What Will Help Working-Class Americans?

If we’re looking a silver lining in the whole Trump election business, then we have to say that it’s a good thing that the media is shining a light on the problems of working class Americans. They have been forgotten. Whole sections of the country are struggling. I’ve seen it when visiting family in Cleveland (here and here).

So, now that the focus is on this group of people, the debate has begun about what to do to help. Should we bring back the labor unions? Do we need stronger boards and trade restrictions? Can a president really do anything to turn back the clock?

It’s a good debate, I think. I’m looking forward to seeing how this whole thing plays out.

55 thoughts on “What Will Help Working-Class Americans?

  1. What’s clear is that working class voters want to be helped and supported by the government so that they can maintain a certain standard of living (which, I think, is completely legitimate) while also projecting an image of being totally self-supporting folks who can make it on their own without the intervention of the big government which they supposedly loath. This is a conundrum for Democrats: how do you get people to vote for the things they say they want?

    Most of the remedies that would help them are ones that are historically core to progressive politics, and people are generally supportive of those policies when polled, yet they tend to vote against them and for conservative politicians in practice. Things like:

    Higher top marginal tax rate, higher social security wage base, increased unionization, increased minimum wage, overtime protections, reduction in the number of tipping-based jobs, federal supports for training in the service trades, relocation subsidies, and, of course, universal health care.

    These policies poll r highly among the white working class and yet they tend to vote for politicians who oppose them, for cultural reasons and because it is a hit to their self-esteem to publicly announce that they are receptive to this kind of governance. One messaging strategy for Dems would be to convey “we’ll get these things passed for you, but we won’t make a big deal out of it so that you can maintain your dignity”, and yet, I feel like this is what Obama was basically trying to do and their response is apparently that he didn’t do enough for them.


  2. I don’t have any great ideas, but it can’t hurt if officials at all levels ask of every decision: how will this affect working class Americans? I.e., that consideration should factor into every trade decision, every environmental decision, every employment regulation decision etc. I don’t think that is the case now.

    Regarding scantee’s question: sure, it’s a lot easier to give people things than to find the nuanced measures that help them to become self-reliant. Every parent knows that. It’s easier to make the bed yourself than to teach the child to do it, and it’s easier to hand out welfare checks than to develop a homestead program. Politicians who want the votes of the working class will have to figure out some answers that work. Just BTW, I’m skeptical about most of what scantee thinks would help the working class, so let’s not act as they were too stupid to know their own interest, maybe they are smart enough to agree with me.


    1. Conservatives have absolutely no interest in helping working class people become self-reliant. Like, truly could not care less about it. If they did, they would propose some of the policies that y81 mentions, but they never do that.

      I’ll wait to hear your explanation about how turning Medicare into Obamacare is evidence of making people more self-reliant, instead of just a policy adjustment in service of profits for insurance companies.


    2. I also love the idea that:

      homesteading program=”a wonderful free market subsidy to help people become more self-reliant!”


      relocation and retraining program=”a terrible intrusion on the part of the nanny state to infantilize the populace…”


      1. The “free market” is a government program. It’s entirely a political creation enforced by the state at considerable cost. It’s no more “natural” than the AFL-CIO.


      2. “The “free market” is a government program. It’s entirely a political creation enforced by the state at considerable cost. It’s no more “natural” than the AFL-CIO.”

        Agreed. But if we acknowledge that, we deprive middle-aged white men (mostly) of the opportunity to endlessly fellate themselves with libertarian fantasies about self-reliance, the purpose of which is to avoid coming to terms with their mundane, suburban lives, and instead imagine a world in which they are the victor in a series of Revenant-style bear fights where they play the part of Leo, and the rest of us, including the nanny state, are the bear.


    3. And, y81 is taking the standard Repub position, whisk to offer no solutions. Is homesteading an idea that we could implement now, or is it historical reference?

      I am empirically driven on these questions and would be willing to try a variety of solutions but the only ones I see being offered by the other side is to cut programs and lower taxes.

      In your list of considering every decision’s effect on the working class, shouldn’t you also include tax cuts, Medicare changes, obamacare changes, . . . . I don’t think the republicans plan to make that check.


  3. Seems to me Our Gracious Hostess asked the question, ‘how can working class people be helped?’, and scantee, that you have answered, more or less, ‘figure out how to get them to vote for the Dems’.

    We sit in our eloi towers and it is bracing to be reminded now and again how deeply the morlocks hate us. And we don’t seem to consider, mostly, that voters have a lot more on their minds than simply their economic interests.

