Working Class Heroes?

Courting the Blue Collar Vote in Ohio

By James Neimeister

Since at least the 1980s and the rise of the Reaganism in America, few have resisted the idea that market deregulations are the only way to grow the economy. During the Clinton administration, politicians pursued a “third way,” trying to balance regulation and cuts to social services while promising that the ensuing growth would make everyone better off. Even Clinton considered treaties like the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) to be undoubtedly well-intentioned and beneficial to the economy. Such policies have led to the loss of countless American manufacturing jobs, despite the claim that this cost would be alleviated by benefits to the financial and service industries. But as the erosion of American manufacturing slows the economy’s recovery, politicians of both parties are going out of their way to court the blue-collar vote.

Nowhere is this clearer than in Ohio, a crucial state for winning the presidency. With its once manufacturing-based economy battered by factory closings, layoffs and industrial decay, candidates from each party have been bending over backward to convince Ohio voters that they can reverse these trends. Both parties, for instance, frequently criticize the United States’ trade relationship with China, especially with respect to Chinese currency manipulation. Suddenly the widely held consensus that free trade is good for everyone seems to be in doubt. In the context of this election, economics—so long considered objective and apolitical—finds itself nudged and reminded of its origins as explicitly political.

Both Republicans and Democrats, not to mention special interest groups, have been pouring enormous sums of money into the presidential and Ohio senatorial races. The National Journal reports that the parties combined have spent about $95 million on advertisements in Ohio; Democratic groups have spent about $53 million and Republican groups have spent around $41 million. The super PACs brought into being by the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision have contributed about $8.5 million on behalf of the Democrats and about $22.5 million dollars on behalf of the Republicans. The amount of money spent on advertisements in this election is unprecedented.

These political advertisements have been defined by their attempts to appeal to working, blue-collar Americans. While all the candidates are sticking to their usual messages, tropes and talking points, certain common characteristics are showing up everywhere in ads for candidates of both parties. Most notably, China is mentioned at some point in almost every television spot. Mitt Romney has an ad bluntly titled “Stand up to China” and uses similar language regularly in his political discourse. On the other hand, the Obama campaign has attempted to capitalize on similar anxieties amongst blue-collar voters by targeting Mitt Romney’s experience at Bain Capital, attempting to connect it to the waves of layoffs and outsourcing that have plagued the manufacturing sector for years. Fears that the U.S. is losing jobs to China are playing a major role in this election.

This trend has played out not only in the presidential race but the senatorial race, pitting incumbent Democrat Sherrod Brown against Ohio’s state treasurer, Josh Mandel. Mandel and Brown traded barbs in a series of editorials for the Mansfield News Journal. “We need a national manufacturing strategy,” Brown asserted, lamenting the fact that manufacturing, once representing 25 percent of the U.S. economy, now only represents 12 percent; meanwhile, financial services, which once represented about 12 percent of the economy, now comprise 20 percent of the economy. Brown pinpoints Chinese currency manipulation as one of the sources of this problem, touting a piece of legislation he wrote last year called the “Chinese Currency Manipulation Act.” Mandel, on the other hand, argues that “career politicians” are at fault for failing to spur job creation; he argued for deregulation and urged the U.S. to be “tough” on China. Mandel asserts that, while trade is good, depending on China for trading and financing the American debt puts the U.S. in an unfavorable in negotiations. China is gaining global power at a spectacular rate, a fact that is worrisome for anyone whose job is suddenly in competition with Chinese workers. What may be even more worrisome, though, is that the nation’s leaders have reacted to the crisis in American manufacturing by blaming China.

While fears of China’s ascent have played a major role in campaign rhetoric, this election has also been characterized by the way politicians have been projected in appealing ways to blue-collar voters with highly precise visual cues. In the most overt example, incumbent Senator Sherrod Brown appears in a commercial called “Both from Ohio,” wherein he lists the names of the various car parts, manufactured various cities across the state, that go into the Chevy Cruze, itself assembled in Lordstown. At the end of the ad, Brown takes the chance to proudly mention his vote in favor of the bailout of the automotive industry, a move which was certainly decisive for many Ohioans’ jobs. In fact, it is now estimated that one in eight Ohio jobs depends in some way on the automotive industry. In general, workers in Ohio’s automotive industry are quite loyal to Obama. The Romney campaign, in turn, has criticized Obama for this, accusing him of rewarding “union bosses” in an act described as “crony capitalism.” Indeed, Romney goes further, tacitly posing union workers against non-union workers by adding that “Obama’s union allies…reaped reward upon reward [from the automotive industry bailout], all on the taxpayer’s dime.”

Curiously enough, one Mandel advertisement, “Accountable,” shows him in a vague, metallic setting metaphorically representing a factory floor in which he proclaims that “the more we can empower our working blue collar workers to grow the economy, the stronger we’ll be as a nation.” This particular example does not stand out as unique in comparison with Mandel’s other attempts to attract blue-collar voters. Trying to call the Democrats out on their opposition to coal, Mandel stumbled, stating that “[the Democrats] think coal is a four-letter word.” This somewhat stunted attempt at solidarity has been part of a larger effort by Republicans, who are campaigning very aggressively in Ohio’s coal country, to boost Romney’s image amongst working class voters and to simultaneously push the party line on environmental and energy policy. Whether this will actually make Romney more attractive to all blue-collar workers remains to be seen. Indeed, it seems rather peculiar that candidates of both parties are chasing votes by emphasizing their relationships with various niche groups.

It is striking, then, that workers do not identify with workers in the present political climate. Rather, groups foster strong internal relationships: steel workers identify with steel workers, coal miners with coal miners, union workers with union workers and non-union workers with non-union workers. As people struggle for employment and consistency in an economy defined by uncertainty, there is hardly any sense of unification among workers, perhaps representing a broader trend in the fracturing of social solidarity and any wider sense of identification.

These political trends echo a similar erosion of its collective power. Despite better than ever access to potential voters, political parties are finding it increasingly more difficult to reach actual voters, spending more on campaigns that generate less enthusiasm. Even the mighty nation-state has been buffeted by the gale-force winds of the market, diminishing its power and agency. Countries cannot establish trade barriers like they once could. Even China may be able to manipulate their currency, but they too are grappling with their own economic problems, unable to slow down the breakneck pace of their overheating economy. In response to this overall disruption of the old power structures, politicians have become narrower and narrower in the scope while campaigning. Perhaps this year’s Republican primary campaign was more than just a nightmarish aberration; perhaps it represents a grim sign of times to come—a new phase of electoral politics, ever more focused on highly specific and audience-tailored campaigning.

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