Among the many fault lines the presidential election exposed last week was a clear and large schism within the working class.
Despite sharing many of the same economic concerns, working class and union workers in big cities backed Hillary Clinton, while blue-collar workers in the small industrial cities and towns of the Midwest delivered the White House to Donald Trump.
Exit polls suggest Clinton won a majority of union households and households earning $50,000 or less — but with smaller margins than President Obama or other recent Democratic candidates, as enough voters in once-blue Midwestern states peeled off to hand Trump, a Republican, the presidency.
“Essentially what happened was one part of the working class outvoted another part of the working class,” said John Russo, former head of the Center for Working Class Studies at Youngstown State University.
But the defection from the Democratic Party among those workers has been happening to different degrees for decades. Some of the split this year was along racial and geographic lines, Russo said, with urban and minority workers voting for Clinton and white and rural workers backing Trump. Those blue-collar Trump voters also bucked labor leaders who claim to speak for them, and who were solidly with Clinton.
Senator Elizabeth Warren, whose has long voiced some of the same populist themes Trump struck, said this growing economic discontent is something all of Washington has to address.
“The deep worry that people feel over an America that does not work for them is not liberal or conservative worry. It is not Democratic or Republican worry,” the Massachusetts Democrat said in a speech Thursday. “It is the deep worry that led even Americans with very deep reservations about Donald Trump’s temperament and fitness to vote for him anyway.”
Kathy Cramer, a University of Wisconsin political science professor, spent years listening to Wisconsin farmers and factory workers who hold down two jobs but feel as if they’re slipping. They hear of thriving coastal cities such as Boston, and government stats about job growth, but see little of it where they live.
“Go to these towns and talk with people. They feel like they’ve been in a recession for 30 years,” Cramer said. “It’s such a different orientation towards the economy than there is in the cities.”
Trump has proposed using tariffs and new trade deals to reverse the overseas migration of factory jobs. But bringing manufacturing back to these areas could prove difficult, industry specialists said, given big shifts in the global economy over the last two decades that have concentrated economic growth around big cities and in more knowledge-based industries. Moreover, robots may post bigger competition. A recent study by Ball State University found that 88 percent of factory jobs in recent years were lost to automation, not trade.
The traditional Democratic urban areas have their own economic discontent, seen through the Occupy Movement and popularity of Bernie Sanders. The growth in union membership has come in service industries that are big in cities — such as health care and hotels. Several of those unions have recently scored high-profile victories in contract negotiations using the threat of strikes.
But the membership of those unions tend to be more diverse, in some cases dominated by an immigrant workforce. And many of those workers rejected Trump’s message and voted for Clinton.
Another cross-current affecting the working class showed up Tuesday: Voters in Arizona, Colorado, Maine, and Washington approved increases in their minimum wages, while South Dakota voters rejected a bid to lower that state’s wage floor. Trump has sounded different positions on the minimum wage. But the Republicans have traditionally been against increases in the minimum wage.
The ballot measure in Maine, to raise minimum wages from $7.50 an hour to $12 by 2020, won 55 percent of the vote, a higher percentage than either presidential candidate received. It fared well despite the fierce opposition of Maine’s governor, Paul LePage, a Trump ally who in an October radio interview compared the wage hike to “attempted murder.”
The vote Tuesday reflects deep economic concerns that cross the political spectrum, said Mike Tipping, spokesman for Mainers for Fair Wages, which pushed the bill.
“There are threads of fairness and economic justice that extend throughout our state, and our country,” Tipping said. “There’s definitely a recognition that the economy has to work for everyone.”
Somewhere along the way that idea has been lost by the mainstream of both political parties, said Mark Erlich, head of the New England Regional Council of Carpenters. While he and other labor leaders campaigned hard for Clinton, Erlich acknowledged that among their rank-and-file membership — and among nonunion workers — opinion was far more mixed. He saw that firsthand the Saturday before the election, canvassing members of his union who live in Salem, N.H.
“There was a fair share of Trump signs in front yards,” Erlich said. “But most people I talked with said they were disgusted with both sides.”