    Frequent commenter MH at one point asked y81 if he found stuff on ‘some listserve’, and y81 responded that Instapundit is a regular read for him. This quote from David Bernstein was at Instapundit today: “…religious traditionalists felt that their religious liberty was under assault from liberals, and they therefore had to hold their noses and vote for Trump.
    Let’s focus on one of these incidents, the time the solicitor general of the United States acknowledged that religious institutions that oppose as a matter of internal policy same-sex marriage may lose their tax exemptions. At oral argument in the Obergefell same-sex marriage case, there was the following colloquy:
    Justice Samuel Alito: Well, in the Bob Jones case, the Court held that a college was not entitled to tax­exempt status if it opposed interracial marriage or interracial dating. So would the same apply to a university or a college if it opposed same­ sex marriage?
    Soliticitor General Verrilli: You know, I ­, I don’t think I can answer that question without knowing more specifics, but it’s certainly going to be an issue. ­ I don’t deny that. I don’t deny that, Justice Alito. It is ­­it is going to be an issue.
    With the mainstream media busy celebrating the Supreme Court’s ultimate recognition of a right to same-sex marriage, this didn’t get that much attention in mainstream news outlets. But in the course of researching my book, “Lawless,” I noticed that Solicitor General Donald B. Verrilli Jr.’s answer was big news in both the conservative blogosphere and in publications catering to religiously traditionalist audiences. “


    1. I’m actually a religious traditionalist. I don’t see how gay marriage is any different of a problem for Catholics* than the remarriage of divorced people (which is explicitly forbidden in direct quotes from Jesus**). Something close to or over a majority of heterosexual marriages in the U.S. clearly violate Catholic moral teaching. There’s civil marriage and there’s Catholic marriage and, while this has often been a huge problem for various people, it’s never been a problem that’s required the interference of the United States government to protect the Church before.

      * Obviously, you can’t be a Protestant and a religious traditionalist since they hold to Scripture without tradition.

      ** I don’t read the Bible for cultural literacy purposes.


  4. So if I understand scantee, the way to help the working class is to disabuse them of their auto-fellating fantasies and bombard them with enough vituperation to make them accept the humdrum nature of their meaningless existence. Not sure why–other than racial hatred–this program is to be limited to middle-aged white men, but whatever. I would really strongly urge the Democrats not to adopt this approach.


  5. It is possible to both 1) acknowledge the base motivations that drive people and 2) understand that information does not make a persuasive political case. So of course Dems shouldn’t use self-reliance auto-fellation as a reason to vote for them, even know we know that is part of what is driving conservative support. They should do what I originally said: implement policies to improve the standard of living of those most worst off, at the expense of those who are better off (like myself), and do so without sacrificing the dignity of either group as much as is possible.

    Neither of the two major parties in the US promotes small government/self-reliance. Republicans support big government in service of capital, Democrats support big government a-little-bit-less in service of capital. A more coherent Dem position would be big government in service of the people.


    1. I don’t believe that most effective salesmen are brimming with contempt for their customers. (For example, I don’t think that Ronald Reagan secretly despised religion, patriotism, or stable loving families, although his own realization of the first and third was less than exemplary.) So long as the Democrats believe that white working class people are auto-fellating idiots, white working class people are going to detect that, and be very suspicious. It’s important to remember that people without college degrees, though weak on integrating e^x, are generally just as emotionally perceptive as college graduates.


      1. If you reread my comment, you’ll see that it wasn’t the white working class I tagged as auto-fellators, it was white, middle-aged, libertarian conservatives (themselves mostly upper-class “elites”). They are the group that goes on and on about the virtues of an imaginary free market, which really only exists, to the extent that it does, because of the very big government they claim to hate.

        I do agree with you that white working class people are just as emotionally intelligent, and very likely more so, as the libertarians I disparaged.


      2. I don’t believe that most effective salesmen are brimming with contempt for their customers.

        That’s why I’m practicing pouring scorn on white, UMC Republicans. Because it’s got to come out somewhere and the actual racists seems more open to persuasion than the people willing to enable racism so long as they get lower capital gains taxes.


      3. O, well, I took “white, middle-aged men [leading] mundane, suburban lives” as a reference to white, working-class voters. I guess in context it could refer to people like Eugene Volokh and Glenn Reynolds; I hadn’t thought of them leading mundane, suburban lives, but I don’t know them personally. I think it will be difficult to persuade people like that to accept the critique promulgated long by Morris Cohen, and more recently by the critical legal studies movement, since they have assuredly read a good bit of that literature and rejected its conclusions. More to the point, I don’t see how that would bring white working-class voters back to the Democratic party.


