A few recent blog posts and articles talking about political corruption and incompetence in Rust Belt cities (in Providence, Cleveland and Detroit) have compelled me to offer some thoughts on the matter.
If there’s a common thread in Rust Belt political culture, it’s the ascendance of “regular” people who appeal to the masses. They would often reach this position through their involvement in political machines or, later, unions. They would often use ethnic ties to build broad coalitions of support. Sometimes they would rise to do great things for their cities – see mayors Daley in Chicago. However, just as often they simply rise to their level of incompetence.
To me, this is yet another legacy of 19th and 20thCentury industrialization. Look at many of the cities that later became industrial powerhouses and the epitome of the Rust Belt. Circa 1880, cities like Detroit or Cleveland were medium-sized cities that paled in comparison to the major East Coast cities like New York, Philadelphia and Boston. But with the impending industrial expansion in America, I think the late 19th Century titans of industry made deals with political machines – leave us alone and we’ll leave you alone. Let us expand in your cities unfettered, and we’ll supply you with workers who’ll form the base of your political support.
That was a great deal for political machines – until the beginning of the decline of industry more than 50 years ago. The titans took themselves and their factories to the South, then out of the country, leaving behind an inept political leadership totally unprepared to deal with the shifting economic realities. Problem is, cities that hadn’t had significant inmigration over the last 50 years – and that would be just about all of them – have deeply ingrained political cultures that still favor that type of “regular guy” leadership.
In post-industrial East Coast and West Coast cities, the industrial/political alliance morphed as the economy did. In the South, the post-industrial business infrastructure largely replaced the plantation economy that preceded it, and a new political culture grew with it.
But for the Rust Belt cities that failed to make the economic transition, corruption and incompetence are as much a legacy of the industrial past as shuttered factories and vacant land.
This will only change when inmigration returns to the Rust Belt. When new blood and new thinking returns, and new people demand something different from political leaders, things will change. Actually, I think the emergence of the “New South” since World War II likely provides the template for Rust Belt political transformation.
But the transition won’t be easy.