Rich Hahan worked at the General Motors plant here until it closed about two years ago. He moved to Detroit to take another G.M. job while his wife and children stayed here, but then the automaker cut more jobs. So Mr. Hahan, 50, found himself back in Janesville, collecting unemployment for a time, and watching as the city’s industrial base seemed to crumble away.
Among the top five employers here are the county, the schools and the city. And that was enough to make Mr. Hahan, a union man from a union town, a supporter of Gov. Scott Walker’s sweeping proposal to cut the benefits and collective-bargaining rights of public workers in Wisconsin, a plan that has set off a firestorm of debate and protests at the state Capitol. He says he still believes in unions, but thinks those in the public sector lead to wasteful spending because of what he sees as lavish benefits and endless negotiations.
“Something needs to be done,” he said, “and quickly.”
Across Wisconsin, residents like Mr. Hahan have fumed in recent years as tens of thousands of manufacturing jobs have vanished, and as some of the state’s best-known corporations have pressured workers to accept benefit cuts.
OK, so here's the thing: While I don't agree with Mr. Hahan's stance on public-sector unions I can certainly understand where he's coming from.
Why? Because on the whole our government has done jack-squat to protect the jobs of blue-collar manufacturing workers in the Midwest. This includes Bill Clinton's embrace of NAFTA and other big trade deals that have become a staple of Democratic policy making right up through the Obama administration. So there are a lot of blue-collar people out there who think to themselves, "Hey, the government hasn't done a damn thing to protect my job -- why should I care about protecting government workers' jobs?"
And this brings me to a topic I and lots of other folks have been wrestling with for a long time: That is, why do a majority of white blue-collar people in this country regularly vote for the GOP in national elections? The answer, I've concluded, isn't that they love Republicans but rather that they see no reason to vote for Democrats.
I'll put it to you like this: There is a good chunk of Midwestern "Reagan Democrats" who may not see eye-to-eye with us commie heathen East Coasters on some social issues, but who also know that the GOP's economic policies are screwing them. In other words, they have no real loyalty for either party and their votes are often up for grabs in elections.
But here's the thing: You've gotta give these folks a reason to vote for you. The mistake that Democrats have made is to think the secret to capturing these votes is to become more conservative on social issues. But that's silly: If social issues such as abortion and gay marriage are first and foremost on these voters' minds they're going to vote for Republicans. Midwestern blue-collar voters will support Democratic candidates when they pledge to oppose free trade deals and to kick Wall Street's ass on their behalf. But when the Dems don't deliver on those things, a lot of these voters throw up their hands and say, "Why the hell bother?" Virginia Senator Jim Webb captured this dynamic nicely late last year:
Webb has pushed for a onetime windfall profits tax on Wall Street's record bonuses. He talks about the "unusual circumstances of the bailout," that the bonuses wouldn't be there without the bailout.
"I couldn't even get a vote," Webb says. "And it wasn't because of the Republicans. I mean they obviously weren't going to vote for it. But I got so much froth from Democrats saying that any vote like that was going to screw up fundraising.
"People look up say, what's the difference between these two parties? Neither of them is really going to take on Wall Street. If they don't have the guts to take them on, and they've got all these other programs that exclude me, well to hell with them. I'm going to vote for the other people who can at least satisfy me on other issues, like abortion. Screw you guys. I understand that mindset."
For far too long the Democratic Party leadership has supported policies that have screwed blue-collar Midwesterners as much as any Republican policies have -- after all, remember that the repeal of Glass-Stegal got more than 90 votes in the U.S. Senate and was signed into law by a Democratic president. Instead of constantly asking ourselves, "What's the matter with these silly Midwesterners?" we should probably be asking, "Why the hell isn't our supposed center-left party looking out for all workers' interests?"