      4. Anthony Bourdain: “The utter contempt with which privileged Eastern liberals such as myself discuss red-state, gun-country, working-class America as ridiculous and morons and rubes is largely responsible for the upswell of rage and contempt and desire to pull down the temple that we’re seeing now.

        I’ve spent a lot of time in gun-country, God-fearing America. There are a hell of a lot of nice people out there, who are doing what everyone else in this world is trying to do: the best they can to get by, and take care of themselves and the people they love. When we deny them their basic humanity and legitimacy of their views, however different they may be than ours, when we mock them at every turn, and treat them with contempt, we do no one any good. Nothing nauseates me more than preaching to the converted. The self-congratulatory tone of the privileged left—just repeating and repeating and repeating the outrages of the opposition—this does not win hearts and minds. It doesn’t change anyone’s opinions. It only solidifies them, and makes things worse for all of us. We should be breaking bread with each other, and finding common ground whenever possible. I fear that is not at all what we’ve done.”


  6. Laura, isn’t Derek Thompson your editor? He had some words on the subject.

    <blockquoteHillary Clinton talked about the working class, middle class jobs, and the dignity of work constantly. And she still lost.

    She detailed plans to help coal miners and steel workers. She had decades of ideas to help parents, particularly working moms, and their children. She had plans to help young men who were getting out of prison and old men who were getting into new careers. She talked about the dignity of manufacturing jobs, the promise of clean-energy jobs, and the Obama administration’s record of creating private-sector jobs for a record-breaking number of consecutive months. She said the word “job” more in the Democratic National Convention speech than Trump did in the RNC acceptance speech; she mentioned the word “jobs” more during the first presidential debate than Trump did. She offered the most comprehensively progressive economic platform of any presidential candidate in history—one specifically tailored to an economy powered by an educated workforce.


    Driftglass offers some cogent points, too:

    1. For a variety if reasons, white working class Americans have been taking a pounding since the late 1970s. And for a different variety of reasons, a disturbingly high number number of white working class Americans keep voting for the people that fuck them over.

    2. Judging by policy statements made, resources allocated, attention paid and political capitol spent, it’s quite likely that history will judge the Obama Administration to have been the most consistently pro-manufacturing administration since Eisenhower. In fact, outside of health care (and turkey pardons), I would wager a penny and a fiddle of gold that in the last eight years the Obama administration put more effort into promoting American manufacturing than into any other domestic policy priority.

    3. If you are a member of the general public, unless you made an extra special effort to inform yourself, you are blissfully unaware of any of this.

    4. If you are blissfully unaware of any of this, it is not because the Obama Administration failed to talk it up at every single opportunity, but because over the last eight years the American political media collectively decided that instead of boring-ass stories about what the Democratic party has been trying to do to improve the lives and futures of the working class Americans, what you needed to hear were lively fairy tales about Birth Certificates and Death Panels. Email servers and Benghaaaazi. A Republican rebranding scam called the “Tea Party”.



    1. …it’s quite likely that history will judge the Obama Administration to have been the most consistently pro-manufacturing administration since Eisenhower.

      I think this is probably right. At least, I don’t understand how Trump is going to do any better. Which is the 2018 campaign.


    2. For all the bullshit Trump has put up about manufacturing jobs, he picked a fast food executive for Labor. I think the direction this is going is pretty obvious.


      1. Maybe there will be a special sub-minimum wage for displaced manufacturing workers for the transitional period until the kiosks take over. In the meantime, CEO pay is getting dangerously low, maybe someone can give that the attention it deserves.


  7. “She detailed plans to help coal miners and steel workers. She had decades of ideas to help parents, particularly working moms, and their children. She had plans to help young men who were getting out of prison and old men who were getting into new careers. She talked about the dignity of manufacturing jobs, the promise of clean-energy jobs, and the Obama administration’s record of creating private-sector jobs for a record-breaking number of consecutive months. She said the word “job” more in the Democratic National Convention speech than Trump did in the RNC acceptance speech; she mentioned the word “jobs” more during the first presidential debate than Trump did. She offered the most comprehensively progressive economic platform of any presidential candidate in history—one specifically tailored to an economy powered by an educated workforce.”

    The problem is, just reading this litany reminds me of “binders full of women.” It has such a check a box aura. And the false note at the end, where the author reveals that his real concern is for the highly educated, lets the mask slip.


