How the Democrats lost Penn­syl­va­nia

Book fo­cuses on im­pact of grow­ing in­come gap

South Florida Sun-Sentinel (Sunday) - - Books - By Ar­lie Rus­sell Hochschild

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

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