Thinking Historically About Decision 2016

Ian Toller-Clark is a Ph.D. candidate in the History Department at University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign studying modern conservatism in the Global Midwest. In particular, he seeks to understand the culture of conservative Midwesterners through their reactions to and influences on deindustrialization, public policy, and partisan politics. 


The presidential election of 2016 seems especially unique, tumultuous, and stressful. Many commentators have even described this election as unprecedented. Yet the candidates, the issues, and the campaign strategies emerged from the past decisions, actions, and beliefs of candidates, their staffers, and voters. During these last few weeks it is important to think historically and read deeply. As voters, we listen to campaign messages, gather our own information, and assess these campaigns through social media. Here I thought I would focus on some helpful books that provide the historical context for particular issues that have animated the last eighteen months of Decision 2016.

Conservative Bias by Bryan Hardin ThriftDonald Trump’s successful campaign for the Republican nomination has been credited to his ability to manipulate, attain, and sustain media coverage. Bryan Hardin Thrift’s Conservative Bias: How Jesse Helms Pioneered the Rise of Right-Wing Media and Realigned the Republican Party shows us how one conservative Republican used news media to spread his message, transform the Republican Party into a conservative party, and make the U.S. South electorally competitive. Thrift focuses on the political career of Jesse Helms prior to his election to the U.S. Senate from North Carolina in 1972. In particular, Thrift discusses Helms’ role as the Vice President of WRAL-TV in Raleigh, North Carolina.  As Vice President Helms had his own editorial news program, Viewpoints, through which he gave a voice to, and perfected conservative ideas and principles. In particular Helms’ editorial commentaries presented an opportunity to normalize conservatism with working-class white North Carolinians. Through 1960s white working-class North Carolinians steadfastly supported Democratic candidates at the local, state, and national level out of loyalty to the New Deal agenda. Yet, Helms developed a strategy, which Thrift labels, “pious incitement,” to realign North Carolina politics. This strategy “involved expressing righteous anger to gain attention, deny legitimacy to others, and claim victimhood.” Helms, on a weekly basis, vented to his listeners about civil rights activism, radicalism at University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, and a poor economy. Helms’s outspoken disdain for civil right activists, the New Deal, and constant championing of the “free-market” encouraged white working- and middle-class voters to support conservative Republicans in North Carolina. Donald Trump’s vehement denouncement and anger over free trade agreements, and illegal immigration as detrimental to the lived experience of white working- and middle-class Americans echoes Jesse Helms’ “pious incitement.” Trump’s outrage has become enshrined in the Republican Party platform, which suggests a monumental realignment of Republican Party politics. In other words, while Trump himself represents a unique phenomenon within mainstream U.S. politics, Conservative Bias shows us that his rhetoric and outrage reflects the latest iteration of a counter revolutionary strategy to realign the Republican Party.

While political entrepreneurs such as Jesse Helms and Donald Trump have mobilized conservative constituents to remake the Republican Party, historian Meg Jacobs shows us how conservatives remade the state through governing.  In the 1970s conservatives held significant positions during the Nixon and Ford administrations, and used the energy crisis of the 1970s to undo New Deal regulations and reorient the purpose of the federal government. From the 1930s through the 1970s liberals in both the Republican and Democratic parties argued that the purpose of the federal government was to combat unemployment and ensure prosperity through government regulation. As a consequence, when United States experienced an energy shortage in the early 1970s the Nixon administration imposed measures such as price controls, and gas rationing. Americans from long-haul truckers to middle-class suburbanites, however, bitterly opposed this government-led solution which contributed to higher gas prices and tremendous gas lines. Conservatives within Nixon’s administration including William Simon and George H.W. Bush argued for the deregulation of the oil and gas industries to lower gas prices, and ease the gas shortage. During the energy crisis Nixon resigned from office over the Watergate break-in, and Gerald Ford assumed the presidency. President Gerald Ford listened to his advisers including Donald Rumsfeld, Richard Cheney, and Alan Greenspan who encouraged a focus on inflation rather then unemployment. As a result, Ford pushed for an end to price controls and an austerity budget. Even though Ford lost the presidency to Jimmy Carter in 1976, Carter continued the focus on controlling inflation. In particular Carter ended price controls and backed legislation that would deregulate the oil and gas industry.