    1. Slipping masks… I went looking for ‘as soon as I can learn to fake’ and found ” The joke has been traced to a 1962 newspaper column by Leonard Lyons, in which actress Celeste Holm quotes an unnamed actor saying, “Honesty. That’s the thing in the theater today. Honesty… and just as soon as I can learn to fake that, I’ll have it made.””
      Hillary Clinton seems to me utterly inauthentic, and willing to say anything which will win her office and get her wealth. Maybe you agree, maybe you don’t. But I think many people perceive her as I do. Trump won by so little, and there were so many causes for it, but I think her orientation to the overclass while claiming deep personal concern for the little guy was in there. It stacked: the big pay days for Wall Street talks, the claims about enabling Bill versus the women he had pressured for sex, and on.
      So I guess I am saying that the messenger was so flawed it’s hard to know whether the message was one which people wanted to hear.


    2. This is a list that if literally any other human being made it you’d be totally on board. Try substituting “he” for “she” – any he, Democrat or Republican – and see how much better it sounds. (Okay, maybe you would take out clean-energy jobs, and if you’re bothered by educating working people – because education is apparently a bad thing now for Republicans – take out the last sentence.)

      Also: the ACA is very much geared towards making health care affordable for the working class, extending the protections of Medicare and Medicaid to people who are not poor or old. The problem with selling it is it helps only a small number of working class people escape a devastating situation (go broke or die/remain really sick with a treatable illness), and you never know if that’s going to be you.


    1. Very nice discussion about how free trade orthodoxy has benefited the eloi and screwed the morlocks. They are not wrong to be angry. And I think there has been more talking at them – at lower-middle people whose communities have gone to hell – than talking with them from both parties since Bill Clinton. Trump did a far better job than Clinton in this election.
      It was possible to maintain the relatively high wage economy of the fifties and sixties in large measure because the rest of the developed world’s economies were so much less functional. And that allowed more profits to US industry. Now that you can bring in a Geely or a Kia for much less than Ford’s cost to make the same car, this topples.
      As for policy prescriptions, which was the request of Our Gracious Hostess, I think my fave is greatly increasing transfers through EITC, which directs people into useful work and gets paid for by the rich through taxes.


  8. If you want to move to Nebraska to investigate the non-rust belt white people, you’re too late to get “JRSY GRL” as a vanity plate. I don’t know who she is, but she shops at my parents’ HyVee.


    1. There was a very interesting article in Pro Publica last month about (among other things) how the Democrats have gradually lost the white working class, region by region: the South in the 70s (or maybe the 60s), Appalachia in the 90s, and now the upper Midwest/Rustbelt. But it didn’t mention the Plains. As far as I can make out from looking at historical returns, the Democrats won the white working class in the Plains only briefly under FDR, and lost the region in the 50s. I wonder why that is?


      1. Given that Bryan won the Democratic nomination three times and served as Secretary of State, I think the answer is pretty clear. They stopped attacking banks and big city financiers. I recommend they start doing so again. The Republican blocking of economic stimulus is basically no different than the prioritizing of no inflation over jobs that the “Cross of Gold” speech was talking about.


      2. Well, Trump seems to be pushing for an ‘open the spigot’ policy, at least for military and infrastructure. And right now his poll numbers are way up from before the election, surprising me somewhat. The Reeps are going to own the situation going forward, particularly if they keep both Houses after ’18, so it seems like it is theirs to lose. I’m not sure how much room there will be to out-Left them. Identity politics? Double down on LGBTQ support? Bring back the War on Coal?


      3. Well, the history is that the Republicans drive the country into economic disaster (open spigots on military spending, wars, lower taxes, especially on the wealthy, policies that undermine our infrastructure of education and physical plant) and at the brink of disaster (i.e. 2008 recession) we elect a Democrat, who puts the country back on some form of even keel, but with losses that aren’t regained.


  9. It’s also worth noting, time and again, that she won the national vote by more than 2,500,000 votes. That’s about 25 times the margin that will install her opponent in the White House.


  10. I did a 10-hour faceplant on the sofa yesterday. Got a terrible virus. Just reading comments for the first time this morning. I guess the one thing that we can all agree upon is that we love self-fellatio, self-fellating, self-fellators. I’ll be back with a higher brain capacity in an hour or two.


      1. Don’t most people admire self-reliance? It’s the fantasy of “I did it all on my own” that I question….you know, “born on third, thought he hid a triple”.

        Back to Saturday morning coffee.


      2. I’m memorizing it. I think it might have at least as much utility as my memorized jabberwock.

        2 cups flour
        2 tbs baking powder
        1 tbs sugar
        1 tsp salt
        5 tbs butter
        1 cup milk
        Cook at 425


    1. Interesting, actually I don’t think I put self reliance that high on my own list. I have always found it more effective to find my highest comparative value in the hopes that I can barter that for other necessities. But, the cost to that choice is that I would be among the first to be abandoned in the zombie apocalypse.

      Maybe that is one of the significant differences between the “rurals” and the “urbans”?

