Why Did White Workers Leave the Democratic Party?

Judith Stein

A historian debunks liberal myths about racism, the New Deal, and why the Democrats moved right.

An interracial crowd of striking Phillips Packing Company workers in Cambridge, MD in 1937. Library of Congress

Interview by
Connor Kilpatrick

Bernie Sanders makes liberals say the darndest things.

The senator from Vermont spent the better part of 2016 pitching his “socialism” as a continuation of the best in the American reform tradition. And that meant embracing by name the domestic achievements of Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson.

Suddenly, however, some liberal pundits weren’t so sure about those legacies. The stubborn old socialist was looking back on the past through rose-colored lenses, they said. And hearing him champion the populist economic reforms of the good old days was enough to make them rethink the foundations of the Democratic Party’s most impressive legislative accomplishment: the New Deal.

Why would elite liberals become so ambivalent about the reforms that, with one brief interruption, helped hand their favored party control of Congress for sixty years? The same set of policies they long touted as the kind of “responsible” and “pragmatic” reforms that radicals could learn from?

The answer: racism. Only white supremacy, these chastened liberals argued, marshaling the work of some recent historians, made both the New Deal and the golden age of organized labor possible.

Just as Scandinavian social democracy was purportedly built on a foundation of ethnic homogeneity, so too did the New Deal prosper because of racial exclusion. And when black Americans began to demand their rights, the New Deal — and organized labor — imploded as racist white workers fled the Democratic Party for Ronald Reagan.

In its outlines, this story draws on a powerful left-wing critique of the New Deal — an unsparing exposure of social democracy’s contradictions that radicals from Leon Trotsky to Martin Luther King would have understood.

In the hands of today’s liberal intelligentsia, however, it functions somewhat differently. For them, the arc of twentieth-century politics shows that the Democratic Party’s turn away from economic populism is not the fault of its affluent elite, but of the still-unvanquished racism of reactionary white workers.

In the following interview with Jacobin editorial board member Connor Kilpatrick, Judith Stein explains why she disagrees. While other historians have neatly divided “race” and “economic policy,” Stein has focused on the connection between the two throughout her scholarly career. Her first book examined the Pan-African leader Marcus Garvey, as an exemplar of the black nationalism that permeated African-American political life from 1890 to the Great Depression.

She then moved to the New Deal era, when the wage worker became a central actor in black politics. Stein decided to focus on the steel industry — the only place (other than coal) where African Americans worked in both the South and the North.

This line of inquiry — the result of which was Running Steel, Running America: Race, Economic Policy, and the Decline of Liberalism — took her South, to Birmingham.

That examination of race and the decline of the postwar steel industry led to her next book, The Pivotal Decade: How the United States Traded Factories for Finance in the Seventiesa study of the decisions that pushed the Democratic Party away from New Deal liberalism.

Contrary to today’s liberals, Stein argues that it wasn’t the racism of white workers that forced the Democratic Party to the right on economics. It was powerful political and business elites, who chose to abandon organized labor and turn the Party of Roosevelt into the Party of Clinton.

I. The Birth of Jim Crow

Connor Kilpatrick

Before we talk about the death of New Deal politics and the role of racism in undoing these movements for political reform, first we need to talk about how Jim Crow and disfranchisement were established in the first place.

Judith Stein

First of all, Jim Crow is different from disfranchisement. Disfranchisement meant raising the barriers to voting. They did that in a variety of ways, such as the poll tax, literacy tests, and Democratic Party control of registration.

The latest scholarship on disfranchisement locates its origins in the planters’ demand for labor control, which was challenged during the depression of the 1890s. J. Morgan Kousser proved this by going through the origins of these laws in each state legislature.

The first state was Mississippi in 1890. That’s one reason why people argue that they never had a Populist Movement in Mississippi. The last state was Georgia in 1908.

Kousser argued that the laws generally followed a defeat of the Populist Movement, so that they could get them through. After a loss, when the opposition was weaker — that’s when elites introduced the legislation.

And Kousser showed that the people who introduced the legislation were planters, not working people. They came from elite-dominated areas, not the poor white regions of the South.

