Among the talking heads of the political punditry there is a widely held belief that the presidential election of 2020 is Joe Biden’s to lose. His comments on “transitioning away from oil” may emerge as a factor contributing to a loss should he in fact lose on November 3rd. It immediately reminded voters of Hillary Clinton’s ill-conceived comments on the coal industry four years ago, a comment that many believe further undercut whatever support she had among Rust Belt blue collar voters.
The problem isn’t so much that this is just another excusable Biden gaff, which he has already walked back, the problem is that it sends an unintended message to working class Americans. That unintended message is that even though Biden’s a son of blue-collar America and a rhetorical champion of a massive jobs generating stimulus program, he just doesn’t “get it” when it comes to the plight of working-class families. If he did, he wouldn’t have said what he did about “transitioning away from oil” when taking into account the jobs that would be lost.Thus, if one were looking to buttress the argument that Biden’s been in Washington too long and is now out of touch, they just found it.
Whatever you think about the energy industry there’s one thing that’s certain, it’s the source of over three million good paying jobs, the very vast majority of them related to producing traditional fossil fuels. That’s three million voters, or potential voters and their families who may now be unwilling to vote for Biden. While jobs will certainly be created in new energy technologies, in this election cycle, the number of voters employed in traditional fossil fuel production far outweigh those employed in the emerging energy sector. That’s potentially over three million present voters who will vote now, not potential voters employed in new energy who will vote in the future. This could be particularly problematic in Texas where Democrats are hoping to turn the state blue, in swing state Pennsylvania, where fracking has produced jobs in a state that’s experienced long-term industrial decline and throughout the oil patch. But the problem could ripple beyond the oil patch as well. It’s not a stretch to see how other blue-collar workers could give pause to the thought about voting for Biden. If Biden doesn’t care about an industry as large and important as energy, why would he care about my marginal industry, a working American might ask himself.
The insecurity felt by many working Americans is heightened by the long-standing fact that so many economic theories of the past that promised a better tomorrow through technological change and globalized markets have left them holding the bag. As a nation we have pursued polices, both private and public, that have changed the structure of the American economy with a focus on profits, global trade and efficiency over job security with the naïve assumption that the benefits of this change would flow down to the average family over time. The ever-widening gap in wealth distribution is proof positive that these developments have not been to the benefit of average Americans. There are several factors that kept this from happening. One it is structurally impossible for American workers to compete with Asian workers based on wages alone. Nor can those same workers stand up to the competition from automated and “just in time” systems here at home. Furthermore, as a nation we have never married effective job retraining / relocation programs with the economic dislocation that comes from technological and industrial change. The end result is that the American worker and his family are out there on their own, lacking any support with which to deal with problems that are way beyond their means to remedy through self-initiative alone.
Donald Trump successfully appealed to these anxieties in 2016 and, unless the blue-collar guy and his family are more concerned with COVID-19 than they are with jobs, he may very well do so again, squeezing out a path to victory. We only need to look back four short years to remember how a handful of votes, many, if not most of them blue-collar, cost Hillary Clinton three Rust Belt states and with it the election. Granted Clinton was a poor, if not dull candidate who engendered irrational wrath among conservative voters, took the Blue Wall of the Upper Midwest for granted and put too much stock in poll numbers. While Biden has run a much better campaign, we are also seeing tightening poll numbers in key battleground states with only a week left till the election.
I believe the Democratic Party was “out over its skis” in 2016 in assuming that America had demographically changed to the point that the white working class was no longer as significant a political factor as it had been once upon a time. In my opinion I believe the Democrats had fooled themselves into thinking that more progressive attitudes related to race, gender and the environment combined with a trend towards a minority majority population put them significantly ahead of the Republicans when it came to electability. I believe that the Democrats, having twice elected an African American as president, felt electing a woman to that same job was a lay-up, especially when the challenger was a boorish buffoon in the person of Donald Trump. Regrettably the fact of the matter is that the Democrats took a traditional portion of its constituency for granted. Donald Trump didn’t, and he was thus able to effectively tap into their discontent. Let’s hope, no let’s pray, that Biden’s ill-conceived comments on the energy industry don’t create that opportunity for Trump again in 2020.
Steven J. Gulitti
New York City
24 October 2020