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The Greatest Trick the Devil Ever Played on the Rust Belt

The Greatest Trick the Devil Ever Played on the Rust Belt

Here’s a quiz for you, and feel free to use Google to find the answer: since 2011, when the Republicans took control of the House of Representatives, can you name a single piece of legislation passed into law that created economic opportunity for struggling workers and families in the Rust Belt?

I’ve spent about an hour doing so, and the list of legislation that could even charitably be called “jobs bills” is pretty short. I suppose you could argue that airport resurfacing programs, replenishing the highway trust fund, and extending some business tax cuts to the tune of a few hundred billion all help the Rust Belt in some way. But unless I’m missing something, the last six years of at least partial Republican control of Congress hasn’t netted much for Michigan, Ohio, Wisconsin, or other Rust Belt swing states.

Compare those past six years to Obama’s first two years from 2009 to 2011, when Democrats controlled Congress. Again, we can disagree how on helpful or unhelpful these actions were, but Obama and Congressional Democrats bailed out the automotive industry, dumped over a hundred billion dollars in federal spending on the Rust Belt through the stimulus bill, gave the automotive industry a massive boost with Cash-for-Clunkers, and generally sought to rebuild the parts of the country hit hard even before the subprime mortgage crisis. On top of this, Democrats implemented small business lending programs, increased unemployment benefits, and tried to prevent the Rust Belt from falling into a depression.

This isn't to say that there weren't real policy differences that drove the Rust Belt away from Democrats after the economy started to recover in 2010 and 2011. Deindustrialization was well underway before Obama’s environmental regulations were rolled out, but it’s hard to say they helped job creation in these areas. Cap-and-trade never got done, but again, Democrats never promised to mitigate the damage of that scheme with massive, massive public investment in areas that would have to deal with that program. And there’s always been a tension between Democratic desire to invest in 21st century jobs that can compete in a global economy when most Rust Belters just want their old manufacturing and mining jobs back. 

But let’s be clear: Congressional Democrats wanted desperately to invest more in the Rust Belt and other struggling parts of the country. Every U.S. Senator in the country has some rural area in his or her state that has been hit hard by global competition. In Virginia, we’re desperate to help coal country. In Minnesota, the Iron Range and tribal areas are in desperate need for big-time investment. Name me a state, and I’ll find you a hard-hit rural area that could have been helped with an arsenal of public spending.  

And Congressional Democrats had plenty of legislation to do just that. Infrastructure banks, local technology hubs, building out rural broadband, advanced job training, hiring more teachers and police officers, and even expanding service programs like AmeriCorps. Again, a lot of Rust Belters may say that's not what they had in mind, but it would have been nice to try it out and have those ideas succeed or fail on their merits. 

Sure, none of these initiatives would have produced an economic miracle, but that’s not really feasible or even the proper role of the federal government. We are a wealthy enough of a nation to make sure every corner of this country has excellent infrastructure, great education and training facilities, and when the private sector isn’t cutting it, we can directly (or indirectly) hire people to improve their communities and make sure quality of life is maintained. It’s not perfect, but it’s eminently achievable, and if you look at the parts of the Rust Belt that are thriving, it’s normally because they have a university, a healthcare system, or some other government-supported economic hub that keeps talent and dollars flowing through the community. And you could achieve all of that with a fraction of the revenue we lose on generous tax breaks for companies who are already thriving. 

But there was one problem: Congressional Republicans didn’t want President Obama accomplishing any of it. They said all of these things wouldn’t work, that they would add to the debt, and that the government can’t create jobs by taxing and spending. Never mind that when cuts to the military or agricultural subsidies are proposed, they howl and cry about potential job loss and disinvestment into their communities

But the Congressional Republicans made a bet that they could do nothing, obstruct everything, and when the American people became disgusted with it all, it would be the Democrats who would suffer the wrath. And they were 100% right.

Just think about the narratives that drove this election. Free trade had ruined these communities, when it was pro-business Republicans (and a minority of pro-business Democrats) who have been the driving force behind open trade. Wages and quality of life are way down, but it was Republicans who were gutting unions over the past 40 years and blocking increases in the minimum wage. China is killing us, but Republicans have long embraced the Walmart model of a cheap consumer economy that has made mom-and-pop retail economically unfeasible.   

