// mrolands

Why did Motorville stay blue?

I first met Isaac in September of 2019. Though it was still early in the fall, the weather had already turned cold in his hometown of Motorville, Wisconsin. A middle-aged White man, Isaac worked a blue-collar union job—just as his father had before him. In that way, Isaac was like many residents of this small, Midwestern city with its roots in shipping and extractive industries. He also shared many of his neighbors’ political views: Isaac was a self-proclaimed lifelong Democrat. In his view, being a Democrat was all about using the government to redress economic inequality. He articulated this perspective when I asked what his platform would be if he ran for local office:

I would hope for a balanced budget, but that would be paid for with probably higher taxes on more of the higher income people and less on the middle class and obviously on poor people… making sure that the elderly don’t go bankrupt and have to make a choice between food and medicine. I mean, you know, making things more affordable.

I returned to Motorville to interview Isaac three more times before the 2020 presidential election the following November. I also spoke with 55 other Motorville residents and community leaders. Throughout these conversations, my interviewees consistently returned to two basic themes. First, they viewed economic inequality as the core problem facing their community and the country as a whole. Second, they believed the Democratic party had the potential to solve this problem by using the state’s power to level the playing field.

Although Isaac’s political views were largely shared by the other Motorvillians I interviewed, Motorville’s Democratic leaning sets it apart from most White, postindustrial cities across the Heartland. Based on my analysis of county-level voting trends from 1932-2016, only 4% of the White, working-class counties that formed part of the New Deal Democratic coalition still vote Democratic today. Motorville is one of them.

To understand Motorville’s distinctive politics, I also interviewed residents and community leaders in two other White, postindustrial cities that had once been part of that New Deal coalition but have since aligned with the Republican Party. Lutherton, IN, which turned to the right after the Racial Realignment of the 1960s, and Gravesend, MN, which more recently turned to the right in 2016. Over the course of 18 months, I conducted more than 400 interviews with nearly 200 people across these three places.

Comparing the political contexts of Motorville, Lutherton, and Gravesend offers insight into why and how Motorville remains stalwartly blue. In doing so, it also provides a window into the conditions driving the ongoing rightward shift of other White, postindustrial cities. As I argue in my forthcoming book, How the Heartland Went Red: Why Local Forces Matter in an Age of Nationalized Politics, local organizational contexts, and particularly the political engagement of organized labor, can help keep postindustrial cities in a working-class political coalition. Despite experiencing membership declines due to both deindustrialization and political attacks on organized labor in Wisconsin, Motorville’s unions have remained actively engaged in local electoral politics. In Motorville, elected officials take for granted that labor’s support is crucial to winning and retaining office. This ensures that community leaders cohere around a shared definition of the city’s postindustrial social problems rooted in systemic economic inequalities and requiring actionable systemic political solutions. As a result, even residents without union ties tend to share Isaac’s worldview.

Given the economic and political forces working against unions, however, this kind of engagement is difficult to accomplish. The labor movement disappeared from public life in Lutherton in the 1970s, and although unions persist in Gravesend, they have faced several setbacks in membership and have not engaged in political mobilization in decades. When unions decline and other organizations come to dominate civic and political life (or when organizations decline altogether), residents of these kinds of cities are unlikely to see themselves or party politics through a class lens. Rather than viewing themselves as disadvantaged by an unequal economic system and as potential beneficiaries of state intervention to rectify that inequality, residents are likely to adopt a racial or religious lens that construes outgroup members as an existential threat.

This was particularly true of Gravesend, where the decline of unions, civic associations, and businesses had been particularly severe. This experience of loss left residents feeling that their city was under threat of extinction, and without a coherent vision for how to move forward. They saw Gravesend as a threatened community. As a result, when politicians like Donald Trump painted socialism and immigration as twin threats to the “great” (White) American way of life, this discourse resonated with many Gravesenders.

Thus, rather than seeing themselves as potential beneficiaries of state intervention (as did many of my interviewees from Motorville), several Gravesenders believed that the federal government was benefiting immigrants at their own expense. As Melissa, a lifelong Gravesender, told me, immigration was “overloading our system, our school system, our healthcare system, our welfare system, everything.” She concluded: “…there’s gotta be a line. We can’t help everybody.”

The kind of racialized populism that Melissa articulated, framed in terms of “us vs. them” rhetoric, is similar to what other scholars have identified as commonplace in rural and postindustrial places. But the comparison between Motorville and Gravesend shows that this outcome is not produced just because of material decline or demographic shifts experienced by individuals; rather, it is the result of people making sense of those changes from within their communities. When those communities lack coherent organizational leadership to define their postindustrial problems, as in Gravesend, residents may begin to see the state, through a racialized lens, as their enemy.

To protect interviewees’ anonymity, all names of individuals and cities are pseudonyms; state names are real.

Stephanie Ternullo is in the Department of Government at Harvard University. She is the author of the forthcoming book, How the Heartland Went Red: Why Local Forces Matter in an Age of Nationalized Politics.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *