The new book by Salena Zito and Brad Todd, The Great Revolt: Inside the Populist Coalition Reshaping American Politics, is one of the first truly indispensable analyses of the 2016 election: a study of ten mostly white, working-class counties — spread across the pivotal states of Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Iowa — that voted for Obama in 2012 before swinging to Trump. Given that focus, it’s no surprise that the book is a wake-up call for a Democratic party out of touch with the voters who once provided its backbone.
Way back in 1992, Bill Clinton pitched himself as a centrist bent on restoring the American promise “that if you work hard and play by the rules, you’ll be rewarded, and you’ll do a little better next year than you did last year, your kids will do better than you.” By 2016, the Hillary Clinton campaign reflected Democrats’ increasing obsession with identity politics, contending that the country’s most pressing injustices explicitly broke along the lines of gender, race, immigration status, and sexual identity. That radical shift, decades in the making, helps explain why the voters Zito and Todd talked to — the same kinds of voters who propelled the Clintons to the White House in the first place — gravitated toward Trump, who offered them a more familiar kind of identity politics.
Ultimately, what Todd and Zito have documented in this detailed, insightful, empathetic book is a reaction to changes that occurred over at least one generation, maybe two.
Critics have charged that Zito’s almost-poetic portraits of working-class Rust Belt voters are hagiographic. It’s a mostly spurious criticism, but there’s no denying that she writes with deep sympathy for her subjects, taking the time to understand their life stories, triumphs, and tragedies. Many of these folks feel they’ve rarely if ever received much media attention, and Zito has set out to rectify that problem with great care.
That said, while the white working-class subjects of The Great Revolt deserve some sympathy, their preferred narrative — that they’re hard-working, responsible folks who were unjustly ambushed by global economic forces — is a flattering one that leaves them blameless for their own problems. Though there’s plenty of truth to it, it’s not the whole story. In 2016, my old colleague Kevin Williamson received quite a bit of grief for contending that dying small towns should be left to die, and that residents should move to greener pastures elsewhere. But he had a reasonable point. The communities Zito and Todd spotlight aren’t all that far from economically healthier neighbors:
In an irony only nature could produce, the same high-heat geological forces that made Luzerne’s coal eons ago ensured it would not cash in on the region’s economic boom of the twenty-first century – fracking. The Marcellus Shale formation that revitalized much of northern Pennsylvania with oil and gas production ends before it reaches the Luzerne County border, along what one prominent geologist called “the line of death.”
The same heat that made the coal “cooked out” whatever gas existed in previous millennia. So while counties just north or west move into a new fossil-fueled economic era, Luzerne must stare at its past.
Is it really that impossible for Luzerne County residents to work on the wells in neighboring counties? Wyoming County, just above Luzerne, has 228 wells. Sullivan County has 98 wells. Drive another 75 miles west, to Lycoming, and you’ll find another 832 wells. From 2010 to 2017, Luzerne County lost 1.1 percent of its population — not good, but better than many Pennsylvania counties. Forty miles away is Lehigh County, the third-fastest-growing county in the state from 2010 to 2017, and one of the fastest-growing regions in the northeast. Better economic opportunities are not light-years away from Luzerne.
Not to mention the fact that the number of coal-mining jobs in Luzerne County has been declining since 1914. Anthracite — the kind of coal found in abundance in the county — long ago stopped being cost-effective to mine: “Even though the anthracite resource remaining in the ground is substantial, the complex geologic structure, steep terrain, and the inefficient early mining of the thicker and more accessible blocks of coal now preclude the use of modern mechanized equipment underground.”
Does that really reflect a failure of government policy, the ravages of soulless capitalism, or a sinister act by some callous corporation? What is any government supposed to do when the primary product of a region stops being cost-effective to produce?
The working-class voters profiled and interviewed in this book never put it quite so explicitly, but they make clear they’re seeking an economy that will provide plentiful, stable, well-paying jobs which don’t require a college education and aren’t too far away for a commute. Zito and Todd never quite get around to pointing out these expectations are unrealistic, but to their credit, they also lay out the state of the American workforce from the perspective of a small business. And those intermittent comments suggest that employers aren’t seeing a long line of hard-working, hard-luck cases looking for a decent opportunity.
Amy Giles-Maurer, who manages the books for TG3 Electronics in Kenosha, Wis., complains that:
We are struggling hard to find people in the pipeline to come in and do assembly, testing, and engineering. We’re running the well dry. We want the business to come here; the problem is we don’t have the workers. And when we are finding people to come in for assembly, their skill level is so much less than it used to be. I mean they’re struggling taking an exam that gets them to like an eighth-grade level….It is those kinds of intangibles in politics and culture that fed into my vote.
Ed Harry, a retired labor arbitrator in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., similarly laments that somewhere along the way, “The whole workforce changed from people who looked forward to going to work, to people who make excuses not to.” (The irony that the kinds of voters quoted in this book often feel lots of other people have an infuriating sense of entitlement has not been lost on many pundits.)
Ultimately, what Todd and Zito have documented in this detailed, insightful, empathetic book is a reaction to changes that occurred over at least one generation, maybe two. That no one has yet hit on a surefire solution to the problems those changes have created helps explain so many voters’ willingness to pull the lever for Trump, who seemed to offer them something completely different from the status quo. Readers are left hoping that the authors will return to their interview subjects in 2020 to see how they’re doing, and whether they’re satisfied with the results of the Trump administration. Great revolts don’t always end in predictable ways, after all.