The 40-year Republican strategy to gut unions and thereby depress Rust Belt voters has been particularly effective. As plenty of people have pointed out, Rust Belters don’t pine for factory jobs because they necessarily love the often tedious and back-breaking work involved…they miss them because those jobs paid well and provided benefits that led to a high quality of life. What Rust Belters actually miss are union jobs, as indicated by the number of former union members who supported Trump. They want their old lives back, with or without unions. Democrats may have not been able to fully restore this past greatness, but they were always willing to open the nation's wallet to try. 

And to be clear, I’m not someone who believes that Trump voters are somehow less able to recognize how to vote their own self-interest than anyone else. People on both sides of the aisle have a nasty habit of conflating disagreement with ignorance. Every voter is a jumble of contradictory wants and needs and desires, and lots of people base their votes more on the personality of the candidates than the underlying policy differences between the candidates. Just look at the Obama/Trump voters. They were ultimately looking for an outsider who would go knock some heads in DC in their own unique ways.

But Rust Belt voters have largely chosen to support anti-welfare conservative politicians over pro-investment Democrats. You can't overstate the effect Republican hectoring on issues like guns, gay marriage, and abortion has had in this dynamic. There is real economic, social, and racial anxiety in these parts of the country that helps explain why people are quite rationally choosing Trumpism over a vague Democratic agenda of helping the middle class. As this unusually prescient Cracked article put it:

If you don't live in one of these small towns, you can't understand the hopelessness. The vast majority of possible careers involve moving to the city, and around every city is now a hundred-foot wall called "Cost of Living." Let's say you're a smart kid making $8 an hour at Walgreen's and aspire to greater things. Fine, get ready to move yourself and your new baby into a 700-square-foot apartment for $1,200 a month, and to then pay double what you're paying now for utilities, groceries, and babysitters. Unless, of course, you're planning to move to one of "those" neighborhoods (hope you like being set on fire!).

In a city, you can plausibly aspire to start a band, or become an actor, or get a medical degree. You can actually have dreams. In a small town, there may be no venues for performing arts aside from country music bars and churches. There may only be two doctors in town -- aspiring to that job means waiting for one of them to retire or die. You open the classifieds and all of the job listings will be for fast food or convenience stores. The "downtown" is just the corpses of mom and pop stores left shattered in Walmart's blast crater, the "suburbs" are trailer parks. There are parts of these towns that look post-apocalyptic.

I'm telling you, the hopelessness eats you alive.

And if you dare complain, some liberal elite will pull out their iPad and type up a rant about your racist white privilege. Already, someone has replied to this with a comment saying, "You should try living in a ghetto as a minority!" Exactly. To them, it seems like the plight of poor minorities is only used as a club to bat away white cries for help. Meanwhile, the rate of rural white suicides and overdoses skyrockets. Sh**, at least politicians act like they care about the inner cities.

Again, you can unpack this a million ways, but it’s clear that Trump and the Congressional Republicans have known for a long time that they can blame Democrats for everything, and this will motivate their people and depress their enemies into not voting at all. The fact that Trump will end up winning this election with fewer votes than Mitt Romney is really all that needs to be said on the matter. Democrats got bummed out (as they are inclined to do absent a dynamic figure at the top of the ticket). Republicans got angry, and that got them to the polls just enough to squeak out a victory. 

Congressional Republicans will always have this advantage in terms of frustration and anger—they are the party of the people already well represented in the halls of power. They get to make things miserable for everyone and be rewarded in the process. Maybe that will change now that they are actually responsible for governing the country and will own everything that comes with that, but that’s only until Democrats get some foothold in Congress again. Then they can obstruct as much as they want and run the script all over again.

The only real defense for Democrats is to leverage the fact that voters on the margin turn out and resist these games when presented with inspiring, compelling candidates. If Democrats keep running amazing candidates like Barack Obama and Jason Kander and Heidi Heitkamp and Cory Booker and Sherrod Brown and the rest, they’ll be able to counter much of negativity the Congressional Republicans traffic in. After all, despite all of this, Barack Obama’s approval ratings are some of the highest they’ve ever been. 

Congressional Republicans will always enjoy the asymmetry between progress and obstruction. But a smart Democratic machine will always have the advantage of having the optimistic, good-natured, intelligent candidate who knows his or her people and district better than anyone else. When this purpose is realized, the Democrats will start winning this game anew.  

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The Next Forty Years

The Next Forty Years