Whether the poor whites were racists or not, they lacked the power to effect disfranchisement (which affected them as well). And poor white areas were often the only areas of opposition to the new laws.

Connor Kilpatrick

What were the challenges to planter rule that these elites were trying to put a stop to?

Judith Stein

It was the Populist Party, it was black Republicans. North Carolina, from 1894 to 1898, was ruled by a biracial coalition of Populists and Republicans. It was a coalition, because blacks preferred to remain Republican. Blacks and whites challenged planter rule.

The North Carolina coalition achieved a lot for blacks, as well as for whites. It was defeated in 1898 by the white supremacist Democrats, who used violence to win the election.

And in other states, even without achieving power, blacks and whites, separately or together, challenged planter rule.

Connor Kilpatrick

What exactly were they fighting over?

Judith Stein

Many whites left the Democratic Party for the Populist Party because Democrats were supporting high interest rates, and they were small farmers, who needed cheaper credit.

“We want government to regulate the railroads. We want the government to provide credit.” These were key issues for the Populists.

There was the famous Tom Watson [a Georgia Populist who later became a racist demagogue]. Watson famously brought his cohorts to defend a black farmer who was about to be attacked.

I’m not saying this happened every day, I don’t want to make Populists angels. All I mean to say is that there was a great fear among the Democratic elites that this popular uprising during the 1890s depression would displace them and rule the South.

They acted in every way possible. Violently when necessary, but in the long run they knew that they would have to permanently alter politics through the various disfranchisement measures.

Connor Kilpatrick

So it wasn’t internal tensions over race that destroyed the Populist alliance?

Judith Stein

No! People don’t understand that in the South in the 1890s, white elites openly advocated violence.

Responding to another Populist-Republican alliance in Louisiana, the Evening Judge, a newspaper in Shreveport, declared that

it is the religious duty of Democrats to rob Populists and Republicans of their votes whenever and wherever the opportunity presents itself . . . The Populists and Republicans are our legitimate political prey. Rob them! You bet! What are we here for?

These techniques and violence led to a Democratic victory. The new governor was happy to have retained “control of affairs” in the hands of what he described as “the intelligence and virtue of the State” over “the force of brute numbers.”

Connor Kilpatrick

Did they actually kill anyone?

Judith Stein

Yes! They killed lots of people. Whites and blacks. In 1896, at the height of the political insurgency in Louisiana, twenty-one people were lynched, one-fifth of the total for the entire nation.

Connor Kilpatrick

Who exactly were the Democratic Party elites at this point who put down the Populists?

Judith Stein

They represented the planter class and the new industrial class. There’s a debate about how bourgeois the South was at the time. But most of the leaders were from the planter class, because they had the most to lose if blacks voted.

After all, if all your workers in the Black Belt counties are voting, that’s black-majority power, Reconstruction. They did not want that. That’s why they were the most antagonistic to free black voting.

And if you bring the story up to the 1950s — where was the white Citizens Council formed? It was formed in the Delta of Mississippi, where it was still five-to-one, black to white, where if you have a semblance of democracy, you would have black rule.

Connor Kilpatrick

Which would mean worker rule.

Judith Stein

Of course. It’s not that they disliked the color black. Slaves had been brought from Africa to work. This was labor control, basically.

Connor Kilpatrick

What about Jim Crow specifically?

Judith Stein

Jim Crow also originated as an elite phenomenon. Remember, Plessy v. Ferguson, the Supreme Court’s legalization of segregation in 1896, was about first-class railroad service.

Why did Jim Crow grow and flourish? First, it required black disfranchisement. Most of the Jim Crow laws came after disfranchisement, because you could never get Jim Crow if blacks were voting.

Second, most scholars believe that Southern industrialization undermined the agrarian-based system of social control and race relations. Industrialization also exacerbated sectoral competition for labor between agriculture and industry.

These social and economic stresses played out against popular challenges to elite rule in the 1890s. Segregation was the answer because it eased class and racial tensions in urban areas, it mediated competition between industry and agriculture, and it resolved political struggles by persuading whites to close ranks around white supremacy.

