Losing Rocky Balboa’s vote

Clinton fails to connect with working class white men, a demographic embodied by that memorable Philadelphia native

One of the most famous scenes from Rocky (1976), shot in Philadelphia.
One of the most famous scenes from Rocky (1976), shot in Philadelphia.
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El voto perdido de Rocky Balboa

Many years before Rocky premiered in 1976, Joe Frazier would run up the stone steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Frazier is the idol of boxers who train at Strength Academy. They saw him duke it out with Muhammad Ali in the “fight of the century” and play with his soul-funk band. Still, Isaiah Wise, a 24-year-old boxing coach, admits how important the fictional character has become to the city. Rocky, the son of Italian immigrants works at a butcher’s shop while fighting - in the literal sense of the world - to reach the top. “It’s inspiring, someone who begins at the very bottom and gets his big break,” Wise says on Tuesday in Northern Liberties, a once tough district that has become an up-and-coming neighborhood where, he says, home prices are rising faster than wages.

Democrats, who held their convention in Philadelphia last week while tourists took selfies on Joe Frazier’s old stomping ground, have serious problems with Rocky Balboa. The latest polls show that Hillary Clinton has failed to connect with working class white men without college education, a demographic that made up nearly half the electorate four years ago and prefers Donald Trump. The last survey, by CNN, said her Republican rival has the support of 66 percent of that voting block while only 29 percent of them intend to vote for her.

There are many Reagan Democrats, factory workers who defected to the Republican Party in the 1980s, among Trump voters

Wise is not surprised. “I know a lot of people who want to vote for Trump, they want important changes but I fear they are looking for them in the wrong place.” In Fishtown, another working-class district, Andrew Erace, a 30-something university graduate of Italian descent and the owner of a gourmet foods business, says “people work very hard here, they don’t have time to reflect and they connect with Trump.”

Working Class Resentment

Would Rocky be a Clinton or Trump voter? John Bodnar, historian and author of “Blue Collar Hollywood,” a book about the politics of the working class as depicted in American cinema, says Balboa would lean toward Trump. “Rocky was, among other things, a symbol of working class resentment in the 1970s that came after the 1960s civil rights movement and that also came with the feeling that white workers had patriotically supported the war in Vietnam while university students and minorities ignored the issue,” Bodnar says. “They considered themselves loyal and scorned. Much of what you see with Trump now is the same.”

There are many so-called Reagan Democrats —factory workers who voted for progressives until the 1960s but defected to the conservatives in the 1980s— among Trump voters. That demographic has been the hardest hit by globalization and the loss of manufacturing jobs and they don’t feel that Republicans have done much for them. The message of the New York real estate mogul, on the other hand, speaks to their aspirations by promising protective tariffs for manufacturing and limits on immigration without cutting back on social assistance programs.

As Ronald Brownstein wrote in The Atlantic, class inversion, “the shift since the 1960s of working-class whites from the Democratic Party to the Republican, and the parallel movement of more white-collar whites from the GOP to the Democrats since the 1980s” is on the rise. This year’s presidential election may bring an end to the last vestiges of party affiliation by class which has defined American politics since Roosevelt.

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Bill Malicia, a 58-year-old man of Italian descent who voted for Bernie Sanders in the primaries is hesitant to cast his ballot for Clinton in November. He is considering the small Green Party. In the end that’s what the first Rocky film showed: he lost the fight against Apollo Creed but his wholehearted attempt shocked the world.

It has been 40 years since Joe Frazier retired and 40 years since Rocky’s story of grit and struggle has been inspiring the world.

English version by Dyane Jean François.


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