Can Saving The World’s Rust Belts Also Save Democracy?: A Discussion


By Gennifer Harding-Gosnell

“Populism” is a word often used to describe the political culture we now live in – us vs. them, David vs. Goliath, the power of everyday people vs. the side each perceives to be the “elite.” Populism tends to find a fan base in areas of the world where unwanted shifts in social norms and economic decline are prevalent, like the Midwest. 

The City Club of Cleveland and Happy Dog Tavern collaborated with Ideastream this week to host a forum on the impact of right-wing populism on the Midwest’s electoral decision-making, and how other countries across the world have squelched similar populist movements by successfully revitalizing the economic and social climates of their Rust Belt cities. WCPN Host and Producer Tony Ganzer spoke with academic experts Jeffrey Anderson, Ph.D. of Georgetown University, and Michigan Economic Center Director, John C. Austin.

Right-wing populism, as it relates to the Midwestern United States, is rooted in “a kind of nativism, nationalism, a bit of xenophobia, and nostalgia for the ‘good old days’,” says Austin. “Voters feeling left behind, a loss of control in a changed world … regions where white working class voters and communities that were still in decline and hadn’t turn the corner were the ones who were responding to his [Trump’s] nostalgia, nativism, and nationalism.” 

Austin cites Germany as an example of how to successfully revive struggling Rust Belts. The “Ruhrgebiet” region in western Germany was once home to a massive manufacturing culture stemming from machine and weapon building in World War II.

“The Germans have a different kind of a federal approach we don’t have anything close to. They have a commitment in their constitution to say every German deserves an equal opportunity [inaudible] life wherever they live in this country. They have a long bi-partisan tradition, or non-partisan tradition, as does the EU policy. Let’s organize to level up, in the British terminology, or support the successful economic transition of regions like the Ruhrgebeit from old to new. So they do things that are very long term in planning. They build new research Fraunhofer Institutes in these old industrial regions, that’s kind of the fulcrum for [inaudible] and new business development. They managed the transition of workers, buyouts, relocations, but more importantly, retraining for those who work in those old industries to new industries like clean energy. They do spend a lot of resources on helping their communities move out of dirty, polluting regimes. Their businesses and offices become models of the clean, green communities which they are developing. So they have a longer term strategy that we can learn a lot from. We can organize systematic efforts to support this transition from a kind of dirty old economy to the smart, clean economy of the future, and help your workers and your communities navigate that successfully.”

Anderson believes missteps by left-wing strategists have also contributed to the rise of right-wing populism. “We don’t tend to think of these conflicts in class terms,” he says. “In some sense, [we] enable others to redefine them in terms of race, in terms of anti-immigrant attitudes…blaming others for our economic problems. That’s the failure of the center-left, in Europe, and I would argue, even here in the United States. Although, I think with this administration, we’re beginning to see inklings of a re-discovery of the kind of CLARION role that a moderate-but-distinctly-left party can play in reshaping how we think about these key issues.

“One of the things you can do to fight populism, when you take power as a mainstream party or coalition, is get things done, you know, actually pass legislation that improves people’s lives.

“If the Democrats are able to get traction on these big issues and deliver something, finally, for all the people in the Midwest — not just the ones who voted for Joe Biden, but all of them — people then start voting by rewarding those policies. I think it leaves the opposition party very little choice but to follow suit and start talking about substance, and not about culture, and loss, and honor and all this other stuff that you hear in any election campaign today. But that’s a, you know, that’s a big ticket item. It’s not clear that it will work, but I think it’s frankly, the only way that it will work.” 

Some Rust Belt cities have seen significant improvements, including Cleveland and Pittsburgh, primarily related to technology and education. “On the good news front,” explains Austin, “The Midwest, writ large, had a relative brain drain. We educated lots of people … at our great colleges and universities that then left for perceived greener pastures. That Midwest brain drain has just reversed. For the first time in the last decade, there is more going on here. There are more folks involved in work of the future who want to stay and remake their communities here. Places like Minneapolis had long been a talent magnet, but now, you know, Pittsburgh with [inaudible], educated folks at Case Western and Ohio State, they used to go somewhere else. Now more of them are making their future here because we’re making more of the future here.” 

What are your thoughts? What and who, do you want Cleveland to be in the next 10-to-20 years? Do you think right-wing populism can be reversed? Do you agree with the ideas presented to defeat populism? Tell us in the comments.