So, basically the origin of Jim Crow is not so much planter control, but urbanization. In the planter areas, the old form of labor control could work. You can control people using the old methods of landlord-tenant, landlord-worker.

In the city, as Frederick Douglass said of the urban slave, “He’s a free man, a slave is a free man.” Obviously he was exaggerating, but he was distinguishing between the tyranny of living on a plantation and the relative freedom that you have in the city.

In the cities, where you have freer blacks, segregation was considered a way of organizing society to minimize conflict. And of course, to make it impossible for blacks and whites ever to unite.

Blacks and whites couldn’t play checkers in the park — there was such a law in Birmingham. In order to unite in solidarity, you have to at least know each other. Segregation made that much more difficult.

Connor Kilpatrick

So Jim Crow, like disfranchisement, is also a response to the Populist Movement?

Judith Stein

Sure it is. The elites saw this as a way of creating order in the city. Obviously you have to have a racist society to separate black and white, but it was not atavistic. It was a modern way of organizing people on the basis of racial separation. Some of this happened in the North, too. In some of the steel mills in Aliquippa, Pennsylvania, they had Eastern Europeans in one section, Italians in another, blacks in another. And this was all modern.

II. The North During Jim Crow

Connor Kilpatrick

Let’s use that to talk about what’s going on in the North at that time. The Northern ruling class — what are they doing at this time? Are they trying to get the vote out of the hands of their workers?<

Judith Stein

To some extent they were. Throughout the nation, in the face of strikes and third parties during the two depression decades — the 1870s and 1890s — there was a general questioning of democracy.

But Northern elites couldn’t radically reduce the electorate because the machine bosses were too strong, and they protected workers and immigrants because they were the source of their power.

But they were able to tighten up residency requirements, which we still have, and institute other measures that made voting more difficult. Voter suppression was less radical in the North because workers and immigrants had more power than their Southern counterparts. But some of the Northern restrictions are still with us. Look at what just happened in the presidential primary in New York City. To vote in the April party primaries, one would have had to register in October 2015.

Connor Kilpatrick

So it seems to me the narrative is that the ruling class always wants control of the vote, as much as they can get, over the working class, North or South — and that they’ll exploit whatever social forms exist in a given area to do so.

Judith Stein

Right, but that doesn’t explain why disfranchisement was less radical in the North than in the South. The Northern and Southern orders were different.

The planters, especially in the depression of 1890s, had less room to maneuver and thus came down hard against challenges to their rule.

All of this is important because in the South, almost all of the black population, and half of the white population, at the class line, didn’t vote.

So what you get is elite voting where factions contested each other and the people were ignored. That’s what elite rule was, and it worked for a while.

III. Dixiecrats and the New Deal

Connor Kilpatrick

This is skipping a lot of history but let’s get to the New Deal’s relationship with the South, and with black workers.

The popular thesis today is that the New Deal could only be popular with white workers because, thanks to the Dixiecrats, it excluded black workers.

Judith Stein

If the New Deal was simply for whites, why did blacks switch from the GOP to the Democratic Party in 1934 and 1936, led by the working-class black districts? Were they stupid? Or did they see something in the New Deal that these people don’t?

One could argue that New Dealers compromised too much with the South, but that is not to say that men like Senator Robert Wagner from New York wrote laws for a lily-white majority. Moreover, the argument that these laws were simply racist because they excluded agricultural workers is wrong.

First, most social welfare laws everywhere initially excluded farm workers. Today, farm workers in New York have fewer rights than industrial workers. Then, the majority of sharecroppers in the South of the 1930s were white, not black. Did Southern legislators advocate minimum wages and pensions for white sharecroppers?

The South feared that the New Deal endangered their control over labor — black and white. After all, federal relief and jobs challenged their control over labor by allowing workers to avoid the plantation.

What the Southerners loved in the first New Deal was help for agriculture and cheap money. Although FDR did not challenge the Southern racial order, many white Southerners saw the New Deal and the CIO as such a threat.

When the coal miners organized in and around Birmingham and the union began to register black voters, elites conjured up images of Reconstruction.

