THE NEXT BEST THING

Posted in Rants on November 20th, 2016 by Ed

If I have to listen to one more Brooklyn- or DC- or Bay Area-dwelling Hot Take artist explain that Democrats lost this election because they didn't do enough for (or pay enough attention to) Rust Belt, low-education white people I am going to put my foot through…I don't know, Ezra Klein's head. Post-election narratives rarely do more than provide an oversimplified explanation – in the form of a conveniently untestable hypothesis – but in some cases they actively distort the truth.

Explain exactly how the Democratic Party wrote off white Rust Belt voters. By trying to make sure they had health care access when their employers stopped offering benefits? By supporting unions that might actually provide them some job security or wages over $10/hr? By supporting and trying to increase minimum wage? By trying to protect the social safety net, including unemployment benefits and workers comp, that Republicans have been hacking away at for decades? That's an odd definition of "ignored." The implication that if only the Democrats had worked a little harder these voters would have been satisfied is ridiculous.

Of course the counterargument is that trade agreements made in the 1990s with the blessing of Bill Clinton are a major cause of manufacturing job losses. This is true, although it conveniently ignores that Clinton was almost the only Democrat willing to back an idea the Republican Party brought to the table. Why are the Republicans not the ones culpable for NAFTA, if this narrative makes any sense?

The entire Trump movement is about anger, and in truth it is easy to understand why these people are angry. I live in the Rust Belt. I have spent all but a sliver of my life here. Outside of a small number of major cities that have weathered the storm (but have their own serious problems) economically, people live in small towns or minor cities that have declined steadily since 1960. People who have spent long lives in these places remember when things used to be better – when the city wasn't half-empty, when there were enough jobs, when the jobs that were available didn't pay squat with terrible benefits, and when the side effects of poverty and neglect hadn't turned the physical city into a decent setting for a modern post-apocalypse film. They are mad and they have a reason to be mad.

The reality is, the version of their communities that they remember is NEVER coming back. It's not. It's gone. It's never coming back because we cannot recreate the context that allowed it to happen – a post-World War II environment in which the U.S. was the sole industrial power on the planet that wasn't teetering on collapse and / or reduced to rubble. Eventually the rest of the world caught up, and we felt the beginning of the decline in the 1970s. The embrace of neoliberal trade policy in the Reagan and post-Reagan years only accelerated trends that were already established. All the while the GOP didn't lift a finger to ameliorate any of this. They offered tax cuts (which would magically create jobs, but didn't) and helpful reminders that if you're poor it's because you don't work hard enough.

These places are dead and dying because economically there is no longer any reason for them to exist. They were established at a time when their location near resources or now-outdated transportation links made them important. Now, and no politician will ever admit it in public, there simply isn't any reason for Altoona or Youngstown or Terre Haute to exist anymore. The jobs are never coming back. Nothing is coming back. The Democrats have not given the white Rust Belt working class an answer to their problems because there is no answer. Nothing will resurrect these places, all of which have long since crossed the point of no return in their economic and population decline. Automation, union-busting, outsourcing (much of it within the U.S., to impoverished Southern states) and race-to-the-bottom subsidy wars among state and local governments are ensuring that the situation isn't about to improve.

And here's the kicker: Trump didn't offer any solutions either. All he did was offer them something to blame. They liked hearing someone lie to their faces and promise that the jobs are coming back, and they liked even more having someone tell them that it's OK to direct all their anger at the people they don't like anyway: the immigrants, the Hispanics, the urban poor (the rural poor are still virtuous, of course), the gays, the liberals, the youths who can't wait to turn 18 and get out, the academics, the media who don't tell them what they want to hear…you name it. That's all Trump did. He pointed at the scapegoats and promised that he would make it OK to direct anger and scorn toward them.

The false narrative implies that the problem of the Midwestern white working class is solvable. It isn't, short of a time machine that can take us back to 1953. It further implies that Trump offered some kind of solution that Democrats are too pompous or too inarticulate to offer. This is a half-truth; Trump didn't offer any answers beyond vague, empty Strongman promises that he will reverse economic reality by the force of his personality alone. He offered them a distraction and an ironclad promise that if their lives aren't going to improve – and they won't – at least they can content themselves with lashing out at a convenient list of people who are somehow Different and therefore deserving of scorn under any circumstances.

Given that reality, the Democrats' failure was in not offering a scapegoat. Maybe it's time to dust off the Joe Hill / Mother Jones / Eugene Debs playbook. If scapegoating is the only thing that wins these people over, then the best strategy is to point them in the right direction again and remind them that Capital is the enemy of Labor. End the worship of and fixation with Job Creators and the idea that the boss is your buddy and your role in the economy is a matter of personal responsibility, fully within one's own control.

Is that going to work? Doubtful. Racism is an easier, more effective play. Anything that requires people to think is going to lose out to anything that plays directly into their basest prejudices. I don't know how you beat the path of least resistance. The older I get, the less I believe that is possible.