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Democrats and Trade


Shaun Richman and I have a piece in the Washington Post arguing that while Trump is full of baloney on trade, Democrats continue to be vulnerable on the issue because they have not articulated a jobs program that speaks to the lived experiences and needs of the American working class.

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.

So-called 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’s 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.

I’m sure this will make some readers unhappy, since any criticism of Democrats is verboten to them, (after all, Hillary supported a slightly increased Earned Income Tax Credit and how could low-wage workers not see that as inspiring!) but Democrats have to get serious about employment policy, both in terms of job creation and in terms of the quality of jobs, not only for their short term political prospects but for the long-term benefit of the nation. Yes, current unemployment numbers are relatively low, but the quality of jobs for working people of all races is bad and automation is going to create a political and economic crisis on par with climate change.

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