Reaching out to the Rust Belt

>> Thursday, November 10, 2016

There's this idea that was floating around even before Secretary Clinton lost, that liberals in general and Democrats specifically just haven't done enough to reach out to the old blue collar workers.  Michael Moore predicted this would cost Clinton the election, and damned if it doesn't look like this played a big role in Donald taking the center of the country and yoiking the vote out from underneath the predictions that he had as little as a less than one percent chance of winning (oops).

I have to admit this whole line of recrimination bugs me.  I think there's truth to it; but I also think it's woefully unfair and simplistic.  The truth is that globalist utopian types like myself and some of my allies in the Democratic party haven't done a great job in being responsive to the concerns of old guard blue collar workers from the industrial heartland.  But there's another side to that, which is that there aren't really responses they want to hear.  There aren't responses they will accept, or could even be expected to accept.  When there are responses at all, because part of the problem is that a lot of the folks who wound up voting for Trump can't or shouldn't get what they want and may not even get what they need.

I think one of the things that global lefties like myself need to go ahead and confess is that we were naive and optimistic and that we ignored critiques and warnings, often with the best of intentions.  A lot of us, I suspect, rosily hoped that the good things to come out of global economic and political agreements would come so quickly that most people affected wouldn't notice a net negative impact, and blinded ourselves to warnings that most of the negative impact would be front-loaded in the first years of change while the positive impacts might be a much longer and slowly unfolding tail over decades if they happened at all.  A lot of us certainly ignored how much the pace of benefits from global trade agreements might get tied up in bureaucratic and legal issues.  And I'm very sure we underestimated the power of tribalism, whether manifested on a national level by nations or on a local level in small towns; we never really thought, though we certainly should have, that people would cling so tightly to dying pasts and antique loyalties when future possibilities beckoned so brightly.

Samuel Pierpont Langley - Potomac experiment 1903
Maybe we screwed up.  Idealists often do.  It's hard to apologize, though, when you're still sure the basic concept should have been sound.  You feel, perhaps, like Samuel Langley nose-diving prototype flying machine after prototype flying machine into the Potomac; unquestioningly, stubbornly certain that man can fly but still having to fish wreckage out of the river because the ways you keep attempting it just aren't working so far.  It's possible we're just that dumb, insert cliched line about definition of sanity here; it's also possible a couple of Ohioans on a beach trip to Kitty Hawk are going to make something soar.

And it's also true that we haven't communicated well.  But this is where I say we couldn't, because telling the truth to a lot of people in the industrial heart land would be damned hard and nobody wants to do it, and it doesn't help that anybody running for office who tried it could be expected to lose.  And so it's no wonder that we didn't.  Out of two kinds of cowardice, surely, the cowardice that comes from pity for some and the cowardice that comes from self-interest for others, and surely a mix of both for many who felt sorry and hopeful while also wanting to get elected to some station or another.

Nobody wants to sit down, look someone in the eyes, and say:

It's not about your job.  It's your whole industry.  It's dead or dying or in transition into something you wouldn't recognize, and it's not just taking your job with it.  Your industry can't exist anymore.  Your industry isn't sustainable as you know it.

It's not economically sustainable, it makes no sense to operate the way it used to.  It's not ecologically sustainable, it's killing the planet one way or another.  If it's in an extraction industry, it's literally not sustainable because one day, tomorrow or a hundred years from tomorrow, there won't be anything to pull out of the ground anymore.  It's not sustainable in the context of our foreign policy--we need these international trade agreements to try to keep a peace, and so this is also sustainability in the context of our military policy as well; we can't afford to get into fights over what you're doing anymore.  It's not technologically sustainable: if your industry still exists in ten years, or twenty, or fifty, your particular job will be done by robots or computers.

And it's really not about your job.  Your town, it was built around a mill, or a mine, or a factory, or some other industrial concern that can't be done anymore, or ought to be done somewhere else, or is going to be done by fewer people and more things in a place that makes more sense to do it in.  So your community isn't going to have a reason to exist anymore.  There's no reason for this mill, mine, or factory to operate at all, or operate here if it's going to; and so your town is going away unless it becomes something else.  Maybe if that mill, that mine, that factory just happened to be established somewhere picturesque, your town can continue to exist as a vacation spot that hardly resembles the place you grew up.  Maybe if your town is in the shadow of a city, it can survive as a bedroom community, and again become someplace you no longer recognize that's colonized on weekends by bankers and lawyers and information technologists and engineers.

Your kids, when they go to college, will have no reason to return.  And if they don't go to college, they'll have no reason to stay.

And it's not about your job.  The church where you and your parents and grandparents married will fill with old people and then the pews will empty out, and it will seem like nobody believes in your God anymore, unless some of the bankers and lawyers start attending.  If they believe in a God, or believe in your God, or believe in public worship; a lot of them are believers in vague ideas that it's not just a material universe out there, but that doesn't mean they'll come to your church every Sunday or any Sunday at all.  Perhaps, though, while your church empties, a new one started by the immigrants who commute from the town you thought you knew to the city you only visit for shopping will open.  It won't be the town you know, anyway.