Connor Kilpatrick

Blacks’ sudden shift into the Democratic Party came after decades of loyalty to the Republicans. What was going on in black politics then to make that possible?

Judith Stein

Well, in 1933 there was a big fight within the NAACP when the “Young Turks” wanted the NAACP to convert itself into a group to organize black workers.

Not only did W. E. B. Du Bois not like that, but Walter White, the head of the NAACP, didn’t like it either.

Most of the black radicals — I’m not talking about communists, but people like Abram Harris, an economist, E. Franklin Frazier, A. Philip Randolph, of course — thought that the old civil rights groups were not dealing with bread and butter issues, and that’s what people were interested in.

Connor Kilpatrick

So the issue, for this younger set, was the importance of class?

Judith Stein

Exactly. This was the fight they had with Du Bois.

Du Bois left the NAACP for many reasons. There was the fight with Walter White over DuBois’s nationalism.

But there also was an important rift between DuBois and some of his young admirers, such as George Streator.

Streator had gone to Fisk University, he loved Du Bois, and had started to work for [the NAACP magazine] the Crisis. Then he leaves to become an organizer for the Amalgamated Clothing Workers in Virginia.

He has a fight with Du Bois on just this issue. Du Bois argued that white workers are always racist. And Streator challenged his knowledge of white workers and challenged Du Bois’s notion that the black bourgeoisie was progressive by citing many instances of black middle-class opposition to unionization.

He told DuBois, “I am through with any doctrine of ‘racial solidarity’ as a way out.” DuBois’s hope in the 1930s was that cooperatives, led by the black middle class, could lead blacks out of the Depression.

This was not the kind of pious debate you hear today. Why? Because both of them thought the stakes were high. Your position on how blacks should organize was not a posture, it mattered to black people.

Even the Urban League moves left and gets interested in unionization — and the Urban League had been under complete corporate control in the 1920s.

In 1935, you also get the National Negro Congress, which wanted to be a left-wing equivalent to the NAACP. Its members thought the NAACP was an organization of preachers and teachers, whereas they represented the masses. There was some truth to their conclusion.

They said, in essence, blacks are workers. Our interests are with white workers, not with white capitalists, which had been the dominant trend in racial organization in the twenties, and since Booker T. Washington began to dominate black politics at the end of the 1890s.

Connor Kilpatrick

This all sounds familiar. Right now, black millennials generally support Bernie Sanders, while the older guard is saying, let’s stick with these enlightened capitalist-funded organizations.

Judith Stein

But the leftward movement was more powerful in the era of the Depression. Capitalists stopped contributing to the Urban League.

In the 1920s, the league used to agitate for more black jobs in corporations. But now, with the Depression, corporations were firing people.

It’s not that a light bulb suddenly went off in their heads, it was that the facts on the ground made it clear that their old ways had to change.

The insurgent movement was activist, it was potentially changing things, and it appealed to blacks who were interested in material issues.

Ralph Bunche was another one who at this point effectively said, “You know, every time we ask for a meeting on civil rights, no one comes. When we talk about material issues, everybody comes.”

People didn’t have jobs. A black man who was hired at the US Steel mill in Birmingham in 1937 was asked what he thought about discrimination at the mill. He responded that the only thing he was thinking about was that “I was making 37 cents an hour when I was making 75 cents a day on the farm.”

Connor Kilpatrick

But what about racism in the labor movement? Blacks had been excluded from unions, hadn’t they?

Judith Stein

First of all, the CIO was new. It was new because it included Eastern European immigrants and blacks, who had more or less been excluded from the old AFL.

But the notion that blacks were excluded from the CIO is ideology, not reality. Employers in the North and the South often told whites and immigrants (they were not the same then) to avoid the CIO because it was a “black” union.

And the pattern of unionization disproves the race-first mode of organizing. In Birmingham, first the coal miners, then the steelworkers, and finally the iron ore workers formed integrated unions — probably the only integrated organizations in the state of Alabama at the time.

I am certain that very few of the whites who joined with blacks were egalitarians, although measured by the Alabama standards of the time they probably were.

