Before proclaiming new tariffs on steel and aluminum last week (which he formally imposed on Thursday), Trump loudly initiated a process to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement. These stunts highlight a continuing weakness of Democrats hoping for a blue wave in the midterm elections and beyond. Trump’s posturing on blue-collar jobs is a strong contrast to the Democratic Party’s seeming indifference to the working lives of industrial communities.
Trump is known to brag about job creation and take credit for the economic growth generated in the Obama administration, but his big talk is mostly empty. Despite his bluster about saving jobs at the Carrier plant in Indiana, the company has continued to move jobs to Mexico over the last year. Yet Democrats have struggled to counter Trump with any agenda on trade or jobs that touches the heart of working-class voters. For example, the earliest version of their “Better Deal” slogan (“Better Skills, Better Jobs, Better Wages”) was killed on Twitter by angry millennials for its victim-blaming implication that going to school for even longer will somehow make everything better.
Only through a vigorous program aimed at creating and protecting good jobs will Democrats build upon their recent special elections victories and win back the working-class voters they need to win in states such as Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania.
Free trade was only one of many reasons industrial jobs left these communities. Squeezing more seconds out of every minute and more hours out of every day of the workers remaining on payroll, replacing the rest with machines and shifting production to Southern states to avoid the reach of unions arguably claimed more jobs than foreign competition. But coming in the middle of 40 years of this sustained corporate attack on good jobs, NAFTA has become emblematic for many Americans about how the rules of the system are rigged against them.
Adding insult to injury, the solutions that free-trade evangelists peddled for how workers should adapt to the loss of jobs that provided decent incomes and retirement benefits have been haughty and tone-deaf. Relocate to where the “good jobs” are, like digital-era Okies! Borrow a ton of money and get a degree in computer science! It is hard to overstate how furious people are at this kind of blithe disregard for their homes, their communities and their version of the American Dream. The Manhattan Institute’s Aaron M. Renn has noted the “rage of those left behind.” He concedes that arguments for the virtues of continued free trade “have no obvious connection to the daily experience of those living such a precarious existence that they can’t come up with $400 in emergency cash.”
Democrats went into the 2016 elections without a basic understanding about what an absolute curse word NAFTA is in many parts of the country, much to their peril. Most national polls show a narrow majority of voters have a favorable opinion of NAFTA, and college-educated and suburban voters whom Democrats counted on in 2016 seem broadly more supportive. But, according to Public Citizen, when the conversation is shifted to “outsourcing” of jobs, 60 percent hold a negative opinion, “with nearly half intensely negative.”
Trump understood and has exploited this rage by redirecting it at his favorite targets: foreigners and immigrants. The tariffs reinforce the mentality of too many working Americans that their ability to live a dignified life is under attack from nefarious foreigners. Regardless of the complexity of deindustrialization and trade policy, for many voters, this is a fairly simple question over what it means to be an American. Trump tapped into that in 2016 and could again in 2020.
To create an economic populism that can counter Trump while not demonizing foreign workers for American economic problems, Democrats need an easily understood set of programs that workers can believe in. That should start with a push for job creation for working-class people where they live. Young people growing up in Peoria, Ill., and Youngstown, Ohio, need to have job opportunities in their communities. The original draft of the 1978 Humphrey-Hawkins Act — which commits the federal government to full employment — had a clause where workers could sue the government if they could not find a job. It is worth revisiting the full-employment ideas of the recent past as serious policy proposals for the future.
There is no shortage of work that needs to be done. Government investment in rebuilding the nation’s infrastructure should create high-paying jobs around the nation. Fighting to prioritize union labor for this infrastructure must be a priority. Building a green energy grid could both mitigate climate change and help rebuild the working class if union workers produced the steel in the turbines, built the energy grid and ran the daily operations.
Similar investment is needed to expand access to child care and elder care. Those could be good jobs, too, as could the millions of existing jobs in retail, hospitality and the service sector — if we raised the minimum wage and fixed our labor laws so employers cannot run away from union wage and benefit standards. That would be a war worth fighting.
Beyond racial demagoguery, Trump’s approach to saving and creating jobs is all flashy announcements that do nothing to improve workers’ lives, taking credit for jobs and raises that were in motion before him and, of course, massive corporate giveaways. Yet, this could prove effective if voters in key states believe the president is fighting for them. Trump’s “handling” of the economy remains the one bright spot in his national polls. Despite his low overall approval ratings, his reelection prospects will likely revolve around the same small number of critical states as 2016, many of which Trump is targeting through his nationalistic trade agenda.
In an election that is really 50 mini-elections, a Democratic inability to articulate a strong jobs agenda could once again put Trump over the top in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin, handing him an electoral college win even if he loses by even larger margins in California and New York. This could be true even if Trump’s agenda brings no steel jobs back to the United States — and it almost certainly will not. Moreover, in this year’s midterms, especially with Pennsylvania redistricting creating a number of newly competitive seats, a close race for control of the House could well rest on how Trump’s tariffs play in the steel communities of the Keystone State.
Democrats would be foolish to fall into the trap of offering voters a Trump-lite alternative on jobs. Tax breaks for corporations to “create” the jobs they need to hire anyway, retraining programs for jobs that do not exist or pay poorly and breast-beating posturing in front of shuttered factories are go-to’s for too many politicians — and underline much of the Senate Democrats’ current proposal for a “Better Deal” for workers. For the working class to once again identify as Democrats, the party needs to provide real solutions to their communities that center on creating and protecting good jobs where they live and make people believe the government cared about their lives once again.