How the Democrats lost Pennsylvania
Book focuses on impact of growing income gap
A month after the 2016 election, Ben Bradlee Jr. began interviewing voters in Luzerne County, Pa., where Donald Trump won
77 percent of the vote. The county, a working-class Democratic stronghold, hadn’t voted for a Republican president since 1988. Pennsylvania was one of three historically Democratic Rust Belt states that unexpectedly swung the election to Trump. By July
2018, Bradlee, a longtime reporter and editor for The Boston Globe, had talked to nearly 100 voters, most of whom felt that government and the Democratic Party had forgotten them. They had.
Among the flood of books explaining how we got Trump, “The Forgotten” serves as an unintended companion volume to Thomas Frank’s “Listen Liberal: Or, What Ever Happened to the Party of the People?” Bradlee focuses on the impact of the growing income gap.
If we ignore the taxes the government collects and benefits it distributes, from the middle of the Great Depression through 1980, the top 10 percent of Americans received 30 percent of the nation’s income growth, and the other 90 percent took in 70 percent of it. But from 1997 to the present, the top 10 percent took in all of the U.S. income growth, and the bottom 90 percent got none. This shift occurred partly under the watch of Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, and Trump surged into the void claiming leadership of what he called “the forgotten people,” Bradlee writes. “Trump connected strongly to his aggrieved constituency,” and nowhere more than in Luzerne County. Trump won the general vote in part because he captured Pennsylvania, with strong support in its northeastern corner. And within that region, Luzerne County led the way.
“It is not a stretch to say,” Bradlee writes, “that this single county won Trump Pennsylvania — and perhaps the presidency.”
Hazleton, the secondlargest city in Luzerne, was once the site of fierce struggles to ban child labor in dangerous coal mines. In 1897, 19 striking miners were killed and 32 injured — an eruption that led to the birth of the United Mine Workers Union. Today, coal in Luzerne County is gone, and much of the manufacturing that replaced it is gone, too. Many young people have vanished, leaving behind older, more conservative voters. The young who remain work low-wage jobs with warehouse businesses such as Amazon, Cargill and American Eagle. The jobs are attractive to people coming from even poorer places. In 2000, only 5 percent of Hazelton’s population was Hispanic, coming mainly from the Dominican Republic. Today they make up 52 percent of the population. County per-capita incomes
are low, averaging $25,000, about $4,500 lower than the state average. If this weren’t enough, the opioid crisis in Luzerne County accounted for 154 fatal drug overdoses in 2017 — a rate four times higher than in New York City.
During the 2016 campaign Hillary Clinton seemed deaf to the hardships of Hazleton. Residents wanted realistic hope, but what they got
from the Democratic Party was suggested by its choice of a campaign theme song — the Pharrell Williams tune “Happy” from the soundtrack of the animated film “Despicable Me 2.”
Clinton lost women like hairdresser Donna Kowalczyk, a crime-fighting activist whose mother worked in cigar and sewing factories. Her father was a disabled alcoholic, and her husband maintained the grounds of a local university. “I used to be the most liberal person you could imagine, fighting for everyone else’s rights,” she told Bradlee. Her neighborhood fell under the blight of drug dealers, car thieves and prostitutes. This lifelong Democrat was now very unhappy. She “switched parties to vote for Donald Trump,” Bradlee writes.
Brian Langan, a recently retired detective with the Pennsylvania State Police, also a born Democrat, had already turned right to vote for Ronald Reagan in 1980. In the 2016 election, he didn’t believe that either party had much to offer. He told Bradlee: “I thought,
Washington is broke, and I need someone to go down there with a sledgehammer.
That was Donald Trump.”
Curiously, Trump also drove a wedge between one conservative couple. Jess Harker was a nurse born into a pro-union Democratic household. But when she married Ray Harker, Bradlee writes, “he served as both her religious and political mentor,” and Jess became an evangelical Christian Republican. When Trump emerged as the GOP nominee, she “went all-in for Trump.” But to her husband, Trump “is a satanic fraud.” In 2016 Jess voted for Trump, and Ray cast a defiant vote for Clinton. He now tunes in to Rachel Maddow’s show on MSNBC and calls his wife a “Trump bot.” Assessing Trump’s impact on their relationship, Jess told Bradlee that “‘strain’ is too pleasant a word to describe what this has done to our marriage. It has torn, ripped at, and tried to squash anything we built. We were, and still can be, in serious trouble if we talk about Trump.” The couple is in counseling.
“The Forgotten” reveals
the political impact not so much of poverty as of decline — and not simply decline in wages but in well-being and self-respect, especially among white blue-collar men. Research shows that these men have also become more socially isolated, less likely to go to church and to marry. They experience what Princeton professors Angus Deaton and Anne Case identify as “deaths of despair” from suicide, drugs and alcohol at a greater level than blacks and Hispanics of the same age.
Along with their loss of self-respect has come a loss of faith that government run by either mainstream party could help them recover it. This is not a big-thesis book, nor a deep dive into new facts or ideas. But whatever the Russians did or the Koch brothers funded, this searing portrait shines a light on the disheartened voters the Democratic Party forgot.
Arlie Russell Hochschild’s latest book is “Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right.”
Journalist and author Ben Bradlee Jr. signs a copy of “The Forgotten” this month in Wilkes-Barre, Luzerne County, Pa.
‘The Forgotten’ By Ben Bradlee Jr. , Little, Brown, 295 pages, $28