In 2016, Donald Trump did well in the rust belt. At least he did well enough to win those states. On the campaign trail, Trump threw red meat to his audiences — raging about NAFTA and “job-killing” trade agreements and tax policies that pushed investments and work overseas, and promising to bring manufacturing jobs back to America. He didn’t — still doesn’t — have a plan for positioning America in a global economy, and to fulfill his promise to create new, good paying manufacturing jobs.
But for some Democrats, the question was: didn’t Trump, and didn’t his audiences, understand the 21st century was the digital century? Manufacturing jobs were so last millennium. Get a programming job losers! Get a job in a fulfillment center! Repurpose your vehicle and drive for Uber! Get a gig job in the gig economy. Climb on board the cyber express!
But there is something about Trump’s political theater that opens a window into something we haven’t been paying attention to, and we should start. Karl Marx regretted the life of the industrial laborer not only because the worker didn’t own the product of his labor, but also because the environment in which he labored snatched away from him the creative spirit that is essential to the human condition. For Marx, our labor, beyond that necessary to satisfy our immediate needs, is an exercise in “life-activity;” we see reflected in our efforts our own consciousness, our intelligence, and our capacity for creativity. But, according to Marx, rote, mechanized, repetitive work strips the humanity from our labor.
I think we are discovering that for vast numbers of American workers, that isn’t necessarily true. They value making things with their hands, even if they only occupy a station on an assembly line. The idea that something out in the world, something they can point to and reach out and touch, was made by their hands matters. The cars and steel and aircraft and textiles and consumer goods we once made were, for many workers, their contribution to the world of trade, visible evidence that they existed and played a part in the vast machinery of global production. They saw their craftsmanship in those items, even if mechanized production meant their part was one small contribution, a part or two, a weld, some paint. And for the generation of blue collar workers abandoning the Democratic Party, the prospect of learning a trade in the digital workplace doesn’t fill the hole in their lives.
How did the blue-collar party of America’s working class become so alienated from Americans who work with their hands?
A part of the problem is the Democratic Party’s romance with Silicon Valley. The technocratization of the Democratic Party has produced a party that can’t comprehend the worldview of voters who still long to build things.
Some believe the future belongs to the Democrats, as the party of people of color and digital natives, as the party that favors LGBTQ rights. And, for some, the party’s embrace of the tech-sector is another plus for the party — more evidence that the future belongs to the Democrats. Maybe, some think, with particularly morbid ugliness for the party of Social Security, we just have to wait for the Baby Boomers who want to build things to grow old and die.
But I don’t think so. I think there is something deeply satisfying, something inescapably human about working with our hands to build things. And it is something that Republicans don’t get. The modern Republican Party is the party of investment bankers and CEOs. They make money, accumulate assets on digital ledgers. Or they grow share-holder value. Cloud-based wealth.
Time and time again, when Republicans try to relate to working-class voters, they seem like uncomprehending aristocrats. They resort to the use of race and resentment. They connect with white workers by positioning African Americans and immigrants as bogeymen, dark-skinned thieves, who will steal away their jobs and rob their children of their future.
Can’t the Democratic Party become the party that values work, hands-on, productive, physical labor?
Look around, I bet you have friends who have left behind office work, or analytical work, or high-tech jobs to become craftsmen. Or to become beekeepers. Or raise organic produce. Or to go into the construction trades. Why did they reinvent themselves? One answer is: because they were wealthy enough that they could. Reinvention is a gift the privileged can afford. But the other reason is this: they were looking for work that satisfied them in some meaningful, resonant way.
It’s time the Democratic Party learned something: work in manufacturing, or the trades, or in agriculture, or other hands-on occupations, is emotionally satisfying. How can the party, as part of its rebuilding work, connect to workers who value hands-on work? How can it advocate for public investment in manufacturing (in wind turbines and solar panels, for example) and infrastructure, and low-cost housing, and small farms, and along the way become, again, a friend of unions and family farmers, and stand up for safer workplaces, and raising the minimum wage, and subsidized child-care, and portable health insurance so people can walk away from corporate jobs to reinvent themselves (the way the wealthy can)? How can it push to fund training programs, and community colleges, that emphasize advanced manufacturing and construction trades and small-scale agriculture, and other types of hands-on work? And, as important, how can they make certain that work pays a living wage?