Flag of the United States Republican Party. Photo from Wikimedia Commons by the Republican Party from September 24, 2020.

By Les Leopold / Substack

On November 3, 2020, Republican Senator Josh Hawley (R, MO) tweeted: “We are a working-class party now. That’s the future.”

I wrote Wall Street’s War on Workers, in part, to figure out if that is true.

Long before Trump came on the scene, working-class voters, especially the white members of the working class, were abandoning the Democratic Party. In 1976, Jimmy Carter received 52.3 percent of the white working-class vote. Bill Clinton won 50.0 percent in 1996, Obama 40.6 percent in 2012, and Biden only 36.2 percent in 2020.

There are two schools of thought about the causes of this decline. One emphasizes economic hardship. The other focuses on rising illiberalism.

Hillary Clinton in 2016 gave voice to the illiberal account with her famous “basket of deplorables” comment that labeled half the Trump voters as racist, sexist, homophobic, and xenophobic. Recently, the authors of the book White Working Class Rage have extended that argument to virtually all rural white people. The more polite critics of the working class, like NYT columnist Paul Krugman, use “resentment” as the dog whistle for deplorables.

There are two major problems with this angle. The first is that it’s wrong. Data from long-term voter surveys used in my book reveal that the white working class is becoming more liberal, not less, on key social issues.

For example, should gay and lesbian couples be able to adopt children? In 2000, only 38.2 percent of the white working class agreed. By 2020, an astounding 76.0 percent said “yes.” Similar increases in liberal attitudes can also be seen on questions concerning citizenship for undocumented workers and racial resentment questions. (Twenty-three hot button social issues are tracked in the book.)

The second major problem is that attacks on the white working class drive these voters into the arms of the Republicans. If Democrats write off white working-class voters, they are saying that a progressive working-class movement is not possible. My book argues that this kind of self-destructive politics must end.

A progressive working-class movement is both possible and necessary. Just ask Shawn Fain, the president of the United Auto Workers, who has been bringing just such a movement to factories in the South.

Mass Layoffs and the Decline of the Democratic Vote

Job instability, not racial resentment, is the key to understanding the decline of the working-class Democratic vote.

I looked closely at counties in the key swing states of Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, and found that the higher the mass layoff rate between 1996 and 2012, the greater the defections from the Democratic Party. In each of these states, more than one-in-five workers suffered through a mass layoff during that period. And in the more rural counties, the mass layoff rate was one-in-three workers. That’s a massive amount of job instability. That’s a staggering amount of suffering.

Those of us who are fortunate to have relatively secure, well-paid jobs too often have difficulty relating to the pain and suffering caused by mass layoffs. Study after study shows that losing your job is one of life’s most traumatic events. One in-depth report found that job loss ranks seventh among the most stressful life events, more stressful than “divorce or a sudden and serious impairment of hearing or vision, or the death of a close friend.”

This makes sense. Just imagine you live in rural Pennsylvania and your facility shuts down. You and 1,000 of your co-workers are suddenly out scrambling for the few remaining jobs at Wal-Mart and the Dollar Store. That makes for a difficult life that can lead to disappointment, frustration, and anger.

But why blame the Democrats?

To answer that question, we need to understand the man-made causes of mass layoffs. They are not acts of God or the inevitable results of new technologies. Most are caused by three pernicious features of modern financialized capitalism: stock buybacks, leveraged buyouts, and government negotiated, corporate-oriented trade deals.

In a stock buyback, a corporation uses its earnings or borrowed money to purchase its own shares on the open market. That causes the price per available share to increase and enriches the largest Wall Street shareholders and corporate executives who receive most of their compensation through stock incentives. Before their deregulation in 1982, stock buybacks were limited by the Securities and Exchange Commission to two percent of corporate profits. More than that was considered stock manipulation. Since deregulation, their use has soared, and now nearly 70 percent of all corporate profits go to purchase back their own stock. Mass layoffs are often used to cut costs to pay for stock buybacks.

A leveraged buyout consists of a private equity firm purchasing a company relying largely on borrowed money. The PE firm then places the new debt on the purchased company’s books. Layoffs are used to cut costs to help service that debt. For example, after Elon Musk purchased Twitter with billions in borrowed money, Twitter’s debt service jumped from $50 million a year to $1 billion. Mass layoffs quickly followed.

