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Talking About Buy American Campaigns

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One of Trump’s strongest appeals to the white working class is his aggressive economic nationalist rhetoric that seeks to punish other nations for sending goods to the United States instead of having them made here. Trump doesn’t actually care about any of this of course. He pals around with capitalists, the very people who are responsible for this. He tweets at union leaders when called out on his actions, blaming them for the loss of jobs. But it doesn’t really matter to a lot of these workers. Finally, someone is speaking their language. And when combined with other forms of white resentment, this is very powerful for large swaths of the white working class. Even if he fails to bring the jobs back (and of course he will fail because that’s not actually his goal), for white people who remember buying a new car every 3 years, they don’t believe that Democratic politicians are any better, even if they provide them with better health care options and want to save their Social Security. After all, they see those things, especially the older retirement-based benefits, as their rights as working Americans, not gifts from liberal Democrats.

Moreover, it’s simply reasonable industrial policy to create employment in industrial jobs in the United States. It’s necessary on a number of levels. First, it’s smart politics. Second, it stabilizes areas in decline by attempting to build jobs in struggling areas. Third, we have to provide a dignified life with good-paying jobs for working class people of all races. We can’t simply say, “Automation is inevitable. Tough luck. Here’s a little money to get some education to do some other job that will pay not very much, 52 year old worker with maybe a high school diploma.” This is a recipe for social disaster, as we are already seeing with the 2016 election and its horrifying aftermath. Moreover, there are good reasons to produce goods in the United States. The access to clean energy is one of them. If we want to create industrial policy that is going to be useful in mitigating climate change, then considering the whole cost of a project, including its climate costs, may well be a really good reason to produce goods in the United States, even if that costs more up front. Moreover, there are good reasons to not support or allow the labor and environmental exploitation of the world’s poor, and I have long called for international courts and national laws to regulate this, taking away some of the incentive for capital mobility.

One of the areas undergoing a lot of outsourcing right now is industrial food production. Companies like Mondelez, which sounds like a fancy French company but is actually just a renamed Kraft, bought up Nabisco at some point. It has now moved Oreo production out of Chicago to Mexico. The Nabisco workers are doing a national tour, talking to college campuses and other workers, about their plight. These are workers who are suffering. Their good jobs are gone and they don’t have any other options. As part of this, they have produced an animation explaining their position in a very simple way. It’s worth your time.

Unfortunately, this video and therefore the workers’ message, is a little bit racist. It starts out OK, playing on a very important point–that Nabisco factories in Mexico pay workers very little and have lax regulatory standards. These are good reasons to say, I don’t want my cookies exploiting others. But it’s a feint. The rest of the video doesn’t care one whit about the Mexican workers. Talking about bad regulatory standards and low wages is an excuse to say instead that we as Americans should want our products made in the United States. It says you should go into the grocery store, find products with Made in Mexico labels, and confront store manages to tell them you don’t want those products. And that’s a level of economic nationalism I’m not real comfortable with. But trying to thread a needle of wanting products made ethically no matter where they come from is going to be a hard sell to these workers. For them, it’s not just about saving their own jobs, it’s about AMERICA! And given that we on the left don’t really have an answer to their particular problems, you can see the appeal Trump would have to the white workers in these plants, as well as of course why black and Latino workers would be deeply disturbed by that appeal. In a global era, the answer to our problems is not AMERICA!, it’s ethical production that raises standards around the world while also seeking to keep good union jobs in the United States. But given how hard it is to articulate precisely how that happens, good luck communicating that to everyday workers. And good luck getting the white everyday workers to think the Democratic Party has an answer to their problems.

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