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Resilience in the Rust Belt: Michigan Democrats and the UAW (WP-13-04)

Daniel Galvin

Scholarly theories predict that strong ties between political parties and industrial labor unions will inhibit party adaptation and lead to its electoral decline in the context of globalization and deindustrialization. This study tests these expectations in the case of the Michigan Democratic Party (MDP), which has long been dominated by the United Auto Workers (UAW). It finds that these general theoretical expectations do not hold in this setting. Despite the persistence of deep and durable party-union linkages, many high profile Michigan Democrats moved rightward in the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s, embracing policy positions that clashed with labor’s traditional priorities, and the party remained relatively more electorally resilient than neighboring state Democratic parties. This peculiar coincidence—party adaptation despite strong party-union linkages—can be explained by the simple fact that union leaders supported adaptation by Democratic candidates and officeholders. Contrary to the expectation that union leaders will always act in a sincere or naïve fashion, UAW leaders usually adopted a strategic, “Downsian” approach to party politics and sought to build a broad-based coalition. This study thus lends additional support to J. David Greenstone’s (1969) finding that in places where organized labor was deeply intertwined with the Democratic Party, it had internalized the party’s strategic considerations and taken on many of its aggregation responsibilities. Indeed, the basic patterns Greenstone identified in the 1960s appear to have become even more pronounced in the contemporary context of deindustrialization and heightened party competition.

Daniel Galvin, Assistant Professor of Political Science, and Faculty Fellow, Institute for Policy Research, Northwestern University

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