And in western Pennsylvania, it was only after the success of the steelworkers union in the late 1930s that white workers joined blacks in getting black teachers hired in the public schools and integrating swimming pools, theaters, and restaurants.

Egalitarian racial sentiment is often the consequence, not the cause, of unionization.

Let me give you an example: the Packinghouse Workers was another union organized in the thirties. The packinghouse workers had terrible race relations in Chicago because in a strike in the wake of World War I, the companies imported blacks as strikebreakers.

They broke the strike. So in the 1930s, the animosity between black and white was great.

What happened, and what made the union appealing to whites, was they knew that there were lots of blacks and if they didn’t have them, they weren’t going to have a union.

And for blacks, even though they had once been the company favorites, they recognized that they were also the first ones fired. The companies had “black lists” — literally.

As I said, often, good racial feelings are a consequence, not the cause, of unionization. Jim Cole, a black man who worked in the Chicago yards, was interviewed in 1938 by someone from the Federal Writers Project. He said:

I don’t care if the union don’t do another lick of work raisin’ our pay, or settling grievances about anything, I’ll always believe they done the greatest thing in the world gettin’ everybody who works in the yards together, and [breakin’?] up the hate and bad feelings that used to be held against the Negro. We all doing our work now, nothing but good to say about the CIO.

Connor Kilpatrick

This flies in the face of the narrative we hear from many labor skeptics today — that people must first purge themselves of racism before a successful revitalization of the labor movement is possible.

Judith Stein

The notion that you need perfect people before people will join unions flies in the face of the evidence.

It’s said by people who don’t really need a union. In other words, they don’t understand that people join unions for practical reasons.

I have used the phrase “the racialization of explanation” to explain this phenomenon. Especially in the era of Jim Crow, people often conclude that every time a union failed, it must be because of race.

That doesn’t make sense. Workers can be racist, but that is not necessarily the reason why a union fails. It’s only if you only see race and ignore everything else.

Labor historians have shown that context, geography, religion, gender, skill, ethnicity, and — yes — race all make solidarity contingent, not something that inexorably flows from economic conditions or the social relations of production.

The current “wages of whiteness” school reifies whiteness and makes it all-powerful, to counter a straw-man conception of Marxism that nobody even accepts anymore.

Connor Kilpatrick

But wasn’t it W. E. B. Du Bois who said that white workers received a “psychological wage” from their racial status, which kept them from joining interracial alliances?

Judith Stein

Du Bois’s phrase appeared in his Black Reconstruction, which was first published in 1935. Du Bois advanced the notion of a “public and psychological wage” for whites, to answer the old Werner Sombart question (“Why is there no socialism in America?”).

Why did white workers refuse to make common cause with black workers to make the revolution? Du Bois claimed that the agents of the divide-and-conquer strategy were those in power.

But in another piece, written in 1933, Du Bois was closer to Sombart’s claim that socialism “foundered on shoals of roast beef” — in other words, Americans were too prosperous for socialism. Here the “wages of whiteness” was simply conventional wages.

Since the question of agency is critical, which is it? And is Du Bois right? Immediately after those lines in Black Reconstruction, Du Bois characterized the “Negro” as “a caged human being, driven into a curious mental provincialism,” dominated by an “inferiority complex,” “one who did not believe himself a man like other men,” who “could not teach his children self-respect, and who sank into apathy and fatalism.”

Such a characterization justified Du Bois’s belief that only the “talented tenth” could produce black freedom.

But was his description of blacks correct? Much subsequent history disproves Du Bois’s findings.

If he was wrong on blacks, why was he right on whites? In short, Du Bois had great insights into blacks and whites, but he was not always right.

Given my problems accepting his formulation as a tool for understanding the post–Civil War South or the 1930s, it is even less likely to be useful in understanding contemporary history, whose dynamics Du Bois never experienced, much less studied.

IV. Labor and the Civil Rights Movement

Connor Kilpatrick

What was the labor movement’s relationship with the Civil Rights Movement?

Judith Stein

First of all, both the labor movement and the Civil Rights Movement were diverse. But I can make some generalizations. Let’s start with the AFL-CIO and its leader, George Meany.