Carter’s decision had immense consequences for the Democratic Party and the future of U.S. liberalism. The administration’s response to the energy crisis clashed with Democrats in Congress. Congressional Democrats led by Senator Edward Kennedy and Congressman Toby Moffett pushed for an extension of price controls. In addition, Democrats crafted a full employment legislation (Humphrey-Hawkins) reminiscent of New Deal. The policy differences between Carter and congressional Democrats on how to control inflation, and end the energy crisis in the 1970s highlighted a schism with the Democratic Party. This schism was a catalyst for an ongoing process of realignment between pro-growth Democrats and laborite/leftist Democrats. Pro-growth Democrats, such as Hillary Clinton, and Jimmy Carter before her, have pushed the Democratic Party towards representing suburbanites in metropolitan spaces across the United States, while laborite/leftists such as Bernie Sanders have continued to give voice to the union hall base of the Democratic Party.  The energy crisis Meg Jacobs argues transformed U.S. politics, allowing conservatives to undermine the New Deal state, causing divisions within the Democratic Party, and precipitating a decades long recession. It was this recession and its effect on Midwest that created Donald Trump’s path to the presidency.

Demolition Means Progress by Andrew HighsmithThe recession, high inflation, and energy shortages of the 1970s turned the U.S. Midwest, the industrial heartland of the United States, into the nation’s Rust Belt. In particular, the energy crisis ravaged the U.S. auto industry. Rising oil prices contributed to a precipitous drop in the production of U.S. made cars such as Ford and GM. This dramatically changed the local economies of Midwestern cities such as Chicago, Detroit, Flint, Milwaukee, and Cleveland that had been the centers of industrial capitalism in the United States since the early 1900s. While business executives started in the 1950s to move their factories to the Southwest, and South to capitalize on on the lack of union strength and pro-business political class, the energy crisis of 1970s and 1980s reenergized the deindustrialization of the Midwest. Demolition Means Progress: Flint, Michigan, and the Fate of the American Metropolis by Andrew Highsmith argues that deindustrialization in the 1970s and 1980s represented a particularly significant moment in the history of U.S. capitalism. It was this moment of deindustrialization that solidified the U.S. Midwest as the Rust Belt region that has been the centerpiece of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. The anger and bitterness of working-class whites in the Rust Belt that so many pundits have attributed to the success of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders originated in the 1970s with the structural changes of the auto industry, and other heavy industries in the Midwest.

Demolition Means Progress simultaneously reminds us that deindustrialization was one catalyst for the current political, racial, and gender contours of the Rust Belt’s landscape. Highsmith explains how residential, workplace, and school segregation, urban renewal, suburban development, and deindustrialization created the Rust Belt. Highsmith’s analysis of Flint, Michigan complicates the historical narrative of deindustrialization and the origins of the urban crisis. Highsmith argues that the eventual collapse of Flint as an economic powerhouse in Michigan occurred not just as a consequence of white flight. Rather in the 1950s and early 1960s GM executives and Flint city leaders joined together to invest in a metropolitan vision of capitalism. This vision was a growth agenda built around the idea of a decentralized industrial landscape that was united under a single local governing structure. In other words, as businesses spread out across the suburban landscape around Flint, Michigan, the city government would annex those suburbs. This plan, however, faltered as suburban capitalists, politicians, and neighborhood activists sought to incorporate themselves and create independent local governments separate from Flint. This vision of separate communities resulted from the desire of white middle-class homeowners to create enclaves that would not be forced to desegregate their schools or housing. The success of the suburban capitalist vision rather then the metropolitan capitalist vision, Highsmith argues, contributed to the desire of business leaders to move their companies to new regions. In other words, the anger and bitterness experienced during this election cycle is not just a backlash from the Great Recession or even the last thirty years but a consequence of the our country’s spatial and cultural arrangement that voters, policymakers, business leaders, community leaders, and politicians created through their decisions and desires.

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About iprh

The Illinois Program for Research in the Humanities at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign was established in 1997 to promote interdisciplinary study in the humanities, arts, and social sciences.
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