If Balzac were alive today, he would plant himself in that region of America that starts in central New York and Pennsylvania and then stretches out through Ohio and Indiana before spreading out to include Wisconsin and Arkansas. He’d plant himself in the working-class families in this area.
Josh Haner/The New York Times
He’d do it because this is the beating center of American life — the place where the trajectory of American politics is being determined. If America can figure out how to build a decent future for the working-class people in this region, then the U.S. will remain a predominant power. If it can’t, it won’t.
It would take a Balzac to understand the perplexities and contradictions one finds in these neighborhoods. On the one hand, people are living with the daily grind of getting by on $40,000 a year, but they’re also living with Xboxes and smartphones. People in these places have traditional bourgeois values, but they live amid a decaying social fabric, with high divorce rates and skyrocketing single parenthood numbers.
Many people in these neighborhoods distrust government but still look to it for help. They disdain Wall Street but admire capitalism. They are intensely patriotic but accustomed to globalization. If you talk to people on the coasts about The Sixties, they often think of Woodstock. If you ask people in this region about The Sixties, they might remember the last time there were plenty of good jobs instead.
The Midwest has lost a manufacturing empire but hasn’t yet found a role. Working-class people in this region overwhelmingly backed George W. Bush in 2000 and 2004 but then lost faith in the Republican Party’s ability to solve their problems. By 2008, they were willing to take a flier on Barack Obama. He carried Ohio, Indiana and Iowa.
Over the past two years, these voters have watched government radically increase spending in an attempt to put people back to work. According to the Office of Management and Budget, federal spending increased from about 21 percent of G.D.P. in 2008 to nearly 26 percent of G.D.P. this year. There was an $800 billion stimulus package, along with auto bailouts aimed directly at the Midwest.
Economists are debating the effects of all this, but voters have reached a verdict. According to exit polls on Tuesday, two-thirds of the Americans who voted said that the stimulus package was either harmful to the American economy or made no difference whatsoever.
Between June and August of 2009, the working class became disillusioned with Democratic policies. Working-class voters used to move toward the Democrats in recessions; this time, they moved to the right, shifting attitudes on everything from global warming to gun control. In Tuesday’s exit polls, 56 percent of voters said government does too much, while only 38 percent said it should do more.
On Tuesday, the Democrats got destroyed in this region. They lost five House seats in Pennsylvania and another five in Ohio. They lost governorships in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin and Iowa. Republicans gained control of both state legislative houses in Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Indiana and Minnesota.
As Ronald Brownstein of the National Journal noted, “The stampede toward the GOP among blue collar whites was powerful almost everywhere.” Republicans captured at least 35 seats in the U.S. House in districts where the percentage of whites with college degrees lags behind the national average. The old industry towns in the Midwest were the epicenter of the disaster.
Some Democrats believe their policies have nothing to do with the debacle. It was the unemployment rate, they say. But it was Democratic economic policies that first repelled these voters. There’s been a sharp rise in the number of voters who think the Democrats are “too liberal.” Signature policy initiatives like health care remain gigantically unpopular. Republicans didn’t score gains everywhere unemployment was high (see California, for example). But they did score gains nearly everywhere where disapproval of President Obama and his policies was high.
When the successful Democratic Senate candidate in West Virginia takes a rifle and literally blows a hole in one of your major pieces of legislation in a campaign commercial, that is a sign that the voters are unhappy with your policies, not just the economy.
Democrats have, at least temporarily, blown the opportunity they were given to connect with the industrial Midwest. Voters in this region face structural problems, not cyclical ones. Intensely suspicious of government, they are nonetheless casting about for somebody, anybody, who can revive their towns and neighborhoods. Disillusioned with big spending and big debt, they at least want to see their government reflect their values of discipline, order and responsibility. Not only in America, but also in Germany, Sweden, France, Britain and across Europe, working-class voters these days are putting center-right governments in power.
American politics are volatile because nobody has an answer for these people. They will remain volatile until somebody finds one