Unlike Walter Reuther of the United Auto Workers, Meany did not support the March on Washington in 1963. Nevertheless, he was the muscle behind the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, including the very important Title 7, banning employment discrimination.

The Civil Rights Movement, and blacks in general, did not have much weight in Congress, so labor played a crucial role in getting legislation passed. And where labor was weak, the churches stepped in.

One of the reasons that Meany was so insistent on Title 7 was that the law had evolved so that unions, but not employers, were liable for employment discrimination. Making employment discrimination illegal would place the blame on employers, whom labor leaders believed were the cause of discrimination.

In addition, it wasn’t just Reuther who gave money to Martin Luther King Jr. In 1963, the United Steelworkers in Birmingham gave $40,000 so that jailed demonstrators could be released. Claude Ramsay, head of the Mississippi AFL-CIO, worked very closely with Medgar Evers, the main civil rights leader in the state.

Having said that, it is also true that the hurricane of racism that enveloped the South in the late 1950s and early 1960s included many unionized white workers. This period halted some of the postwar progress that had been made and replaced the populists, who stressed economic issues, with the racists in state and local government.

Nonetheless, most union leaders in the South tried the best they could to promote black rights because they saw black voting as crucial to union success, as well as to their own liberalism.

There is no doubt that there were conflicts, generally over methods and the speed of black advancement. The conflicts escalated when the number of jobs was falling.

And some unions were better than others. The craft unions were less willing to change than the CIO industrial unions, which especially in the North had eliminated many of the discriminations of the pre-union era.

Even so, the unionized construction companies [strongholds of craft unionism] had better records on training blacks for skilled work than the nonunionized companies.

Connor Kilpatrick

Bayard Rustin said at some point in the early seventies that the labor movement was the most empowering institution for black people in America.

Judith Stein

Yes. I still think it’s true. In Birmingham in the thirties, the steelworkers, with the coal miners and the iron workers, were the only integrated institution in the whole city.

This is Jim Crow Birmingham. The unions were not perfect, but blacks had a vote in the election of their leaders and therefore they had a voice, and many of them were quite skillful in using it for their own advantage. Where else in Birmingham did they have that kind of power?

If you don’t understand the empowerment that being a member of a union brings, having a say in your work life, how important that is to a person who has no rights outside of the union, you don’t know what the Jim Crow South was. That is why these first black unionists were so enthusiastic about unions.

I interviewed a retired black worker, Willie George Phillips, from the wire mill in Birmingham, which was really black-run. “In the late forties,” he said, “we decided to elect a black as the chairman of the grievance committee,” which was really the main committee of the union.

I said, “So you thought it was about time that you elected a black to be chair?” He said no. “Every time we got a good white, they would promote him to be foreman. We knew they’d never promote a black.”

Here I had assumed that it was the times, that blacks were on the move, seeking higher position. No, there was a very practical reason, and it acknowledged the ongoing racism of the mill, their imperfect world. That will explain why black workers joined with people that we would say probably are a little racist.

And there were non-racial reasons to have a union. I once asked Jimmie Lee Williams, a black leader from the coke plant, what was his most important accomplishment. I thought he would say facilitating the promotion of blacks or registering blacks to vote, which he had done.

He said, “The best thing I ever did in the coke plant was getting air conditioning for the workers.” People who don’t work in a coke plant during a Birmingham summer need to expand their imagination if they want to understand this history.

There were two institutions where working-class people — I don’t care what the race was — could get leadership skills. One was the church, and the other was the union.

When I asked another retired black worker what he liked best about the union, he said, “I was on the pension committee.” Surprised, I said, “Why?” He said, “I got a chance to travel outside of Birmingham to other cities, and I had never traveled.”

Connor Kilpatrick

I think a lot of liberals just see it as, like, “Well, okay, being in a labor union — what does that really mean? Is it really that big of a deal?”

Judith Stein

It means everything.

Connor Kilpatrick

It creates democracy.