      I made biscuits this morning (we just had a one day snowstorm, and do not have bread in the house). But, I had to look up the recipe (and found it in the New York Times). And, when I told my kiddo that I had hot biscuits in the oven, his first question was whether they were bisquick (and, I think he actually meant the refrigerated kind). I have resolved to memorize the recipe for biscuits, though, so that I can make them in the case of a store bought bread emergency.


      1. Print out the recipe and put it in a recipe box! Actually, I have a recipe box with some things on cards, but also a sheaf of papers with recipes on them. Much easier to work with a sheet of paper when cooking than to go back and forth from the computer.

        I wonder if people have stopped using recipe boxes and self-created cookbooks (which is what my mom has always used) as the result of the internet. All my recipes are in a Word folder, but the favorites are all printed out, in case of an apocalypse (zombie or otherwise).


      2. I have my fave recipes printed out and in plastic sleeves in a binder. I don’t want to touch a touch screen while cooking. I just like having them all in one place physically next to the cookbooks.

        I have a separate one for cottage recipes that I use each summer at the lake.


  11. So, to try to return to the question of how to help the “working class” (a term I consider poorly defined).

    In our state, one suggestion I’ve seen is building infrastructure programs, and encouraging the siting of industries in the rural communities to the east of the mountains. One concrete suggestion was building server farms in eastern part of the state, near power sources. The problem with these solutions (as with the Carrier plant), is that ultimately, they don’t need many workers to run, and the workers they need will probably have to have significant training and knowledge based skills, skills that aren’t being acquired by the class who are being left behind and believe they deserve better.

    The Republican contingent in our state introduced a bill in the legislature offering to secede from the state (the new state of “Liberty”) and continue to advocate for decreasing services (education, for example) and decreasing taxes (and making it harder generate any revenue through any source). A growing trend is that these rural communities that vote to reduce revenue, statewide, are having a hard time paying for services, including police/security. The anti-tax crowd suggests addressing this deficit in basic services by passing one time levies (i.e. passing a levy to fund the police, year by year in addition to building sewer facilities, . . . ). One of the members of the house for the east of the state wants to repeal an article of our constitution: “It is the paramount duty of the state to make ample provision for the education of all children residing within its borders, without distinction or preference on account of race, color, caste, or sex.” That mechanism/choices might work to provide the bare minimum of services. Potentially that’s what the people in those areas want — to maintain what they had, without feeling a need to invest in players in the new global economy (including the education of children who will be competing worldwide).

    Maybe there is a way to structure the economy so that those who want to stick to older modes can stick with the (reminds me of the book by Nancy Farmer, the “The Eye, The Ear, and The Arm”, in which an old style village is set up for those Africans who don’t want to join the modern economy.). But then, folks have to identify what they actually mean by returning to the “old times” (and some things won’t be negotiable, like discrimination on the basis of race, so they can’t really go back to the olden days, unlike in the book, where the village really was time travel back into the past).


  12. The Quartz interview dave s linked to was a good read — I need to look up Baldwin’s book — “The Great Convergence: Information Technology and the New Globalization).

    I think Baldwin is entirely right that the globalization/robotization/instantaneous information transfer are going to impact all sections of the workforce, including those who currently consider themselves as having uniquely high skills. I think many of the issues facing the purported working class today (or that already faced them 20 years ago) are going to be affecting more and more sections of the workforce going forward into the future.

    Baldwin says that a significant driver in the globalization of manufacturing was the ability to move goods over long distances inexpensively (including manufacturing parts). Next, we had the ability to move information near instantaneously, and the effect that had an a range of information services, already impacting the role of high skills in the production and curation of information (journalism, academics, editing, library services, indexing, . . . ).

    Baldwin brings up two more features he thinks will significantly change the labor market in the coming decades, “moving people”, basically amped up teleconferencing, which he calls “telepresence” and also telerobotics (essentially operating robots from remote sites). We can already see the effects of these changes (Kahn academy started as remote tutoring of a relative, via skype, a form of “telepresence”; the online course explosion is also a form of telepresence) and drones are a form of telerobotics. Telesurgery is already a possibility. We’re near feasibility on driverless cars (which doesn’t even require people). These technologies are going to change the economy for many skilled professionals, including doctors.

    So I am fully aware that the world in which I and my family have reaped significant economic rewards is also changing rapidly. I consider these changes frequently when I think about the kinds of education that my children will need to be economically successful in the changing world. My current take is that they will have to be ready to be versatile and willing to chart new paths, capable of leveraging their current skills to whatever new situations arise, comfortable with significant levels of risk, . . . . I don’t think there are going to be set paths for them to follow over a 40+ year career.


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