How NAFTA Lost Democrats The South And Rust Belt

Duane Townsend

Institute For New Economic Thinking - September 15, 2020

... If this characterization of the two-party South is accurate, the obvious question is why the region’s voters moved so decisively to the right from the mid-1990s onward. In the extensive literature discussing this question, it seems to have escaped attention that much of the South experienced wrenching economic dislocation at precisely this time, as the manufacturing industries that had formed the core of the regional economy began their historic descent in response to import competition. In southern politics, trade policy was front and center. One highly visible object was NAFTA, enacted in November 1993 with vigorous backing from President Clinton, and implemented on January 1, 1994. Although supported by some parts of the industry, NAFTA was strongly opposed by workers and unions in textile areas (as well as the industrial Midwest). The origins of the pact were bipartisan, but Clinton took most of the blame, and Democrats voting in favor suffered badly at the polls in 1994.

Of perhaps even greater regional significance was the 1994 Agreement on Textile and Clothing, negotiated as part of the WTO’s Uruguay Round. The agreement phased out the import quotas of the Multi-Fibre Arrangement (MFA) over the ten-year period 1994-2004. The demise of the MFA precipitated rapid growth of imports of textiles and apparel from many countries, including Pakistan, Bangladesh, Vietnam, Indonesia and Canada. The expansion of Chinese imports after 2001 added another inflection point to the downward spiral, helping to explain why early projections underestimated the speed of change so severely.

This account should not be understood as a suggestion that switching party allegiance was a rational response to economic distress, nor that displaced textile workers were the cutting edge of southern Republicanism. The argument instead is that the political-economic basis for a biracial coalition was undermined by deindustrialization. Ruy Texeira and Alan Abramowitz show that Democratic identification among lower socioeconomic white southerners fell sharply in the 1990s, and even more dramatically thereafter. In an update to their 2006 book, Byron Shafer and Richard Johnston acknowledge a post-2000 Republican shift among low-income southern white voters, “the people who for forty years rejected the new southern Republican party.”

The consequences of one-party Republican rule have been devastating for black and many white southerners. Racial polarization has been exacerbated, ending what had been a steady advance of black legislators into leadership positions. Tax and budget cuts have reduced support for public education in nearly all states, reversing decades of progress toward higher national norms. Policies toward the low-income population have become distinctly harsher.