claim no party affiliation (though most voted for Romney in 2012). The rightward drift of the faith has been tempered by the rise of left-leaning Latino Catholics, who constitute just over one-third of the Church’s membership.

In Michigan, however, where Latino immigration is sparse, 84 percent of Catholics are white. While the state’s Catholics are not off-the-charts conservative—they supported Mitt Romney over Rick Santorum in the 2012 GOP primary, though only by a 44 percent to 37 percent margin—they still vote Republican far more than their forebears.

The rise of social issues as a political priority for devotees is one reason. Catholics are more conservative on abortion in the Midwest than anywhere else in the country, even the South. Fifty-seven percent of Midwestern Catholics believe abortion should be illegal in all or most cases. The rightward swing of Midwestern Catholics, and white working-class voters generally, has also been prompted by the Democratic Party’s embrace of minority rights as central to its identity. In the 1980s, Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg surveyed voters in the white working-class Detroit suburb of Macomb County, which had voted heavily for Kennedy in 1960 and just as heavily for Ronald Reagan in 1980. He found that Macomb’s voters believed the Democrats were interested in spending public funds—their tax dollars—on African Americans only.

While many white Catholics have grown disenchanted with the Democrats, relatively few of them have become Republicans. Just 24 percent in Michigan belong to the GOP, while 36 percent are independents—numbers that suggest there’s political space to make a populist appeal. Thirty-three percent still identify as Democrats. In a Public Religion Research Institute survey, Catholics were asked whether they thought free-market capitalism was consistent or at odds with Christian values. While Latino Catholics tend to be much more liberal on economic issues, the survey revealed that white Catholics were evenly divided on the question. This ambivalence toward unfettered markets is significant. If Democrats embrace economic populism, they may yet find a way to hold the Midwest.


AP Photo/Mesabi Daily News, Mark Sauer

Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton applauds while speaking to a rally of miners and steel-industry supporters Monday, June 23, 2014, in Virginia, Minn. Participants in the rally in Minnesota's Iron Range called for an end to foreign countries illegally dumping steel in the U.S. and threatening the local mining industry. Dayton joined Monday's rally and urged iron miners to step up the fight. 


Nothing matters in Michigan more than jobs, and everyone here knows it, whatever their political colors may be. As of mid-May, Michigan ranked 44th in national unemployment numbers at 7.4 percent; only six states (one of them Illinois) have it worse. About 300,000 fewer people are employed in Michigan today than in 2007.

While the Rust Belt is growing whiter and older than the rest of the nation, a Democratic emphasis on economic fairness could be the one thing that attracts Midwestern voters to the party, even as it grows more diverse nationally. What white Midwesterners have in common with California’s Latinos and Georgia’s African Americans is their understanding that the economic system is rigged against them.

Economic populism doesn’t necessarily translate into support for unions, as the recent political battles in Michigan and Wisconsin make clear. Populist policies, however, command considerable support. In Michigan, Republicans hurried to undercut the ballot initiative to raise the minimum wage to $10.10 because it had enormous appeal. A March poll showed that 65 percent of voters would support it.

The Democrats’ one clear success story in today’s Midwest is in Minnesota. Following the election of Democrat Mark Dayton as governor in 2010, and of a Democratic legislature in 2012, the state raised taxes by $2.1 billion—the largest increase in recent state history, making Minnesota’s top income tax rate the fourth-highest in the nation. The increase was steeply progressive: The wealthiest 1 percent of earners pay 62 percent of these new taxes. Most of the new revenue was invested in K-12 schools and higher education. Next door in Wisconsin, Scott Walker promised to create 250,000 new jobs while slashing state services and cutting education spending by 15 percent. However, the state gained just 113,500 jobs over Walker’s first term, and Wisconsin trails other Midwestern states in job creation. Minnesota boasts the fifth-fastest-growing economy in the country.

Dayton’s progressive tax agenda was hardly kept secret from voters. “The number-one topic of his campaign was increasing taxes on affluent people,” says Lawrence R. Jacobs, a political studies professor at the University of Minnesota. “There was no hedging. He said they need to pay more so we can adequately fund our education system.” For all his tax-hike talk, and despite Republicans taking control of the legislature (which they lost in 2012), Dayton prevailed. An anti-gay-marriage amendment on Minnesota’s ballot that year failed to pass but likely drew Catholics to the polls. Even if Catholics voted for the amendment, Jacobs says, that didn’t necessarily lead them to vote for Dayton’s Republican opponent.

Four years later, Dayton’s popularity numbers outpace his Republican counterparts from the class of 2010: Walker, Kasich, Snyder, and Branstad. One February poll showed Dayton with an approval rating of nearly 90 percent among Democrats, more than 50 percent among independents, and 25 percent among Republicans.

Minnesota offers a populist blueprint for Democrats throughout the region. “They need to speak clearly about why they support taxes, why special programs are worth supporting,” Jacobs says. It is ultimately Dayton’s ability to make this straightforward case that enabled him to win credibility across the political spectrum.

This is what Midwestern populist politics look like. While some variation is to be expected, the future ideal of the successful Midwestern Democrat might resemble a cross between Bart Stupak and Senator Elizabeth Warren—a pragmatist focused on fairness for consumers and workers. “When you take a look at my record, maybe you’d see me as a conservative on social issues but pretty liberal on fiscal issues,” Stupak says. “That’s the old FDR-Truman Democrat.”

The FDR days are over. But a fight to raise the minimum wage would be a good basis for building an alliance of the disparate elements of today’s working class—workers in the service sectors and in manufacturing, those laboring under contract or with freelance gigs, the unemployed. Farming, a massive regional industry, is another sector in which Democrats can connect. Policies supporting migrant workers and immigration rights are a natural for the Democratic Party, but in the Midwest, they should be discussed more as a practical way to stabilize the agriculture industry than as an abstract issue of human rights.

The Midwest isn’t the only place where an emphasis on economic populism would open more doors for Democrats than cultural liberalism. In both the swing regions of the future—the South as well as the Midwest—policies promoting economic equity, a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work, would resonate. “What concerns most voters is: Do I have a job? Is it paid well? Do I have a safe place to work and for my kids to go to school?” Jacobs says. “But how many Democrats are talking about these issues?”

Bart Stupak sees the Midwest as part of a grand narrative, where economic and political forces are still writing the plot. “I’m just looking into the future here,” he says. “There’s a story that Michigan can tell. People will look to us and say no one was more down-and-out than Michigan. What did they do to rebound?

This article is from the July/August 2014 issue of The American Prospect magazine.

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