Judith Stein

Exactly. It establishes a rule of law. It protects you from arbitrary firing and makes whites subject to the contract, the law. If you cannot understand what this means, you lack an understanding of what the Jim Crow South was like.

V. The 1970s and the Rise of Reagan

Connor Kilpatrick

What happens to the New Deal order in the 1970s?

Judith Stein

Democratic losses among white workers began in the election of 1980. After the aberrant 1972 presidential election, the 1976 contest saw a return to class voting, North and South. There was much racial debate and divisiveness at the national and local levels in 1976, but it did not affect the voting. Whatever their racial views in 1976, most white workers did not abandon the Democratic Party.

Many whites, especially more affluent ones, left the Democratic Party in the South. But those who remained had characteristics similar to Democratic whites in the rest of the nation — older, Catholic, union member, blue-collar, working-class, less education, and less affluent — according to political scientists Richard Nadeau and Harold W. Stanley, who studied white Southern voting from 1952 to 1990.

During the 1970s white Southern Democrats learned to represent biracial constituencies. The addition of black voters and the departure of more affluent whites made white Democratic politicians more liberal than their predecessors on economic matters. The addition of new black Democrats added to the liberalism. Then in every region in 1980, Democrats lost votes because of the economy, the terrible economic conditions.

Connor Kilpatrick

What are some of those conditions?

Judith Stein

You have unemployment, you have inflation. If you look at the white working-class vote in 1980, first of all, there was less of it.

Then, every group, except blacks, gave a greater proportion of their vote to Reagan in 1980 than they gave to Ford in 1976. Suburban women, North, South — you name it. Catholic. Every group.

The big issue in 1980 was the economy. So you go back to race? That just doesn’t make sense to me. Still, the class dimension of the vote in 1980 remained. Carter was weakest and Reagan the strongest in the white suburbs and other affluent communities.

The South had been in play during the 1970s. But the Democrats did not offer white workers (or black workers) social democracy.

National Democratic leaders did not nurture a biracial, class politics. Democrats promoted black mobilization (and eventually black districts, to ensure racial representation), but not biracial unions, the surest way to anchor white Democratic voting.

Whites belonging to unions voted Democratic more than nonunion whites. But President Carter only perfunctorily supported the labor reform in 1978, which would have advanced the unionization of Southern workers, black and white.

The law was filibustered to death. Beginning in the late 1970s, when the Democratic Party embraced neoliberalism, it lost the capacity to convince workers that it could fix the economy.

Yes, some working-class whites in the South turned to the Republican Party, especially when it was the party of power in their city and county. But many more just stopped voting.

Connor Kilpatrick

Did the white working class shrink as a percentage of the general population?

Judith Stein

No! They stopped voting.

Connor Kilpatrick

In some ways, I guess that’s not surprising. Carter was basically telling the working class to do more with less.

Judith Stein

Absolutely. Today it’s hard to recreate that, because Jimmy Carter devotes himself to ending conflicts throughout the world. But there was huge criticism of him.

Senator Edward Kennedy challenged him in the primaries, and the polls showed in 1980 that people voted for Reagan not because they were more conservative, but because they thought that Jimmy Carter was unable to manage the economy.

The Reagan people liked to argue that this was a conservative ideological victory, but the polling shows that they lost faith in Carter’s ability to fix the economy. It was like the 1932 election, when people voted for Roosevelt because Hoover had had three years to improve the economy, but failed.

Polling in 1984 shows that 60 percent of the electorate preferred Mondale’s ideas about helping the needy; 25 percent preferred Reagan’s. But they believed that the Democrats couldn’t manage the economy, and Reagan could. Up until that point, Democrats successfully claimed, “We are the party of prosperity. Republicans are the party of the Great Depression.” After 1984, that was not the case anymore.

VI. The South’s Right Turn

Connor Kilpatrick

How much of the rightward turn in Southern politics is due to the fact that labor unions never had as much of a presence there?

Judith Stein

Sure, because after all, workers will imbibe the culture around them. That’s why in the South, there is a distinction between the voting patterns of white unionized and white non-unionized workers.

Typically, an oil-industry lobbyist opposed labor reform in 1978 because he feared that the law would unionize the South and “the South would go the way of Ohio . . . due to the political strength of labor.”