It's so not about your job: if the only reason people ever had for living here was that mill, that mine, that factory, and that's gone, what happens to your Main Street.  Storefronts boarded up, merchants counting inventory for the last time; and if everybody's drifting away and the Walmart comes, all the unemployed, unemployable people going there for the low prices, so much for Main Street; and if your town instead persists, resurrected as a tourist spot or a commuter village, here come all the expensive boutiques full of the things you don't need that you can't afford, probably.  And this isn't your hometown anymore, either way; it's something else, a zombie corpse or a regenerated place so full of aliens that you're the one who feels like a stranger.

And if this town dies because there's no place in this world, or no place here at least, for your old mill, old mine, old factory, it dies hard.  Because we fund almost everything locally through property and sales taxes, and your property is worth nothing and nobody can buy anything anymore.  And if your taxes are worth nothing, so are your schools and your roads.

This place is dead to you, and your trade, your career, your family, your neighbors, your church, your institutions mean nothing--if you stay, you're dead too; as are they, if they do.  And there is nothing that can be done for you but to offer you an education you may not want to receive so you can transition to a trade you may not want to pursue which may be located someplace you have no desire to go to.  And we can offer your kids an escape route through college or the military, and they will be like strangers to you.

Nobody wants to say that.  But it's all true, basically.  You can tweak it here and there.  But there's no way to really say it that isn't brutal, that doesn't say, "Your life is worthless now," which is also true in its way.

Nobody wants to believe it, I'm sure.  Oh, it's obvious how you deny every last paragraph I just wrote: it's conspiracies, it's immigrants, it's cultural decadence.  Oh, surely it must be.  This mill, this mine, this factory: it employed everyone in town, everyone knew everybody, and now it's gone because of greed.  And the church empties because the liberal intellectuals tricked everyone into believing in Darwinism, not because nobody lives here anymore.  And the roads are cracked because the politicians in the capitol are lining their pockets, not because the local tax base is a flat line that can barely cover patching Main Street every other spring after the winter's last freeze.  The mill, the mine, the factory would still be running if some college faggots didn't want to hug some goddamn owl nobody heard of before last week.

But rail against it, and the industries aren't coming back.  They won't be, and not for one reason or another, but for all the reasons.  Because the world has changed, and will.  It always does.  The dictionary is full of words for jobs that are now exotic or extinct: tinkers and chandlers, limners and coopers, scriveners and lamplighters.

Has been changing.  We were wrong, we globalists, we internationalists, we utopians, about the pace, but one of the other ugly truths is that these industries have been dribbling away since the '70s or '80s; I guess it's undeniable now that trade agreements made in the '90s turned the spigots on so that the trickle became the deluge, but it was already happening.  We hoped it might happen more slowly.  We hoped that people might benefit before they had to pay in full, instead of the other way around.  We hoped people might change, that they might willingly trade their dying trades for newborn trades if we offered the right incentives; even when we didn't botch that part of it, we underestimated how much they'd want to live in the places they grew up and do the things they grew up doing.

So it was hard to look people in the eyes and tell them the truths we ourselves didn't really want to believe in the first place (who wants to believe they murdered a whole town, turf to steeple?), because we were sad and scared and it would have been costly to our souls and sometimes our ambitions.  But I ask you, what could we have been expected to say?  Of course we evaded, and some of us lied not just to the people we spoke to about the glorious benefits of being in a global community, but to ourselves.

We couldn't have made the promises someone made to get himself elected: we couldn't have told them these jobs were coming back, that the lives their parents or grandparents knew when most of the world was sunk to the waist in either the swamp of late colonialism or the wreckage of the Second World War and so the American economy was not merely ascendant but literally unrivaled would magically return.  We couldn't convince them that the only jobs immigrants were taking were either jobs they didn't want or jobs they weren't qualified for to begin with, that the jobs they knew and expected were gone.  We couldn't tell them that the problem wasn't violence on television or gays in movies or coarse language on the radio, that their neighborhood bonds were being broken because their communities no longer had a function beyond existing to exist, mere inertia, tontines without prizes.

Oh, we did try to ameliorate, of course.  We did.  We tried to offer safety nets.  From Social Security to the Affordable Care Act; we were accused of fostering dependence, we were told people wanted jobs not handouts, we were told the country couldn't afford to pay for any of it.  We were accused of creating slaves, we were accused of buying votes with entitlements, we were accused of bankrupting the country.  Well.

1st ed. cover via Wikipedia
There's a line in Frank Herbert's Dune my mind keeps circling back to.  Early in the book, Paul Atreides asks the Reverend Mother Gaius Mohiam why she keeps talking about him while saying nothing about his father.  The Reverend Mother replies with, "If there were a thing to be done for him, we'd have done it.  We may be able to salvage you.  Doubtful, but possible.  But for your father, nothing," a line that recurs throughout the book and appears in the 1984 David Lynch adaptation in a similar-but-slightly different context as "For the father, nothing."  It's become a little famous, you can find clips of the actress saying it on YouTube and audio snips of it on other media sites.  It seems like we could have said something similar to too many people in the Rust Belt and Appalachia: we might be able to teach your children to be computer programmers or financial services consultants or to process insurance forms, but for their fathers and mothers, it is too late; we can offer them a slim retirement and healthcare if Congress would just fund it without squabbling, and a chance their grandchildren won't be drafted.

But who wants to say this?  Who wants to hear it?


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