Government trade deals, designed with an enormous amount of corporate input, make it easier for corporations to move facilities abroad to take advantage of lower-wage labor. They often allow products made with less expensive labor to enter the US market and undercut domestic workers. Although the Democrats did not originate the North American Free Trade Agreement, it would not have passed without President Bill Clinton pushing for Democratic votes and getting enough of them. A few years later, Clinton initiated China’s entry into the World Trade Organization, which led to a flood of Chinese imports and the loss of several million US manufacturing jobs.

As a result, the Democrats have come to be identified with Wall Street and trade deals. This is a far cry from the period lasting from FDR’s launch of the New Deal until about 1980, when the Democrats were viewed as the defenders of the working class. When times were tough, workers could count on the Democrats to create jobs and take care of the jobless. Even Jimmy Carter, a centrist Democrat, created more than 700,000 public jobs in 1978 to combat the recession.

Since then, combating job loss by creating public sector jobs is no longer part of the Democratic agenda. Instead, the Democrats offer public-private partnerships to create jobs in the future. Meanwhile, many Democrats compete with the Republicans for Wall Street donations, and few are willing to stop the lucrative stock buyback process. While neither party has shown the nerve to directly hinder mass layoffs, it was the working-class expectation that the Democrats would at least try. As mass layoffs have continued unabated (more than 30 million since 1996), the Democrats are losing working-class votes. Even in the booming high-tech sector, 263,000 jobs were cut in 2023, and another 80,000 so far this year.

Will the Democratic infrastructure investments turn this around? It’s too early to say. But losing your job right now due to a mass layoff is not addressed by creating new jobs in the future that likely will go to someone else. My book suggests that if the Democrats want to regain working-class support, they will need a more direct approach to stop compulsory layoffs.

So Why Write this Book?

My primary goal was to convince readers that mass layoffs and their underlying causes are a major problem – perhaps the most critical economic problem working people and the nation face today.

And it is a problem that both political parties and the major media are more than willing to ignore.

As corporations increasingly toss workers away to enrich their CEOs and Wall Street investors, working people experience job instability.

In our country, life for workers has become extremely difficult as they are buffeted from job to job, no matter the unemployment rate. That’s just a hard, hard way to live.

As a result, I’m arguing for the creation of a mass movement to expose the issue of mass layoffs. For example, I think a vast majority of workers would support a bill that said that if a corporation takes taxpayer money via federal contracts, it shouldn’t be able to lay off taxpayers during the life of that contract. No forced layoffs, only voluntary arrangements in which the corporations have to provide adequate compensation so that workers choose to leave rather than be forced out.

But it’s impossible to help build a progressive worker movement if the white working class is constantly under attack for illiberal beliefs that the vast majority of its members do not hold.

My book proves conclusively that the white working class does not belong in a “basket of deplorables.”

The book also pleads, cajoles, harangues, and virtually begs the Democrats to have the courage to directly intervene to stop mass layoffs and curtail Wall Street’s job-destructive ways.

Josh Hawley is wrong. The Republicans will not be the party of the working class until it ceases to be the unabashed party of the anti-union bosses, like the Kochs and Richard Uihlein. Walking a picket line or two will not suffice. The Republicans have a long way to go before they can credibly defend workers from the plague of mass layoffs.

But that could change if the Democrats continue to back away from their historic role of defending the jobs of working people, black, white, brown, and otherwise.

Of course, the book is meaningless unless it gets out. Because it defies the standard narrative of major media outlets, it will take a grass roots reader effort to spread the word. Many thanks for whatever you can do. (All royalties go to the Labor Institute’s political economy for workers programs.)

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Les Leopold

After graduating from Oberlin College and Princeton University’s School of Public and International Affairs, Les Leopold co-founded the Labor Institute in 1976, a nonprofit organization that designs research and educational programs on occupational safety and health, the environment, and economics for unions, worker centers, and community organizations. He continues to serve as executive director of the Labor Institute and is currently working to build a national economic educational train-the-trainer program with unions and community groups.

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