Ohio had once been a reliably Republican state but had become reliably Democratic because of unionization. The lobbyist feared the same thing would happen to the South.

Connor Kilpatrick

How did deindustrialization affect the South compared to the North?

Judith Stein

The South begins the period of deindustrialization with a weaker union base. Insofar as unions slowed job loss, Southern workers were more vulnerable.

But the composition of Southern industry — furniture, textile, garment, and other labor-intensive industries — exposed the region to cheap imports in the eighties, and then NAFTA in the 1990s, and China in the first decade of this century.

Connor Kilpatrick

How much of the Right’s rise in the South do you think has to do with the South becoming wealthier after World War II?

Judith Stein

The first Republicans in the postwar South came from the affluent areas; President Eisenhower carried Texas, Virginia, Florida, and other outer Southern states. Southern Republicans were mainly upper-middle-class people. This was a class, not race phenomenon.

Southern industrialization was dual. On the one hand, you have traditional manufacturing firms, textile, garment, furniture, metals. But then you get the new high-tech, often defense-related industry, in the suburbs around universities, which demanded a highly educated population. Many were Yankees who come to the South.

More recently, the new foreign auto transplants that populate the South have not changed the political situation much. First, they are nonunion, and workers understand the tenuous nature of their employment. Mercedes opened up a plant in Alabama in 1997, and a guy I know in Alabama said to me, “It’s harder to get a job in that Mercedes plant than to get into Harvard. And, if you ever were in a union, you will never get a job there.”

Connor Kilpatrick


Judith Stein

They don’t want union people. If you show in your employment history that you worked in a plant that was unionized, you probably will not get the job. Many of the auto plants locate in white areas because they think blacks are more pro-union than whites.

Connor Kilpatrick

So let’s reconnect the situation of black Americans and the economy: how were black workers specifically hurt by deindustrialization and, later, NAFTA?

Judith Stein

Some people say, “Well blacks were never in manufacturing — it is only government and service jobs that had meaning for blacks. Thus, deindustrialization is a white phenomenon.”

That is false. There are plenty of blacks that worked in manufacturing in the South forever and in the North since World War I.

Indeed, A. Philip Randolph, in the midst of the Montgomery Bus Boycott when the question was how to transport boycotting blacks to their jobs, said, “Well the black steelworkers of Birmingham are so rich that they have two cars — they can help.”

After the adoption of the mechanical cotton picker and the rapid decline of agricultural jobs in the 1950s and 1960s, manufacturing jobs were the perfect outlet for black people off the farms.

And many did begin to work in textiles in the South, thanks to black workers’ struggle to take advantage of the new antidiscrimination laws.

But just as blacks were getting these jobs, the number of textile jobs began to decline because of Japanese and East Asian imports. The same thing was true in industries like steel.

Connor Kilpatrick

So deindustrialization and the rightward economic turn from the Democratic Party weren’t inevitable?

Judith Stein

We make less stuff than we used to, but that is not simply the result of globalization. Other countries make just as much stuff as they did in the past.

You’re not going to bring t-shirts back. You’re not going to bring shoes back. But we have trade deficits in high-tech manufacturing.

Since NAFTA went into effect, five million manufacturing jobs have been lost. Most of the trade treaties of the last thirty years were not about tariffs but about protecting US investment abroad.

This creates an incentive to offshore work. The US government has completely ignored currency manipulation, a big factor in the American trade deficit.

It is never a question of trade, but the rules of trade. What is permissible, and what is not, is a matter of government policy. And for all the talk about jobs by both parties, when it comes to trade deals, it is the corporations that have the most influence.

Political elites were willing to sacrifice jobs (although they would not put it that way) to national security during the era of the Cold War.

They also enabled economic elites to solve their industrial problems through foreign cheap labor in the 1990s and afterward.

In the 1980s, corporations struggled, but in the 1990s with NAFTA and then the entry of China into the World Trade Organization, corporations through offshoring were rejuvenated.

Together these policies produced deindustrialization, a primary source of worker alienation from politics.