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Waelti: Shifting party loyalties
John Waelti

Party loyalties have been shifting for the last half century. The arrival of Donald Trump dramatically pushed the movement of party loyalties that was already happening.

The Democratic Party, once understood to be the party of the working class, is now portrayed by Republicans, assisted by the electronic mainstream media nitwits, as the party of the elite. With the “identity politics” movement, the Democratic Party is definitely favored by African Americans, Hispanics and other minorities. Democrats have attracted voters in the New England states where “old fashioned” moderate Republicans once dominated.

Republicans are still seen as the party of Middle America and small town Main Street. But it has picked up many of the “people left behind,” including disgruntled white working class voters. This did not begin with Donald Trump — the process has been going on for some time. Republicans have long prospered with a coalition of Wall Street Republicans, Main Street Republicans and culturally conservative voters of rural America, including the Deep South.

Shifts in party loyalty were dramatic during the tumultuous 1960s and controversy over American involvement in Vietnam. Anti-war activists, though not traditional Democrats, were to the left of the political spectrum. Democrats Eugene McCarthy and Robert Kennedy sided with the anti-war movement. Although RFK was supported by a wide range of voters — African Americans, low income white working class voters, and more prosperous union members, a substantial portion of Middle America was uncomfortable with the anti-war movement. Many factory workers of the industrial belt, including Democratic union members, were World War II veterans. Burning draft cards didn’t sit well with them.

If many working class, especially culturally conservative, Americans grew uncomfortable with Democrats associated with the anti-war movement, this shift was given a gigantic shove in 1964-65. President Lyndon Johnson, a white southern Democrat, muscled through the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. With this, LBJ knew that he had turned the Democratic Solid South over to the Republicans “for the next generation.” He was only partly right. It wasn’t simply for “the next generation.” It has continued to this day and likely into the indefinite future.

The natural political home of African Americans was once the Republican Party of Abraham Lincoln. That predilection to Republicans was reinforced by the traditionally Democratic “Solid South,” with its discriminatory Jim Crow laws. African American allegiance to the Republican Party began to crack during the election of 1960 when candidate John Kennedy reached out to Coretta Scott King while her husband, Martin Luther King, was incarcerated.

The historic legislation of 1964-65 solidified the support of African Americans for Democrats.  Movement of African Americans to Democrats was reinforced by opposition of Republican icon, Barry Goldwater, to the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

President Richard Nixon seized the dramatic shifting political winds with his “southern strategy,” capitalizing on southern whites’ new found antipathy to Democrats. Combining this with his “silent majority,” working class people who didn’t take to the streets; and “cloth coat Republicans,” ordinary Main Street folk, he defeated Democrat Hubert Humphrey in 1968 and trounced “far left” George McGovern in 1972. Somehow, McGovern’s outstanding WWII combat record was never even mentioned during the campaign. But that’s another story.

If Richard Nixon attracted the South and some working class folks to the Republicans, Ronald Reagan further solidified it. Relatively well-off working class people of the industrial belt, including rank and file traditionally Democratic union members, voted Republican, many for the first time of their lives. Although union leadership remained Democratic, many members jumped ship, becoming known as “Reagan Democrats.”

President Reagan was not above using “dog whistle politics,” to attract white working class voters. His fictitious anecdotes about “welfare queens driving Cadillacs” were a standard part of his shtick. He augmented these bromides by belittling government employees as “unelected bureaucrats,” insisting that “government was the problem,” not the solution.

Even as Republicans capitalized on the incongruous unity of Wall Street Republicans with culturally conservative low income earners of the Deep South and rural/small town America, the flight of traditional Democrats from the Party was not complete. It was Donald Trump who gave it the big push, attracting low income working people, formerly Democratic union members, and the vast majority of rural America.  

Donald Trump played the race card — some observers insisting it was not just “dog whistle politics,” but “bull horn politics.” His explicit racist rhetoric appealed to extremists, including the Ku Klux Klan. Clearly, he used fear mongering and scapegoating to appeal to economically distressed voters.

However, it is a grave error to attribute his election solely to race baiting.

Let’s use Wisconsin, where Trump won by the thinnest of margins, as an example. Those white rural Wisconsin counties that went for Trump in 2016 had gone for Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012. These voters are not racist. The same goes for factory workers of Kenosha, Racine, and Milwaukee who went for Obama in 2008 and 2012, but voted for Trump in 2016.

This applies also to Michigan where Trump won by an average of two votes per precinct. The shift of white workers from Obama to Trump cannot be attributed to racism. The same goes for traditionally Democratic Minnesota where Ms. Clinton pulled through only on the Democratic strength of the Twin Cities. Those white rural/small town Minnesotans who switched from Obama to Trump are not racists.

Yes, Trump disgustingly plays the race card. But a vote for Trump does not automatically make one a racist. It behooves the, especially East Coast, mainstream electronic media clones to get off that line. It is not accurate, and is insulting and counterproductive.

Yes, we need continued progress on race relations. We also need to recognize and deal with the fears and stress of economically struggling people. The big challenge is to get American capitalism to work for all citizens. 

Next week:  Political shifts, Democrats, and the big tent.

— John Waelti of Monroe, a retired professor of economics, can be reached at His column appears Saturdays in the Monroe Times.